Nadine Dorries: How we will narrow the ground for barring harmful posts in the Online Safety Bill

15 Mar

Nadine Dorries is Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and is MP for Mid Bedfordshire.

On Thursday, the Government will introduce our much awaited Online Safety Bill, fulfilling our manifesto commitment to legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online – protecting children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content, and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online.

We published the draft bill in May last year. Since I became Culture Secretary, it has been strengthened and improved as a result of extensive Parliamentary scrutiny.

The Bill will introduce a duty of care on online companies – making them responsible for protecting children and tackling illegal content on their platforms. It will add strong safeguards and standards, and if companies fail in this duty of care, punishments include multi-billion pound fines up to 10 per cent of annual global turnover.

And yet a group of MPs and journalists have raised the horrifying spectre that the bill will give people like Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg unlimited power to decide what is and isn’t acceptable to say online. They say that MPs, campaigners, the media and the public face being silenced at the flip of a digital switch on the West Coast of America.

Well, if they’re worried about that, I’ve got news for them: we’re already there.

Last year, TalkRadio was forced offline by YouTube for an “unspecified” violation, without further explanation from the company. Facebook can sweepingly remove photos of the iconic “napalm girl” from the Vietnam War because they violate its nudity policy. And last week Big Brother Watch showed how a number of past comments by MPs when posted on social media by test accounts were censored by the platforms. It was a neat trick by the campaign group which is critical of our plans, but I’m not sure they quite realised the point they were actually demonstrating.

During the last two decades, the internet has slowly seeped into every part of our lives, in many cases making things quicker, cheaper and better. But during that period, ever-growing tech giants like Facebook and Twitter have been left to regulate themselves – to set their own rules and mark their own homework.

As a result, unelected Silicon Valley execs have become some of the most powerful people in the world. They decide who gets to speak online, and who is silenced or cancelled from public life. That prospect should concern anyone who truly cares about free speech.

That’s why our manifesto pledge had a crucial second part: to defend freedom of expression, and in particular recognise and defend the invaluable role of a free press. This Bill will make that happen.

And so the day this legislation comes into effect, there will be considerably stronger protections for free speech.

Right now, there is no official right to appeal when a post is taken down. Under this Bill, there will be.

Right now, there are no extra protections for journalists online. Under this Bill, there will be.

Right now, there are no specific protections in place for important democratic content – for example, when a person wants to tweet their thoughts about an MP or a political party during a general election. Under this Bill, there will be.

Platforms will be expected to process appeals quickly, and either give good reasons why content has been removed, or reverse their decision if it’s the wrong one. Contrast that to now, when a user who complains they’ve been treated unfairly is often faced with obstruction and opacity.

Journalists will have an expedited right to appeal if their content is removed. And I have every intention of further improving the requirements for platforms not to remove content from recognised media outlets during the passage of the bill.

Likewise, the Bill’s extra protections for democratic content should reassure someone like David Davis. In October, my colleague gave a speech to a Big Brother Watch event, arguing against domestic vaccine passports. Whether you agree with David or not, he was making a legitimate democratic contribution, and it was his right to do so. But his video was taken down by YouTube, who claimed he was spreading “medical disinformation”.

David has argued this Bill is “a censor’s charter”. But as he knows only too well, censorship is happening right now- and we’ve got no real recourse against it.

The day this legislation comes into effect, he and other users will be in a much stronger position. And if social media companies fail in their new duties to protect free speech and journalism, they’ll face huge fines and the prospect of criminal sanctions.

When I point out these important legal protections, free speech advocates – of which, by the way, I consider myself one – immediately move on to the “legal but harmful” section of the Bill. They claim that the Government wants to ban legal content if it “upsets” or “offends” someone. That’s a complete misunderstanding.

Companies will only be required to remove “legal but harmful” content if it is already banned in their own terms and conditions. This only applies to the biggest platforms carrying the highest risk, and we are updating the legislation to ensure platforms focus on priority categories of harm that are set out in secondary legislation.

This reduces the risk that platforms are incentivised to over-remove legal material through taking a wider interpretation of harm than is warranted or because they are put under pressure to do so by campaign groups or individuals who claim that controversial content causes them psychological harm.

Getting this balance right is important to me. I’m a writer and, before I became a Government Minister, I spent years as an extremely vocal backbencher. The Prime Minister t is a former journalist. We would never pursue legislation that threatens freedom of expression. Similarly, nor can we maintain the current status quo, where a handful of West Coast execs are the supreme arbiters of online speech.