Sam Ashworth-Hayes Sam Ashworth-Hayes

It’s time to kill the Online Safety Bill for good

Nadine Dorries and Kemi Badenoch sparred over the Online Bill this week (photos: Getty/HMT)

The Online Safety Bill has been postponed. It should now be killed off for good. Not only is it bad for business, bad for free speech, and – by attacking encryption – bad for online safety, it now seems that there is a possibility, however remote, that the minister responsible for the bill doesn’t fully understand what it actually does.

After it was announced that the bill’s passage through parliament would be put on hold next week, leadership hopeful Kemi Badenoch welcomed the delay by describing the bill as being ‘in no fit state to become law’, adding that ‘we should not be legislating for hurt feelings.’ In response, up popped Boris ultra (and hopefully soon-to-be former) Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, seething at the possible death of her only consequential piece of legislation.

‘Which part of the bill legislates for hurt feelings, Kem?’ asked Dorries. Well, I can answer that. It’s Part 10, ‘Communications Offences’, and in particular the subheading ‘Harmful communications offence’. This part of the bill makes it illegal to send a message causing ‘psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress’. In other words, hurt feelings.

It seems there is a possibility that the minister responsible for the bill doesn’t fully understand what it actually does

‘Serious distress’ is not actually defined within the legislation; it will be left to judges to work out what it means. What we do know however is that it is a substantial regression on the limited free speech Britons already possess online.

Under the 2003 Communications Act, being offensive is already an offence, as indeed it can be under the 1988 Malicious Communications Act or the 1986 Public Order Act. These pieces of legislation are why people regularly find themselves hauled up in court for tasteless jokes forwarded on WhatsApp, and asked to explain to a grim-faced judge exactly what was so funny about them in the cold light of day.

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