Fraser Nelson Fraser Nelson

Sunak drops ‘legal but harmful’ censorship clause

For some time now, The Spectator has been highlighting the danger posed by the so-called Online Safety Bill which would order social media firms to censor content regarded as ‘legal but harmful’. This was, in effect, a censorship diktat. Rather than have Orwellian figures employed by the government to censor articles, the Online Safety Bill would use the Chinese method of censorship-by-proxy and order digital giants to do this instead. A radical threat to free speech – but one only a handful of politicians spoke out against. One of them was Rishi Sunak.

A new version of the Online Safety Bill is soon to be published, and we’re told it will be shorn of obligations over ‘legal but harmful’ content that will be seen by adults. The devil always is in the legal detail but at first glance, Sunak has been as good as his word. The notion of ‘legal but harmful’ – and the regime of legally mandated censorship that it would have entailed – is set to vanish. If it does, Sunak will have delivered. Liberty-loving Liz Truss, let’s remember, never gave a commitment on this – always saying that she hadn’t read the bill and didn’t know the detail.

It’s worth reflecting on how close we came to censorship in the UK. Legal but harmful could have meant anything the Secretary of State wanted it to mean: former culture secretary Nadine Dorries even suggested Jimmy Carr’s jokes could qualify. With no certainty, Silicon Valley’s censorship bots – which decide what to promote and what to shadow ban – would have taken out anything that stood even a 2 per cent chance of falling foul of the rules. The fine was 10 per cent of their global revenue. Would that be too crazy to happen? I’d caution anyone from thinking anything in UK politics is too crazy to happen: the state is desperate and about to launch raids via windfall taxes.

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