Few people in Britain will have heard of the draft Online Safety Bill. Fewer still will oppose it. Protecting children against harm and exploitation online is an entirely rational goal in modern-day society. And when the Culture Secretary is boldly promising, as Nadine Dorries did at the weekend, to ‘bring order to the online world’ and ‘force social media companies to take responsibility for the toxic abuse that floods their platforms,’ it can be quite convincing: painting the web as a virtual Wild West that governments urgently need to regulate.
Doubtless, the internet is home to abhorrent abuse that isn’t acceptable in any circumstance. Beyond that, there are instances of unlawful behaviour and serious crime — and anyone who sees it should alert the police. Many do. Companies also have automated systems that pick up on abuses and file reports. But governments across the globe are increasingly worried about what they consider to be ‘harmful’ content, and measures are being pursued to counter them.
Here in the UK, we are tying ourselves in knots over a draft Bill so complex that its core aims are unclear. It will substantially reimagine the role of the state with respect to ‘safety’, handing extraordinary powers to Ofcom, yet will require censorship of online speech that would be lawful offline. Today, it was announced that the Porn Law — abandoned by Boris Johnson just a few years ago — is back in the draft Bill.
In truth there aren’t any obvious policy solutions that can make the internet (or real life) entirely safe from bad actors. In the offline world, we expect adults to drive safely and reliably oversee children in public spaces. We don’t install surveillance equipment in every home, or CCTV in every playground.