Sam Ashworth-Hayes

The real harm in the Online Harms Bill

The real harm in the Online Harms Bill
Text settings

Following the killing of Sir David Amess, MPs were quick to point to the ‘corrosive space’ provided by social media, the ‘toxic’ conduct of politics, and the general phenomenon of people being cruel to them online.

Of course our parliamentary representatives don’t deserve to face waves of abuse for doing their jobs. They shouldn’t receive racial abuse, or threats of violence, or even simple insults for doing their jobs. This goes without saying for any worker, whether serving customers in a supermarket, helping commuters with their tickets, or indeed governing the country.

But it is also worth noting that — as those examples suggest — the job of an MP is not quite like any other. They are required to hold a public profile, a willingness to stand for controversial values, and to defend decisions that — at times — may quite literally be over matters of life and death. We ask them to make complex judgements, to listen to people who disagree with them and represent them just as much as they represent those who agree, and to make the laws that govern our society. And crucially, we also ask that they use this power with restraint, particularly when it comes to allowing their personal feelings to influence the running of this country. 

If shop staff and police officers had the ability to make law, we would certainly see sweeping restrictions on public behaviour which, while superficially justified, would go some way beyond what the rest of society considers acceptable. MPs repeatedly suggesting banning anonymity in response to the abuse they receive should be viewed in this light; those on the receiving end of abuse may not always reach the right conclusions about the true scale of the problem, or whether a response is disproportionate.

The government’s latest proposals — threatening people with two years in jail for posting content that causes ‘psychological harm’ — seem to be inspired more by anger than by careful good judgement. It is difficult to see why else the Conservative party would accept a proposal so tailor-made for its political enemies to use against it.

Consider, briefly, the ecosystem of activists, charities, politicians, and lawyers that form the cultural left, and the role within this space played by narratives of ‘harm’. Drawing an equivalence between words and violence — legitimising the use of the latter in the suppression of the former — is at this point so common as to be almost unremarked upon. Describing disagreement on the genuinely contentious issues of gender, race, sexuality, or economics as ‘harm’ is a standard tactic for short-circuiting arguments. Scarcely a day goes by without some institution apologising for the harm caused by a perfectly polite email that failed to pick up on the latest trend in activism.

Into this world, one where conservatives' political opponents are culturally ascendant, where the judiciary is deeply sympathetic to their opponents' ideals, and has shown itself to be quite willing to build out interesting interpretations of the law in promoting them — into this world, the Conservative party intend to put a law threatening people with jail for causing ‘psychological harm’ or ‘serious distress’.

Even Wile E. Coyote would see this one coming.

It is possible that the Conservatives are less wary of these potential pitfalls than they would be if there was a serious danger of Labour contesting the next election. If Boris Johnson and company were a little less sure of their ability to reign in its application, they might see what an absolute gift this law would be to their opponents in power. It’s a basic rule, but one that bears repeating: don’t set up systems you don’t want turned against you.