Carys Moseley explains why the government’s bill poses a significant threat to Christian freedoms.
Freedom of speech online is under threat in the UK.
The problem is coming from the government’s Online Safety Bill. Even before the government tabled the bill in Parliament, it had already undergone pre-legislative scrutiny, and was subject to a great deal of criticism in the media. Now it has started going through Parliament and the next step will be the House of Commons committee stage.
Whilst this very large and unwieldy bill does take some important and welcome steps regarding treatment of illegal and genuinely harmful content, its approach poses a serious threat to online freedom of speech which could well have negative consequences for Christians. In this article I shall try to outline some of the basic problems.
Increasing the power of the government over online speech
The Online Safety Bill is unprecedented in the powers it invests in the Secretary of State as regards online communication.
This is a major culture shift that is happening not only here in the UK but internationally. The bill gives the Secretary of State powers to change primary legislation, in other words acts of Parliament. For example, the Secretary of State will be able to specify and list what kind of online content should be targeted, such as content that is ‘legal but harmful’.
The bill is biased towards only protecting speech favourable to the state, as Big Tech companies are the ones that get access to government ministers to negotiate these matters. We can see this if we look at what is said about ‘content that is harmful to adults’, or ‘legal but harmful content’.
‘Legal but harmful’ content could be censored
The bill gives tech companies powers so they can decide what counts as ‘legal but harmful’. Tech companies would also be liable to heavy fines if they fail to comply. What this means is that even content that isn’t illegal could end up being censored if companies consider it ‘harmful’.
There is a problem here in that harmful content is not necessarily illegal. Partly this is because it is rather difficult to define objectively what counts as harmful. Christians do not necessarily believe that depiction of every sinful behaviour should be criminalised. For example film and written content may portray murder, adultery or theft, but not all of these things are crimes. Clearly there are more complex examples that could be used to illustrate the potential dilemmas involved. The point is that we will not arrive at a consensus anytime soon, and censoring online what is legal offline is unacceptable. It risks turning online communication into a completely different and far more restrictive social space.
‘Content that is harmful to adults’
Part 3 of the bill sets out the duty of care of providers of regulated user-to-user services and regulated search services. Section 54 therein defines what is content that is ‘harmful to adults’:
“‘Priority content that is harmful to adults’ means content of a description designated in regulations made by the Secretary of State as priority content that is harmful to adults.
(3) ‘Content that is harmful to adults’ means—
(a) priority content that is harmful to adults, or
(b) content, not within paragraph (a), of a kind which presents a material risk of significant harm to an appreciable number of adults in the United Kingdom.”
‘Harm’ is defined in clause 187 as ‘physical or psychological harm’. The problem is that no-one can possibly agree as to what ‘psychological harm’ means. For example, many people find Christian preaching and teaching about the nature of sin and Christ’s call to turn away from our sins offensive. Some may go further and argue that it can be harmful. The same could well be true over differences over forced church closures during the Coronavirus lockdown. There is also little doubt that it would apply to the debates over ‘conversion therapy’. In a secular, democratic society where people freely espouse many different beliefs, there is no way of deciding once for all who is right. The danger is that a growing anti-Christian animus in society, influencing the government, could be allowed to dictate what is ‘psychological harm’.
At least once every three years, OFCOM will have to review user-to-user services and regulated search services to find out how common is content harmful to adults. OFCOM will also have to work out “the severity of harm that individuals in the United Kingdom suffer, or may suffer, as a result of those kinds of content.” Arguably this means we can expect big controversies about what is ‘harmful’ to flare up on a regular basis.
Will OFCOM have too much power?
Clearly the role of OFCOM as regulator of online content is key here. This is a big change given that its remit currently extends to broadcast media and is closely linked with the BBC. The Online Safety Bill gives the Secretary of State far-reaching powers over OFCOM, such as directing it to “modify a draft of a code of practice” if they are deemed necessary “for reasons of public policy” (clause 40 (1)(a)). This is clearly very wide-ranging and wide open to state overreach into all areas impinging upon online communication.
A duty of care
What lies behind all this concern about harmful content is that the government wants to tell online platforms they have a ‘duty of care’ to censor content that could harm people. The problem here is that quite often there isn’t a clear consensus in society on what counts as harmful. Even if there is, the evidence for such a claim does not always stack up.
Clearly given that some Christian teachings are increasingly considered harmful by influential sectors of society, this is a real threat to Christian freedoms online. Placing such burdens on tech companies treats them almost as editors of content, something they cannot possibly do with the number of employees they have. Hence the bigger companies would rely on the anonymity and emotional illiteracy of algorithms to seek out ‘harmful’ content.
A hierarchy of online speech
The bill places specific requirements on Big Tech companies, termed ‘Category 1’. Big Tech companies will be required to complete risk assessments for content ‘harmful towards adults’. They will have to allow users to report content they deem harmful to adults easily and to make complaints. Big Tech companies will also have show that they will protect ‘news publisher content’, content that is ‘intended to contribute toward public debate’ and ‘content generated for the purpose of journalism that is UK linked’.
As Big Tech companies are better resourced and already prone to censoring viewpoints falling foul of statist ideology, we can expect censorship of legal speech to get worse. Not only that but given Big Tech’s greater reach compared to smaller platforms, a new norm for what is sayable online could emerge. In addition the requirements to ‘protect journalism’ could well end up only protecting journalism that isn’t deemed ‘harmful towards adults’! A state-sanctioned hierarchy of ‘non-harmful’ online speech will emerge. Do we really want this to happen?
The value of freedom
These big concerns have been expressed for some time now about draft versions of the bill, by different people including politicians, journalists, campaigners and internet experts. Last October former government minister Ed Vaizey said the Online Safety Bill could be weighed down by too many people wanting to ban content they don’t like.
Clearly this would result in much more censorship, as people with opposing views would be tempted to censor each other. The result would be a breakdown of free discussion and debate online, whether this be on the web or on apps. Only people with views acceptable to the government would be free to speak. This is not the kind of society that Christians should allow to emerge. Governments come and go, and may slide from being righteous to being tyrannical.
Pitching Big Tech and the state against people
The bill clearly presents an example of increasing state encroachment into what we can and cannot say online. This will inevitably affect communication of all kinds offline as well because how people behave is now influenced both ways. The split between ‘legal but harmful’ and other legal content presumed not to be harmful will have a major social impact unless these proposals can be resisted. Having stricter rules for online communication than everywhere else is a serious problem in a society where people spend so much time online and where significant relationships are formed there.
All this stems from the fact that the Online Safety Bill is predicated on the assumption that the state confers freedom of speech and religion upon people, rather than recognising them as emerging from society. These freedoms are as such linked to social organisations that are smaller than the state and precede it in God’s plan: the family, the individual person, churches, workplaces and so on. However given that so many of our relationships are now conducted both online and offline they are bound to be impacted by the proposed changes. The bill therefore presents major challenges to Christians about how our lives will in future be. It requires close and critical engagement at every step given the cultural sea-change it aims to bring about.