The Online Safety Bill: Government’s pledge to protect us from our right to free speech and thought
By Rusere Shoniwa
Big Media to public: Don’t exceed your think limit!
In July 2020, the mainstream media clearly signposted the direction of travel in relation to curtailing independent critical analysis of Covid and other science underpinning Government policy. The instruction given to the public in the title of a Forbes article was unequivocal: “You must not ‘do your own research’ when it comes to science.”
Regarding the question of whether to “research both sides and make up your own mind”, the article’s verdict was clear: “when it comes to issues like vaccinations, climate change, and the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, it can be dangerous, destructive, and even deadly.”
The message and tone of the article are supercilious, arrogant, condescending, paternalistic and, for all those reasons, a grave insult to your intelligence. But above all, it is potently anti-democratic. Government policy based on the prevailing science has an enormous impact on your life, wellbeing and, as Covid has demonstrated, your liberty. But, if Forbes gets its way, under no circumstances will the stupid citizenry be permitted to weigh up ‘both sides’ of a debate for itself. You will not be permitted to democratically challenge the machinery of government that grinds out the law and statutes which govern your every waking hour.
You are being told to leave the ‘dangerous, destructive, and even deadly’ business of deciding what’s good for you to the scientists and to the Government who, after filtering it with immaculate benevolence, will deliver only what it deems good for you and which, by complete happenstance, will align perfectly with Government policy and objectives. There’s just one small problem with that process: it’s called censorship, and it’s the slip road taking us onto the highway to tyranny.
Science is a process for getting closer to the truth. It is always evolving and almost no debate terminates at a truth that remains immutable for all time. Dissenting views are vital because they lead to new avenues of truth that often prove the consensus wrong. Dissent has negative connotations only to authoritarians. To true democrats, it is a welcome opportunity to test the veracity of claims made and to further the cause of truth and enlightenment.
Crucially, it is the voting public’s democratic right to be the final arbiter of how, and indeed even whether, The Science should be used to determine how we live. With the growing politicisation of science, we will not be free to choose if the choices put before us are controlled and censored.
The disingenuous moral panic about ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ is a deceitful denial of the fact that error is the unavoidable consequence of debate and understanding. In the words of former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption, “We cannot have truth without accommodating error. It is the price that we pay for allowing knowledge and understanding to develop and human civilisation to advance.” Stifling dissenting viewpoints is the surest way to intellectual stagnation and spiritual atrophy.
The Online Safety Bill – the funeral pyre for free speech
Big Brother Watch, a UK civil liberties campaign group, is at the forefront of the fight to defend free speech. In its report ‘The State of Free Speech Online’, it reminds us that, up until very recently, the internet has been a democratising force placing the opportunity of instantaneous global communications at our fingertips. Social media platforms are increasingly becoming our public squares. To the extent that uncensored news disseminated in these public digital squares serves democracy by holding power to account, it is a public utility. However, this public utility is in the hands of a private monopoly, as our communications are largely controlled by powerful corporate intermediaries.
Under the auspices of Big Tech, industrial scale censorship implemented through nebulous ‘community guidelines’ is now the norm. This process began in 2020 when the alignment of pro-lockdown governments’ interests with those of Big Tech was evidenced by the full-throated cries of lawmakers everywhere for Big Tech to join them in the noble cause of supressing dissent. In March this year, Ireland’s Justice Minister enjoined Big Tech to do its bit in curbing public protest, while here in the UK, MP David Lammy went a step further by accepting money from Facebook for promotional services rendered while publicly exhorting the platform to increase its already heavy-handed levels of censorship.
As of October YouTube boasted that it had deleted more than a million videos under its “COVID misinformation policy.” In Australia it has removed 75% of video ads posted by the anti-lockdown party United Australia Party (UAP) since September.
Brute censorship on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter has been effective in muting dissent but not effective enough for the overzealous authoritarians allied to Big Tech and Big Pharma. The public understands that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was a warning to us of how governments could control both the individual’s mind and society at large by obliterating pathways to information and truth. The Government, however, appears to be using Nineteen Eighty-Four not as a warning but as an instruction manual to manifest the dystopian vision we were warned about.
Cloaked in the Orwellian language of providing ‘safety’, Big Brother’s infantilising embrace will now see an Online Safety Bill curbing free speech ostensibly “to protect adult online safety” and to tackle “content that is harmful to adults” (page 86 of the linked report).
The hounding of dissenting voices from dominant platforms like YouTube and Facebook has spawned the growth of platforms dedicated to free speech like Rumble, Odysee and Telegram. These relatively new players are behaving like true platforms and not publishers – they are committed to free speech and will only act if content is illegal under existing legislation. Aware that the vacuum of truth left by Big Tech censorship is being filled by new players, the Government is taking decisive action with this legislation to capture all platforms in a diabolical censorship net.
The UK already has extensive communications and other legislation to reinforce the principle that what is unlawful offline should also be unlawful online. If anything, existing legislation goes too far since the Communications Act (2003) criminalises communications that are deemed to be “grossly offensive”, although in practice the Human Rights Act 1998, which protects freedom of expression, can nullify action taken against “grossly offensive” but lawful speech. However, this overarching duty to comply with the Human Rights Act would not apply to online platforms under the Online Safety Bill.
Big Brother Watch has spelt out the broad aim of the Online Safety Bill:
“The legislation introduces state-backed censorship and monitoring on a scale never seen before in a liberal democracy… This regulation would deputise private companies like Facebook to be the speech police of the internet. Government has designed the plans not only to deal with crime online, but to explicitly target lawful speech.” [emphasis added]
So bold is the Government’s overreach with this Bill that it makes no effort to hide the fact that it is tackling legal content: the Bill instructs Ofcom to draft codes that require platforms to address content that is “legal but harmful” (page 88-89 of the linked report). So chilling is its scope that it will extend to surveillance of private messaging between individuals (page 104 of the linked report). This Bill is the blueprint for totalitarian control of information.
The Bill defines ‘harmful’ content as that which presents “a material risk of the content having, or indirectly having, a significant adverse physical or psychological impact on an adult of ordinary sensibilities”. Why have such infantilising sentiments directed at adults found expression in government legislation? It is beyond preposterous to suggest that it is now the Government’s or any other institution’s responsibility to protect adults of ‘ordinary sensibilities’ from psychological harm through exposure to the written word.
Up until now, the discourse around online harm has been understandably focused on those that society would reasonably perceive to be at risk – children and young teenagers. The deliberate shift to include adults has nothing to do with whom the government wishes to protect but rather with the nature of the content it wishes to control. If the Government is to effectively guide your thinking on key policy issues like lockdowns, vaccinations, biometric digital ID passes, climate change and Central Bank Digital Currencies, then thought control will need to be directed at the voting-age public.
We should not be fooled into thinking that the Government cares about a deterioration of your mental health should you accidentally click the wrong link while browsing on Amazon.
Recall that, according to Forbes, the real issue at stake here is that “when it comes to issues like vaccinations, climate change, and the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, it can be dangerous, destructive, and even deadly” to do your own thinking. Not deadly to you as they would have you believe, but deadly to the government’s ability to implement and enforce corporate-friendly policies that keep you in your proper place as a compliant consumer.
Framed as something designed to protect the public from being ‘misinformed’ and harmed, the reality is that this Bill lays down the foundations for wholesale government and corporate disinformation campaigns directed at voting adults. It would be far more ‘harmful’ to the Government than to you if you did not ‘think correctly’ on the big issues looming on the horizon.
Depending on your level of cynicism, the impossibility of defining ‘harmful’ content is either a gaping error in the Bill or a deliberate design flaw to give the private censorship enforcers carte blanche to remove pretty much anything that might conceivably bring a tear to the eye of an adult of ‘ordinary sensibilities’. Once you add to that the threat of heavy financial and other penalties to be meted out to platforms for not enforcing removal of such ill-defined ‘harmful’ content, private platforms are all but guaranteed to take an even bigger sledgehammer to online content than they already are.
This Bill is the funeral pyre for lawful free speech. There is no other way to interpret it.
Is extrajudicial state censorship already taking place?
The UK Government, via the Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), is already actively violating free speech through its involvement in the removal of lawful online content. The DCMS operates a unit with the sinister name of ‘Counter Disinformation Cell’ (page 106 of linked report) to combat all manner of ‘disinformation’, with a feverish focus on what it deems ‘anti-vax’ content. In an unconscious acknowledgement of its potentially illicit role in extrajudicial state censorship, the unit has styled itself as a ‘cell’, a term normally applied to terrorism and other clandestine activities. In the words of the responsible DCMS director, the cell “encourages swift takedown” of content during “daily interactions with almost all the platforms”.
The current tsunami of deleted content across platforms like YouTube includes verifiable facts that the public has a right to know. A recent YouTube post showed an eminently qualified expert, Dr Peter Doshi, articulating information about the Covid vaccines – namely that certain manufacturers’ claims to efficacy are not supported by the actual trial data and that we might want to critically assess whether these vaccines warrant categorisation as vaccines owing to their very different nature in comparison to traditional vaccines. YouTube deleted the video of Dr Doshi giving evidence on Capitol Hill to an expert panel on Covid vaccines. You can watch a fellow medical professional articulating why this deletion is so shocking and you can view the original video on Brandnewtube here.
Big Tech has boldly confirmed that climate change ‘misinformation’ is the next big censorship target. How, or even if, you can travel, what to eat and how often you can eat it —these are the issues that will be decided for you, and under no circumstances are you to ‘do your own research’! With Big Tech and the Government putting themselves between you and harm’s way, the coming edicts on climate change should all make perfect sense.
We must act to halt the global war on free speech and democracy
The war on free speech and democracy is unmistakably a global one, with many Western governments using Covid as a trojan horse to entrench censorship through the statute book. Legislators in Canada and Ireland are in sync with the UK’s efforts to attack free speech. In New Zealand, government agencies including the police can issue a ‘takedown notice’ for any online publication that meets the ridiculously low bar of merely being “objectionable”.
Lawmakers in Greece are attempting to criminalise journalists for publishing “false news”. Germany seems to have inspired authoritarian lawmakers elsewhere with its Network Enforcement Law (NetzDG) targeting hate speech and fake news on social media. Police in Australia are using citizens’ Facebook posts to quell lockdown dissent.
In short, the entire Western world, with very few exceptions, is taking on the character of a giant banana republic with its claim to democracy growing more farcical by the day.
In the UK, we have a government that, on the one hand, denies its responsibility for directly causing real-life harm to vast numbers of people through recklessly destructive lockdowns and yet, on the other hand, makes a cynical pretence of caring about digital online ‘harm’ to citizens by imposing on companies an absurd psychological duty of care over digital interactions between members of the public. Each of these acts taken individually poses a serious blow to accountability and democracy. But the rank hypocrisy implicit in the combination of the two assaults on liberty is a clear indication of a psychopathy not exhibited before by Western governments in recent history. Write to your MP and visit Big Brother Watch to help their campaign to defend freedom of speech. We must not allow this dire assault on our liberty to stand.
You can read more of Rusere’s work at https://plagueonbothhouses.com