Opposition to censorship should not be based on sympathy for the censored but fear of the censors. To loud applause, the UK government says it wants to implement the most far-reaching web regulation of any western democracy. Too few are noticing that the Conservatives’ answer to the question of how to curb online hate is to give its politicians excessive powers and make Paul Dacre the country’s internet censor-in-chief.
The online safety bill will not only tell Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and search engines they must have systems to prevent illegal content but clamp down on “legal but harmful” posts. What does that mean? Commentators say the regulation of legal speech is in the bill to stop teenagers with anorexia being bombarded with unhealthy diet tips, or the algorithm sending suicide advice to people on the edge of taking their lives, or promoting Ivermectin as a cure for Covid.
For reasons I will get to, we don’t know that yet. We know with certainty, however, that a government that wants to uphold web standards is breaking every standard of good governance to guarantee that a former Daily Mail editor has a loud voice in deciding where the lines are drawn. Downing Street is desperate for Dacre to become the chair of Ofcom, at the moment when it expands its powers. The legislation will turn the broadcast regulator into a gargantuan online moderator. Ofcom staff will have rights of entry and inspection and the ability to impose penalties on online companies of £18m or 10% annual turnover, whichever is greater.
Even his most devoted fans would not say Dacre was famous for his impartiality when it came to the BBC and Channel 4 News. Nor was his Daily Mail the first place you’d look for opposition to hate, either online or in print. Meanwhile, as the last of the old hot metal editors, Dacre is likely to know little of modern media technology and to think a network protocol is a Robert Ludlum thriller.
Last year, the government’s own appointments advisers concluded Dacre’s strong opinions on the British media precluded him from becoming Ofcom’s chair. Ministers refused to accept the verdict. They are now scouring the country for unscrupulous interviewers, willing to earn favour with the powerful by authorising a Dacre stitch-up.
Although the favouritism appals many, civil servants console themselves that Dacre will be just one man on Ofcom’s board and unable to impose his prejudices. Their confidence would be better founded if the legislation did not give Conservative politicians the right to tell everyone at Ofcom what they can and cannot regulate.
British regulators have always remained at arm’s length from politics. The UK is party to a Council of Europe declaration, which spells out that governments must avoid “regulatory authorities that are under the influence of political power”. The online safety bill tears that old principle apart.
Today’s culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, who, like Dacre, is in place to troll liberals, will not be constrained. The bill gives her the power to set Ofcom’s “strategic priorities”. Ofcom must submit each online code of practice to Whitehall so ministers can ensure it “reflects government policy”. The Conservatives are not standing at arm’s length. They want the regulators in a necklock.
William Perrin and Prof Lorna Woods of Carnegie UK helped develop the best ideas behind the bill. They emphasised the need to regulate systems, not content. They wanted to ensure that Facebook and Twitter did not just take profits for managers and shareholders but spent money on complaints systems that were properly resourced and lived by the standards they professed to uphold. In a warning the naive Labour frontbench should read before it carries on giving the government its support, Perrin and Woods described how the government was threatening “traditional checks and balances”. Attempts to force regulators to follow political instructions were “crossing the line” in the most “egregious” manner.
Ministers want to use statutory instruments, which parliament rarely votes down, to direct a supposedly independent regulator. Because we do not know what Dorries’s diktats will be, I cannot say whether supporters of Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights or Extinction Rebellion should worry about their online presence. But I can show that online regulation has already been twisted for partisan purposes.
When the government put forward proposals for policing the web in 2019, civil servants showed a proper concern for attacks on democracy. Russian interference in western elections and the rise of dark money and targeted misinformation persuaded Whitehall to talk of the need to protect our “democratic values and principles”. Social media companies must “increase the accessibility of trustworthy and varied news content”. Earlier this month, the whistleblower Frances Haugen claimed that Facebook chose to amplify hate and misinformation because “civic integrity” was bad for business. Social media companies profited from the knowledge that “content that is hateful, that is divisive, that is polarising gets the most engagement online”. The 2019 proposals were designed to bring them to heel.
All that has gone now. Researchers from the Constitution Unit at UCL compared the first draft with the finished legislation. The emphasis shifted decisively away from acknowledging that online platforms have a responsibility for the impact their technology has on democracy, as the fight against fake news vanished.
The Conservative party is always the richest party. In 2019, it received two-thirds of all political donations over £7,500. It benefited in the general election from the propaganda campaigns of shadowy rightwing organisations, which did not have to declare where their revenue came from. The Conservative party is also the Vote Leave party, which pioneered the use of targeting Facebook ads at swing voters. I always thought a government dominated by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove would never allow an assault on fake news and so it has proved.
I sympathise with those who want to control the online promotion of suicide, anorexia, vaccine denial, murder, rape and every other evil 21st-century technology delivers to our phones. But just because we have new technologies does not mean we can abandon old rules. Before you give the power to censor, make sure you know who you are giving it to and what they intend to do with it.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist