Kier Starmer’s Labour Party is attempting to portray itself as a progressive and competent alternative to the current Conservative Government, which has been mired in scandal and chaos these past few months.
But the cracks are showing in some areas already, and when it comes to online freedoms, their recent policy positions have made even the Donald Trump government in the USA look liberal.
Online Safety Bill
The issue came up this week in the House of Commons as the hugely controversial Online Safety Bill made its reappearance before MPs.
The Government has dropped the most controversial section in which it threatened repercussions for content deemed ‘legal but harmful’ a phrase that would have opened a pandora’s box and had massively negative implications for freedom of speech online.
The decision to pull this section is hugely welcome, but there is still plenty more in this bill, which is problematic and will have implications far beyond the narrow confines of protecting young people online, which is what it was intended for.
However, rather than let the Government tie itself up in knots, Labour instead decided to make their policy the bone of controversy.
Sarah Champion MP was the culprit in this debate.
Champion, who is the MP for Rotherham and also chair of the International Development Committee, tabled an amendment which, if it came into law, would potentially result in a crackdown by the UK Government on VPNs, the likes of which we have until now only seen in authoritarian dictatorships like China, Russia, and Iran.
The amendment she has tabled is to clause 54 of the Bill and would require the Secretary of State to publish, within six months of the Bill’s passage, a report on the effect of VPN use on Ofcom’s ability to enforce the requirements under clause 112.
Why Labour wants a VPN crackdown in democratic UK
Speaking in the Commons on Monday, Champion explained that she was worried children in the UK could use VPNs to bypass new age verification controls that have been included in the Government’s bill.
In some ways, she is absolutely right. We have written about the pointlessness of previous plans to introduce age verification onto adult sites in the UK because of the ease with which it can be bypassed with a VPN.
The Government is once again trying to push this through under the much broader Online Safety Bill. However, it has once more totally overlooked the role that VPNs will play in bypassing this pointless and draconian piece of additional bureaucracy.
So, when Champion says VPNs can be used to bypass the age verification plans, she is right.
She is also right to say evidence suggested that large numbers of teenagers knew how to use a VPN “which means that they can avoid age verification controls”.
But where she is wrong is in her plan to legislate to potentially crack down on VPNs.
It is worth adding at this juncture that although Champion is not a member of Labour’s shadow cabinet, they have endorsed her amendment.
Shadow Digital minister Alex Davies-Jones MP said that Labour felt that the unamended bill had “gaps” that needed closing.
She added, “I was pleased to see that [Sarah Champion] had tabled new clause 54, which asks the Government to formally consider the impact that the use of virtual private networks will have on Ofcom’s ability to enforce its powers.”
“This touches on the issue of future-proofing, which Labour has raised repeatedly in debates on the Bill,” she continued.
Why a VPN crackdown won’t work
The problem is that Labour plan to crack down on VPN use in the UK is a ploy straight from the totalitarian handbook of big government and will punish the many millions of people who use VPNs perfectly legally to protect themselves online.
It is also totally unenforceable in practice since few VPNs are based in the UK and subject to UK law and as has been seen in China, Russia, and other countries, laws to ban or restrict access only serve to increase VPN usage.
So, what should the Labour Party do to help protect young people online in the UK.
Firstly, far from banning or restricting access to VPNs, they should be promoting VPNs to ensure that as many people as possible are benefitting from the protections they provide.
It is only a few months since Boris Johnson was encouraging Russians to use VPNs to access the truth about their country’s invasion of Ukraine. If it is good enough for them, it is certainly good enough for us here in the UK too.
There is no denying there are dangers to young people online. But again, the solution is not arbitrary restrictions. Rather Parliament should be looking to provide parents and schools with the knowledge and tools to help protect young people online and educate them about the risks out there and how to stay safe.
This does happen already but to nothing like the extent that it needs to in order to be effective.
This approach would be far more effective than merely trying to ban and restrict access. We have seen time and time again that this only encourages kids to try things they shouldn’t, and no matter how much Sarah Champion and her Labour colleagues might want to take VPNs out of the equation, the technology is here to stay.
The amendment was not called for a vote in the House of Commons on Monday but could return at a later stage in either the Commons or the Lords, depending on the passage of the bill.
It could even be pushed by the Labour Party itself at a future date.
Parliamentarians should vote it down and look to educate themselves about the benefits of VPNs rather than seeking to demonise a technology that is used overwhelmingly for good.