We are little more than a month into the new government’s term of office but already the Boris Johnson administration has surprised quite a few on his side with his illiberal policy agenda.
The decision to approve Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network has staggered those who understand the countries close links to the hostile Chinese Communist regime and the decision looks likely to prompt a major backbench rebellion and various legal challenges.
The approval of HS2 has been similarly controversial while rumours of various tax hikes have dismayed many Conservative voters.
Government ‘minded’ to appoint OFCOM censor-in-chief
Boris’ latest controversial move appears to be appointing OFCOM as social media regulator with the power to censor huge swathes of online content and punish big social media providers who fail to comply with the UK Government’s arbitrary requirements.
It is important to note as this juncture that the decision is done and dusted just yet. The announcement made by the government yesterday was that it was “minded” to appointed OFCOM to this role.
But anyone familiar with how politics works knows that this phrasing is simply designed to give the government sufficient wriggle-room to backtrack on the idea if there is a significant public, political, or legal backlash.
Given the government’s large majority, it therefore seems reasonable to assume that OFCOM, which is about to fall under new leadership when Dame Melanie Dawes takes over as Chief Executive Officer in March, will be handed these sweeping new power.
OFCOM’s new powers
Under the government’s proposals, OFCOM will be empowered to force social media companies to publish a clear explanation of what content and behaviour they consider to be acceptable on their sites.
OFCOM will then be able to hold them to this statement and ensure that the stated standards are being consistently lived up to.
Tech companies will also have to publish annual transparency reports highlighting how they are living up to these standards and explaining what content they have removed.
Importantly, OFCOM will not be handed the power to remove specific social media posts themselves. But they will be able to punish social media firms that they judge not to be living up to their standards.
If social media companies are found guilty of failing to protect users from “harmful and illegal content” online, they will face substantial fines and even the risk of prison sentences for senior executives.
The likely impact of the new censorship regime
It is a clever approach because it will allow the government to deny that it is censoring social media content itself, while simultaneously awarding itself the power to enforce self-censorship.
Real-time censorship of user-generated content is extremely complex and resource-intensive. With the threat of big fines hanging over them, sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are more likely to over-censor than risk under-censoring.
As a result, we can expect swathes of legal content to disappear from these sites as a result of the government’s new policy.
The approach is also bad news for innovation in the tech sector. Such regulations place a big burden on social media companies and many start-ups will not be able to be compliant. As a result, the grip held on the market by established social media sites will increase and innovation will be stymied.
The return of age verification?
If all this isn’t bad enough, it also looks like the government is putting age verification back on the agenda too.
Regular readers will recall that last October, the UK Government finally gave up on its absurd and dangerous plans to introduce an age verification system for perfectly legal online pornography sites.
It now seems likely that these plans could be revived albeit in a different form and with OFCOM as the regulator in charge as opposed the British Board of Film Classification which was bizarrely handed the responsibility last time round.
A clear agenda
In their statements confirming the new plans, Government ministers made it abundantly clear which side of the fence they were sitting on.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said, “It is incumbent on tech firms to balance issues of privacy and technological advances with child protection. That’s why it is right that we have a strong regulator to ensure social media firms fulfil their vital responsibility to vulnerable users.”
Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan added, “We will give the regulator the powers it needs to lead the fight for an internet that remains vibrant and open but with the protections, accountability and transparency people deserve.”
Astonishingly, they also allowed the Chief Executive of children’s charity Barnardo’s to offer comment on the official government statement. Anyone who has read our coverage of the NSPCC’s inadvisable and biased stance on this issue will be clear what message this sends out.
The dangers of the government’s new proposals were summed up neatly by Matthew Lesh of the Adam Smith Institute. He told the Guido Fawkes website, “Make no mistake: free speech is under threat. The Government is proposing the most censorious online speech regime in the Western world.”
The UK already boasts some of the most intrusive and privacy-busting laws in the free world. These proposals go even further down the road towards a state-controlled internet like the ones we see in authoritarian countries like Communist China. And that is bad news for everyone.