There are many reasons to be concerned about the #OnlineSafetyBill, the latest manifestation of which has just been launched, to a mixture of fanfares and fury. The massive attacks on privacy (including an awful general monitoring requirement) and freedom of speech (most directly through the highly contentious ‘legal but harmful’ concept) are just the starting point. The likely use of the ‘duty of care’ demanded of online service providers to limit or even ban both encryption and anonymity, thereby making all of us less – and in particular children – less safe and less free is another. The political control of censorship via Ofcom is in some ways even worse – as is the near certain inability of Ofcom to do the gargantuan tasks being required of it – and that’s not even starting on the mammoth and costly bureaucratic burdens being foisted on people operating online services. Cans of worms like age verification and other digital identity issues are just waiting to be opened, without their extensive downsides being even mentioned. And that’s not all – it’s such a huge and all-encompassing bill there are too many problems with it to mention in a blog post.
All that, however, misses the main point. Why are we even doing this? Do we even need an Online Safety Bill?
The main reasons the government seem to be doing this are based on what is a kind of classical misunderstanding of the internet. In my 2018 book, The Internet, Warts and All, I wrote about how the way we look at the internet overall impacted upon how we thought it should be regulated. The net is a complex, messy and confusing place at times – it has many warts. The challenge is to see it warts and all: to look at the big picture, to see the messy reality, and approach it accordingly.
Some people don’t even see the warts, so don’t think anything needs to be done – we should leave the internet alone, let it regulate itself. Others see only the warts, and miss the big picture. That’s what lies behind the Online Safety Bill. An obsession with the warts, and a desire to eradicate them with the strongest of caustic medicine, regardless of the damage to the face itself. That’s the view of the internet as a ‘Wild West’, full only of trolls and bots, ravaged by abuse and misinformation, where no-one dares roam without their trusty six-shooter.
The thing is, it’s just not true. Almost all the time, for the vast majority of people, the internet is something they use without much problem. They work, they shop, they get their news and their entertainment, they converse and socialise. They find romance. They buy their cars and homes – not just their books and groceries. They live. The internet does have warts – and no-one should underestimate the impact of trolling or misinformation in particular (there’s a chapter on each in The Internet, Warts and All) but neither should we forget what the internet really is.
If we see only the warts, we end up with disastrous legislation like the Online Safety Bill. If we see the warts, but treat them as warts, we have a chance to do regulation more reasonably, and not do untold damage on the way. As an example, the inclusion of cyber flashing in the bill is very welcome. It’s a wart that can be treated, and without anything in the way of negative consequences. Smaller, piecemeal legislation dealing with particular harms is a far more logical – and effective – way of dealing with the problems we have on the net than grand gestures like the Online Safety Bill, which will almost certainly do far more harm than good.