REGULAR readers of this column will know of the interest I have taken in the Online Safety Bill, which has now been officially presented to parliament and will be considered in detail. This Bill began its life as a policy paper I produced as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in 2019 so for me seeing this legislation finally being put before the House of Commons is like being involved in the design of a car and seeing the first model roll off the production line. The parallel isn’t exact though because there is still work to do on this legislation before it can be used to require more of online platforms like Facebook or TikTok, or search engines like Google.
The Bill is much stronger than when it was first drafted and I applaud ministers for listening to suggestions for improvement. There will be more. I firmly believe that this is good and important legislation but its significance, its complexity and its novelty should make us all as legislators approach it with some humility. We may not get everything right first time and there is no international pattern to follow, but that should not deter us. There is no example of another country legislating in this way yet, but I am confident that they will need to. In every country we have seen huge growth in our online lives without much thought being given to the rules and protections which exist in every other environment. Some have argued this Bill is an assault on freedom of speech, but the truth is our freedom of speech is not unrestricted elsewhere. We must comply with the criminal law, we cannot abuse others with impunity and we try through regulation to protect children from pornography, for example. The same should be true online.
Freedom of speech should also be freedom for everyone. Those subject to relentless abuse from anonymous sources are not enjoying freedom of speech and regulation has a part to play in restoring it. Of course there are balances to be struck, between freedoms and protections, and balancing those is much of what makes this Bill complex and difficult, but we have ducked the challenge for too long. The United Kingdom should be proud of leading the world in our answer to one of the great policy questions of the 21st century – how to make a free and open internet safer – and Parliament needs to play its part by passing this legislation.