The attempt to bring big tech to heel promised much but, three years on, pleases no one – it’s the Brexit disaster writ large
The online safety bill was tabled for discussion in parliament on Monday, resuscitating it from its deathbed and adding yet another chapter to this controversial attempt to bring the internet to heel. But rather than celebrate its return, we should greet it with a groan: an already unwieldy attempt to regulate the internet has become a confusing mishmash of competing interests.
The bill has become a Frankenstein’s monster of legislation, in part thanks to the chaotic recent history of UK politics. Successive governments and successive culture secretaries have tried to put their stamp on the legislation, pulling it this way and that until it becomes meaningless. We are now on our fourth prime minister and fifth secretary of state since the idea of legislating the digital sphere was first introduced.
Many hands, in this instance, don’t make light work. The bill is a cloddish one, sinking and then suffocating good ideas into a morass of meaninglessness. It has changed from its initial intention – to focus on online abuse and harassment – into a clarion call for “free speech”, thanks to the work of Kemi Badenoch, an excuse that is often used by those who spew hatred as a shield for their online abuse.
At times, the focus of the legislation is myopically narrow, looking at a tiny part of a broader issue. The crime of downblousing, while a scourge against women and worth tackling, has been given its own focus in the bill, rather than as part of a more holistic attitude towards the creation and sharing of inappropriate, non-consensual sexual images.
Elsewhere, the online safety bill as written is impossibly broad, trying to encompass huge swaths of how the online world works in a simple way that doesn’t match reality. Prime among this? The idea that Ofcom, which struggles at times to regulate the TV sector, will be the arbiter of what’s allowed online.
The bill’s writing has been full of wilful contradictions: the past government sought desperately to introduce measures against “legal but harmful” speech; the current one demands tech companies don’t dare touch it. The legislative package has been touted as the best way to make the UK “the safest place to be online”, yet it also puts most of the onus on social media firms to self-police. Historically, letting tech firms handle moderation and regulation has led to the very issues that campaigners – such as the family of Molly Russell – hoped that this legislation would solve.
We are, in a sense, getting the bill we deserve from the politicians we deserve: not a very good one, from not a very good lot. It’s a shining beacon of mediocrity; of people too stupid to understand the nuance of one of the most nuanced-filled areas of our modern lives, over-promoted into positions of power and thinking they know better than researchers who have spent their lives looking at these issues.
It is also the Brexit dividend turned disaster writ large. We crow about our world-leading action against big tech, when in reality, we’re just more willing to throw half-baked thoughts into law – rather than working up something that would actually scare them. This ineptness is in sharp contrast to Europe, which has managed to introduce logical, intelligent and robust regulation against big tech in less time than we’ve been dithering about our online safety laws.
The white paper that would become the UK online safety bill was published in April 2019, a year before the pandemic, under Theresa May, when the worst the British public had to fear about its government was that its leader was slightly weak and boring. Today, we’re still not there, while the EU’s digital services and digital markets acts were published 19 months later, in December 2020. They were both approved by the European parliament in July 2022 – right around the time the bill was sacrificed as Boris Johnson was deposed. Brexiteers who say European bureaucracy moves slowly ought to look in the mirror.
While we’ve been dawdling and producing a tangled web of rules no one will be happy with, Europe’s tech regulation has set the direction of travel for the world, bringing big tech to heel. Firmness of action against the owners of technology businesses that play an outsized role in our lives has never been more necessary, as demonstrated by Elon Musk’s attempts to run roughshod over the established norms big tech holds itself to.
It’s notable that the European commissioner for internal market, Thierry Breton, is seen as an equal for Musk, meeting the tech mogul via video conference and making sure to hold him to promises made on the call, while the letter from the UK business secretary, Grant Shapp, to Musk has seemingly been ignored.
Precedent would suggest that, despite the government’s claims, the online safety bill will be shelved or neutered further in the weeks and months to come. But even if it does somehow end up becoming law, don’t hold your breath for major changes. It doesn’t come close to tackling the issues that online life throws up.
Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK journalist based in Newcastle. He is the author of TikTok Boom: China’s Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media