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26th Oct, 2022

The government must act on online abuse

In an extract from his latest article in The Telegraph, our Chair Sanjay Bhandari argues that the government needs to act correctly on Online Safety Bill.

Depending on your viewpoint, the Online Safety Bill (OSB) is either a long overdue regulation of Wild West online lawlessness or a dangerous incursion into personal freedom of expression.

Critics suggest it creates a censors’ charter, that provisions around the proposed category of “content harmful to adults” (often referred to as “legal but harmful”) will motivate platforms to over-censor.

They conclude that the bill could have a chilling effect on free speech, some suggesting that the OSB should be trashed entirely.

There should be sensible discussion about those legitimate concerns and I would support additional safeguards to protect freedom of speech.

But, in this heated debate, one thing is often overlooked. The content itself.

We should remember that “legal but harmful” content includes many people telling Delia Smith that “She’s a whore” or telling elite sportspeople “blacks can’t be English” or calling them a “stupid gypsy”, “a bunch of faggots” or a “f***ing spastic c***”.

As currently drafted, how would the OSB treat such abusive content?

For child users, the OSB would make platforms ensure that access is age appropriate. For adult users, the obligation is to state clearly in terms of service how it will treat abusive content.

There is no obligation to do anything specific. If a platform chooses to prohibit abuse, it must apply that condition transparently and consistently.

Turning to the broader criticisms, the OSB creates a framework around three categories of content: illegal content; content harmful to children; and content harmful to adults.

The guiding principle for categorising illegal content is that if it is illegal to say on the street, it should be illegal online.

The OSB seeks to balance freedom of expression and privacy. Both are crucial personal freedoms. Neither is more important than the other. Neither right is absolute.

One cannot shout “fire” in a packed theatre or call someone a liar in the House of Commons.

Equally, one cannot use anonymity as a cloak for criminality. Both rights are qualified.

In legislating, we must meet the world where it is, not where it used to be.

Social media is no longer simply the digital equivalent of the town square. It mirrors how we congregate in the real world. It is a combination of public spaces (like the town square), private spaces (like your living room) and semi-public spaces (like a restaurant).

Online is not a parallel universe. Our culture is set by the worst behaviour we accept. That worst behaviour may start online but it does not end online.

At Kick It Out, last season we saw a 40 per cent increase in complaints of discrimination at grassroots football.

This mirrored language that had become normalised online. So, if we accept it in our social feeds, we must expect it in our local parks and playgrounds.

So, where next?

As MPs consider future tweaks, I would urge them to focus on real examples of real content, mapping any proposed amendments to the treatment of such content.

In doing so, we may find that many seemingly opposed interest groups are actually in agreement – it is just that we are each coming to the table with different content in our mind.