The online harms bill would be a victory for woke madness and a big blow to free speech – Kemi is right to slam it

The online harms bill would be a victory for woke madness and a big blow to free speech – Kemi is right to slam it

AT least one good thing has come out of the mess of Boris Johnson’s resignation and the Tory race to replace him.

It has forced the Government to shelve its terrible Online Safety Bill.

The Online Safety Bill poses an imminent danger to free speech online
The Online Safety Bill poses an imminent danger to free speech online
Kemi Badenoch said 'we should not be legislating for hurt feelings'
Kemi Badenoch said ‘we should not be legislating for hurt feelings’Credit: Joshua Bratt 2022

Like Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth, this Orwellian law would do the opposite of what it says on the tin.

In the name of safety, it poses an imminent danger to free speech online.

Whoever wins the Tory leadership contest should ditch the Online Safety Bill for good.

As the breakthrough contender Kemi Badenoch MP said this week: “We should not be legislating for hurt feelings.”

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That is exactly what the Online Safety Bill would do — make it a potential offence in law to hurt somebody’s feelings on the internet.

It marks a victory for woke madness and a big blow to free speech.

This is how it would work: The Bill gives the quango Ofcom, Britain’s broadcast regulator, new powers to force Big Tech outfits such as Facebook and Twitter to take down content deemed “legal but harmful”.

So, words that are legal to speak could be banned from social media.

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And what exactly is “legal but harmful” content? The Bill only says it must be likely to cause “at least serious distress” to somebody.

It would be left to Big Tech’s army of “fact-checkers”, “mis-information” watchdogs and auto-mated algorithms to act as the truth police and decide what we can say or see.

With the threat of Ofcom fines hanging over them, they would ban first and ask questions later.

This Bill would be a charter for woke censorship. The key is the new offence of “causing psychological harm”.

Anybody who, as Kemi says, complains of “hurt feelings” could demand that the offending content is taken down.

If you insist that my words cause you “psychological harm”, how can I prove otherwise? It is subjective. Yet it could be used to restrict public debate.

A footballer might claim he was harmed by fans calling him “crap” online. Or one of us over-sensitive writers might complain of being harmed by a bad review.

The woke censors would have a field day. Trans activists already campaign to get gender-critical feminists such as Harry Potter author JK Rowling “cancelled” and sent to Coventry.

Under this Bill, they’d send her to solitary confinement.

No doubt the Government set out to clean up the internet with good intentions.

It can resemble a sewer, and the most malodorous cesspits are on social media sites such as Twitter.

The worst internet “trolls” ruin lives.

Free speech threat

But a lot of the nastiest stuff on social media — from threats to kill or rape to encouraging suicide — is already illegal.

There is no need for another clumsy law to bash a few nasty trolls.

We might agree that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter need to put their house in order. They seem keener to ban Donald Trump than take down IS terrorists.

But that is no reason to give Big Tech even more powers to police what is allowed to be posted online.

Worse still, the Online Safety Bill would give future culture secretaries extra-ordinary powers to alter Ofcom’s code to “reflect government policy” and order the removal of content “for reasons of public policy”.

Imagine those powers of political censorship in the hands of a Labour government minister.

We need only look at the Opposition politicians and leftie campaigners complaining that the Tories’ censorship charter does not go far enough!

A government amendment to the Bill says that Facebook and Twitter would have to notify news publishers and offer the right to appeal before censoring their content.

Campaigners squeal that this gives newspapers such as The Sun a legal licence to “spread hateful lies and disinformation” — otherwise known as reporting news stories and opinions that they don’t want the public to see.

Legal but harmful

This Bill begins from the false assumption that there is “too much” free speech online.

In reality, there is already too little of that precious liberty in society.

Whenever the authorities propose drawing a new line to limit free speech, the key question is always: Who do you want to hold the censor’s blue pencil? Who will decide what “harmful” means, and which speech is deemed too hurtful for us to hear?

We should be no more willing to entrust our liberties to woke Big Tech billionaires than to faceless Ofcom bureaucrats, unaccountable judges or passing culture secretaries.

Here is the hard truth about free speech. Not everybody who chooses to post, pontificate, rant or rage on Twitter or elsewhere will share the piety of Prince Harry, the wisdom of Donald Trump or the purity of soul of a Love Island contestant.

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They should still get the same freedom of expression as everybody else.

In the name of child protection, this Bill would treat us all like children in need of protection from naughty words. That risks doing far more damage than hurt feelings.

In the name of child protection, this Bill would treat us all like children in need of protection from naughty words, writes Mick Hume
In the name of child protection, this Bill would treat us all like children in need of protection from naughty words, writes Mick HumeCredit: Times Newspapers Ltd

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Toby Donegan-Cross

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