A Censor's Dream in the UK


I am all for a less seamier internet. As a parent, it's sometimes terrifying to know what awaits our kids as they get online (which is why we're really strict: my kids don't get a cell phone until they get their driver's license, and even then it's only a dumb phone). I'd like to see porn completely walled off into its own slimy corner through age blocks, and de-anonymizing video uploads, and requiring signed consent forms, etc. etc. In other words, I'm happy to see governments attempt to put some brakes on the dark wilderness of the internet.

But I gotta tell you, even for someone like me who wants to see greater regulation, the new Online Safety Bill in the UK is a censor's dream. it's supposed to be all about safety--and they are introducing age checks for porn, I hear, which I applaud--but the rest of it is about scrubbing the internet of "disinformation." Well, after the whole covid business, we all now know what the word "disinformation" means--it's called "having a differing opinion." There will be one government-approved National Narrative, and that will be all you are allowed.

Here's some quotes from a recent article on the issue:

"The Online Safety Bill puts the onus squarely on technology companies to spot anything deemed harmful – but not necessarily illegal – and remove it, or face stiff consequences. Critics say it is well-intentioned, but vague, legislation that is likely to have negative unintended consequences."

Well, I guess! Harmful, but not illegal content--what will that be, exactly? No one knows. More:

"Online platforms will also have to proactively remove anything that is deemed “harmful content” – details of what this includes remain unclear, but the announcement today mentioned the examples “self-harm, harassment and eating disorders.” And "cyberbullying."

"A preview of the bill in February mentioned that “illegal search terms” would also be banned. New Scientist asked at the time what would be included in the list of illegal searches, and was told no such list yet existed, and that “companies will need to design and operate their services to be safe by design and prevent users encountering illegal content. It will be for individual platforms to design their own systems and processes to protect their users from illegal content.”

If Vladimir Putin passed this law, wouldn't the West be calling it censorship? "Illegal search terms"--that sounds like China, doesn't it? Harassment and bullying are especially difficult to define--someone disagreeing with someone else will almost certainly be accused of bullying and harassment, won't they?

People in the UK are already wondering about what problems this new bill will create:

"Alan Woodward at the University of Surrey in the UK says the legislation is being proposed with good intentions, but the devil is in the detail. “The first issue comes about when trying to define ‘harm’,” he says. “Differentiating between harm and free speech is fraught with difficulty. Some subjective test doesn’t really give the sort of certainty a technology company will need if they face being held liable for enabling such content.”

"Jim Killock at the Open Rights Group warns that moderation algorithms created to abide by the new laws will be blunt instruments that end up blocking essential sites. For instance, a discussion forum offering mutual support and advice to those tackling eating disorders, or giving up drugs, could be banned. “The platforms are going to try to rely on automated methods because they’re ultimately cheaper,” he says. “None of this has had a great success record.”

It sure looks to me that free speech will be removed by algorithm to avoid the crippling fines and even jail time that the UK government could levy against tech companies found in non-compliance. No human sense will go into this at all.

Purely by coincidence, I've been (re)reading Orwell's 1984 with my kids this month. The parallels are shocking, to be honest. Orwell's "Ministry of Truth"--which was, of course, a ministry of lies--operated on the same principle of reducing "harm." Nothing, but nothing could displace the One Narrative promulgated by Big Brother, lest anyone's fragile brain be harmed thereby. In 1984, the Oceania government (with headquarters in London), erased every thought that did not jibe with the Narrative. Whether the thought was in a book, a movie, or a living person did not matter. It was all erased, and even the very language changed, so that aberrant thoughts could not even exist. One of the most important works of the Ministry of Truth was the scrubbing of history, of course. All of this was done in the name of removing disinformation and thereby eliminating "harm" to the population.

Did you know this UK bill also creates a "Media Literacy Taskforce to help vulnerable and 'hard-to-reach' people understand what they read online"? Yep. The news will be "interpreted" for you by the Taskforce, because it can't be assumed you'd do it right, apparently.

So this is how democracy ends. We give it away by our own hand.

People who want free speech are going to have to go back to the days of hard copy samizdat. Just like it was in the old Soviet Union. Fire up those old mimeograph machines, folks!