The Online Harms framework just got a lot darker

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes
UK policy

Something distressing happened this week in the Commons chamber, and the Prime Minister wasn’t even there.

In a response to conduct on Wednesday I will not dignify, a debate was held on Thursday concerning the Prime Minister’s role in creating a safe environment for Parliamentarians. The full Hansard transcript is here.

It fell to a junior cabinet minister to stand at the despatch box and account for his government’s behavior the previous day.

It went like this.

He was asked if the Prime Minister would reflect on his language.

He responded by discussing the steps government is taking to ensure safety online.

Except he wasn’t asked about online safety.

And at that point you knew exactly where this was going.

He was asked about death threats and Jo Cox.

He responded by talking about the Online Harms White Paper.

Except he wasn’t asked about online harms.

He was asked about what example the Prime Minister’s conduct was setting for young people.

But it was a Scottish MP asking, so he whatabouted online abuse from 2014.

Except he wasn’t asked about online abuse.

He was asked – “one request, Mr Speaker—that we no longer invoke the name of any person who has been a victim of attacks”.

And now you saw how fast this was going down. The day before they had invoked her name to exploit it. The day after, they were attempting to ban the name “Jo Cox” from being mentioned at all.

He was asked – again – about integrity in public life.

He responded – again – by talking about the Online Harms White Paper.

Except he wasn’t asked about online harms.

Finally, he was asked about online abuse.

But his answer didn’t mention online abuse at all.

He was told “I do not believe that the Minister can tell this House that he seeks to reduce online harm while the Prime Minister booms out toxic, divisive soundbites, the clips of which are immediately posted and promoted on online, hate-filled social media channels.”

And again. His answer didn’t mention that online abuse either.

And lastly, he was asked about an abusive tweet an MP received from another MP.

But the sender was from his own party and the recipient was not, so his answer was about “online harms” and “tackling the social media giants”.

Do you understand what happened there, and do you see how this is going to work?

Let me spell it out for you if you don’t.

Boris Johnson’s government, in whatever communication strategy it is following, is not going to self-regulate its own speech. It is going to double down on hard-regulating ours.

The party of light-touch regulation and personal liberty is going to escalate the “online harms” model to silence the mere names of people who remind them of their shortcomings. Names of murdered colleagues, after all, are a subjective harm.

The tech sector – the go-to scapegoat for everything – will be blamed for the words said within that room to people’s faces.

And platforms and social media sites will be held responsible for the things their own people say, while things people who are not their own people say will be their own (criminal) responsibility.

That is the truth of what they are doing. Let them explain their way out of it.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.