James Snell is a senior consultant at the New Lines Institute. He is writing a book about the war in Afghanistan.
You may not have heard, but the internet is an unacceptably dangerous place. A place full of terrorists, financial scams, pedophiles and rude people.
Or at least that’s according to the British government.
In the great debate between freedom and security, the British state has always placed itself firmly in the security camp – safe at all costs. And this time, as so often, the government’s focus is firmly on the internet – censorship, as always, is its proposed solution.
Britain’s Online Safety Bill continues its lengthy progress through parliament this week and has faced many hurdles, including a bill promising dramatic censorship. However, as a terrifying villain, he constantly mutates and is resurrected to fight another day.
Pushed endlessly by three Conservative administrations led by four home secretaries and three prime ministers, it all stems from the government’s desire to continue censoring the internet.
There is no question that censorship is not the answer for the United Kingdom government. And there is no problem—be it garden-variety Internet scams, terrorism, radicalization (however defined), the “loneliness epidemic,” teen suicides, or eating disorders—that is not met by requiring a strict new disciplinary regime. regulation.
Technological abominations have long been the preoccupation of the British right. Censorship trumps reason every time – and the invention of personal computers and smartphones has only turned the screws further.
At the end of the last century, the emergence of films with titles such as Driller Killer led to widespread moral panic about VHS tapes and so-called “video villains”.
When I was a kid, the newspapers were full of “slap happy” stories—a craze in which teenage criminals beat up random passers-by while filming on Motorola Razrs. This led to widespread calls from Conservative MPs to ban young people from owning phones in the first place.
The previous Conservative government also spent years trying to restrict legal pornography. The fact that it might violate personal liberties? It is not necessary. Was the law completely impossible to enforce – especially in the age of data protection laws? It doesn’t matter. The plan failed because it was not a priority in a party committed to constant internal chaos.
And of course, censorship is once again the order of the day.
Conservatives are still fighting a long and losing battle against decentralization and online anonymity—the foundation of charitable sites like Wikipedia. They are also fighting another against major encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp, demanding that the service and others like it weaken encryption or include “backdoors” to allow authorities access.
Of course, Britain is not alone in demanding such cuts – its lawmakers are no unique Luddites. The United States Senate and the European Parliament have provided similar examples of widespread technological ignorance linked to potential censorship zeal. None of these pushers for censorship and control in any country understand that any exemption would invalidate the very basis of using such services in the first place.
Any app that meets these requirements will be abandoned and other, more stealthy ones will steal market share overnight. Like their American and European counterparts, the British Conservatives have never fully understood the Internet or this aspect of markets.
Interestingly, the desire for censors goes beyond the Conservative Party in Britain and is increasingly widespread in parliament. The opposition Labor Party even called for a crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs) in December – a proposal that would be deeply chaotic to even attempt to implement.
Most remote work is only possible through VPNs, and security-conscious people commonly use them to protect themselves from the online harm that governments are trying to regulate.
Meanwhile, many MPs also want to make it illegal to send nasty messages to them online. When my former MP David Amess was murdered in 2021 – not by tweet, but by knife – MP Marc Francois used the heated parliamentary debate to call for “David’s Law”, which would punish certain types of online behaviour. cannot be posted anonymously – something that would prove government overreach.
Compared to other democracies, British law is already uniquely censorious. Individuals are routinely fined or sent to prison for risque texts and spicy tweets under the Communications Act and Public Order Act. And if they get out, even messages sent using encryption can land people in jail for “felony crimes.”
In Scotland, for example, internet users are now subject to a new hate crime law that could land them in jail for “inciting hatred” — a term with no adequate definition that could prove extremely handy in the hands of overzealous prosecutors.
But beyond jailing individuals for off-color communication, the UK government’s main ambition is the ability to censor online platforms while simultaneously criticizing authoritarian regimes. An individual can already be jailed for expressing bad views, but the government – with much of the opposition on board – now wants to deny them the ability and space to do so in the first place.
This is the basic assumption behind the proposed bill. There is a need for users and the government to understand the internet and make it safe rather than cautious.
But life itself is dangerous; risks cannot be avoided. No amount of regulation can make the Internet safe for every user and protect every user from harm.
In other areas of life, we are forced to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions; parents are expected to be responsible for their children. But when the internet grows too large to directly control, the state and the Conservative Party become too powerful.
Politicians believe that the public wants censorship – hard and fast and as soon as possible. But while they may be right, the consequences of great power overreach are never pretty. And we will definitely see them soon.