Sir David Davis writes for the Sunday Express about the issues with the Online Safety Bill


As published in The Sunday Express:

At long last, the Government has published the much anticipated Online Safety Bill.

The Secretary of State in charge of this Bill, Nadine Dorries, has put it at the heart of her agenda.

As it stands, the Bill could be the biggest accidental curtailment of free speech in modern history. It is dangerous. It is authoritarian.

There are three key problems with the Bill.

Firstly, it imposes a legal ‘duty of care’ on social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It demands they keep their users safe from potentially harmful content.

Secondly, the Bill does not simply relate to illegal content, it also calls on social-media giants to censor ‘legal but harmful’ content.

Thirdly, the Bill attempts to cover far too wide a range of issues. Inevitably, this will result in sweeping, unfair rules.

Ever since it first mentioned the Bill, the Government has faced heavy criticism from groups like Big Brother Watch, which are worried about its impact on civil liberties.

In recent weeks, ministers have tried to counter the views of campaigners and MPs like me who are gravely concerned by the Bill.

The Bill presented this week is improved from its draft form. But it is a long way from being acceptable and all three core problems remain.

Writing this week, the Secretary of State tried to frame the Bill as a defence of free speech.

It is precisely the opposite. It will make Silicon Valley even more likely to censor people – afraid, as bosses will be, of being fined for not silencing enough users. The fact that the Bill vaguely tells social media companies to pay ‘regard’ to free speech when taking down content is of little reassurance.

What’s more, the Secretary of State will be able to change the definition of ‘legal but harmful’ content through secondary legislation. That means the Minister’s decision will be debated in a Committee, the majority of whom will be selected by the government’s Whip’s Office. This raises the prospect of the law shifting – further eroding free speech – without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

This is unacceptable. If we really think something needs to be banned online, we must debate it in parliament as a whole.

We have already seen rampant attacks on online free speech. The proposals in this Bill will only make that worse.

My colleague Sir Christopher Chope has twice been censored by YouTube when speaking about compensation for the small minority of people suffering injuries from Covid vaccinations. Videos featuring him debating the issue in Parliament were taken down. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he said, but it is outrageous that a wholly legitimate debate taking place at the heart of our democracy was suppressed by Big Tech.

And who are we to trust more, the parliamentary clerks who decided this was a legitimate issue for debate, or faceless technocrats on the other side of the Atlantic?

I too have been on the end of massive overreach by these West Coast zealots.

Last year, a video of a speech I gave at an event at Conservative Party Conference was taken down by YouTube on the ludicrous grounds that it was spreading ‘medical misinformation’.

The speech was against domestic vaccine passports and the blow they delivered to civil liberties in the UK. After it received complaints, YouTube reinstated the video.

But would it have been reinstated if I were an ordinary member of the public, rather than prominent MP? Or if journalists had not been quizzing them on why it was taken down? Or if the video had not been hosted on the channel of one of the UK’s leading civil liberty campaigning organisations? I highly doubt it.

And who can forget the censorship of the lab-leak theory – the idea that Covid might have emerged from a Chinese laboratory? This is a hotly contested issue, yet in a world of grey, Silicon Valley execs chose to see it in black and white.

The Online Safety Bill will only encourage this kind of censorship.

The Bill must be heavily amended. In its current form, it represents a devastating blow on basic free-speech rights. True Conservatives should have nothing to do with it.