Sir David Davis writes on big tech curtailing free speech


As published by The Daily Express:

YouTube took down from the internet my speech at the Conservative Party conference against domestic vaccine passports, accusing me of breaching their policies and spreading “medical misinformation”. After the initial shock, I wondered if I had misspoken and said something wrong. Had I made a mistake? So I went through the clip, line by line, to see if I could spot the offending remark.

But no, I had not misspoken. Everything in the speech had been carefully researched and checked. It was accurate, fair, and based on the latest scientific evidence. So the accusation was defamatory.

Indeed throughout the pandemic, I have been a strong advocate for vaccines and science-based policy. But, a core premise of science is challenging conventional wisdom and being unafraid to speak your mind. Difference of opinion arbitrated by the facts, not powerful platform providers on the other side of the world.

When YouTube removed my speech that challenged the supposed wisdom of domestic vaccine passports, it shut down the debate. It showed in the clearest terms why big tech cannot be trusted to police our free speech.

In fact the further I looked into the incident the worse it became. It transpires that “YouTube doesn’t allow claims about COVID-19 vaccinations that contradict expert consensus from local health authorities or the World Health Organisation.”

So, in debating a key aspect of national policy, I cannot disagree with the government? You could be forgiven for thinking we had suddenly been transported to China.

They put the removal down to “human error”. YouTube believed an algorithm had flagged the clip, and a human reviewer had agreed with the algorithm and took the video down. A situation which they say should never have happened.

But this raises further questions.

What is the point of a human reviewer if they cannot provide an effective check and balance to the supposed Artificial Intelligence?

What’s more, the reviewer may not even have been UK-based.

Without knowing the context of local debate, the nuance of the serious and sensible discussion we are collectively having as a country, there is no way to make a fair, just, and proper decision.

The context of my speech was a debate hosted by the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch on domestic vaccine passports – an issue I am completely against and indeed I am one of the leading parliamentary opponents. Some have already said that the reason YouTube backed down – as they have – was because they suddenly realised that they had picked on a well known MP and a vocal civil liberties group.

But that shouldn’t matter. Free speech belongs to everyone, and within the limits of the law, anybody should be able to take part in a debate without fear of being censored.

So I am not asking for special treatment. All I want is these tech giants to uphold the centuries-old tradition that we have enjoyed here in the UK of allowing free and open debate.

But this sorry episode is a warning. If YouTube attempts to silence elected Members of Parliament, then they are also happy to censor anyone.

The Online Safety Bill is to arrive in parliament shortly. It is a generational chance to define the global big tech landscape and stand up to these West Coast bullies.

These modern industry goliaths have had unrestrained power, abused their positions, and damaged our societies for too long.

Big tech has dragged our society to the precipice, whether it is creating a mental health crisis for our children, destroying public civility, or curbing free speech.

The public knows this and has had enough.

Polling shows that 71 per cent of the public think the Government needs to do more to tackle online abuse, 59 per cent think the police should do more to tackle online abuse, and 57 per cent think police should have greater powers to prosecute.

Perhaps most importantly, 72 per cent of Brits believe social media platforms should pass content onto the police when a post is illegal. That is the proper way to do things; allow the police to investigate the crime.

We cannot allow fashion following big tech zealots to become the global arbiters of truth and free speech.

Yet, the Government wants to do precisely that.

By requiring big tech to have a “Duty of Care”, the Government will allow these companies to censor free speech and actively encourage them to do so.

The Online Safety Bill is a poorly thought through piece of legislation that is a censor’s charter. It will hand more power to these unaccountable Silicon Valley giants.

Let us be clear, this Bill will not corrupt free speech, it will destroy it. Centuries of tradition, history, and British ethos thrown on the bonfire of big tech ambition.

The reality is that we have devised analogue laws for the digital age.

For decades big tech has spread its power and influence, and now risks becoming a shadow over freedom-loving societies.

Ronald Reagan famous mantra was, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Never has that been truer than today.

We must grapple with that reality. We must stop the erosion of free speech online. That starts with looking again at the disastrous Online Safety Bill.