With the new Online Safety Bill due for pre-legislative scrutiny in the current parliamentary session, Keith Hartrick argues the months and years spent on drafting the bill have been wasted, as far simpler measures could be implemented to target internet giants. 

If you had to do something with a choice of two different approaches, one which would take you anything from five minutes to an hour's work, or another which would take you more like five weeks or even five months' work, which would you choose? One way is simple, the other way is hard, so common sense says you would take the easier route.

It is not rocket science to choose the easier and far more sensible way. Who would not do so given the choice? Well, none other than our government ministers and senior civil servants who, after months of work and years of discussion have come up with the Online Safety Bill, which builds on the Online Harms White Paper released in 2019. I do not pretend to have read the bill, but I have read negative comments about it from several MPs.

For far too long our governments have ignored the power of the internet giants who allow the most appalling material to be posted on line. It has become clear that these booming and highly profitable businesses allow postings that are harmful to many people. It is also clear that their attempts to censor what appears have a left liberal mind set.

Whether it is crude and unpleasant personal remarks about an individual, detailed instructions on how to commit suicide and encouragement to do so, censoring comments about Covid-19 could have escaped from a Chinese lab, showing detailed instructions on how to make a bomb or pornography the internet giants allow it all. Even censoring a President of the United States, whether you agree with what he says or not, is considered a reasonable use of their power.

That brief summary hardly does justice to what is allowed online, where conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and the haters of individuals or government policies are allowed to vent whatever nonsense they want to spout. How much of the content of these users damages the minds of our children and those people who sway like the wind before the latest bit of misinformation?

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On the other hand, there are some intelligent people writing interesting and helpful information about a variety of subjects, some of which is valuable depending on where your interest lies. Even then some of these people and their articles get censored or thrown off platforms. Sometimes if enough fuss is made they and their articles get re-instated.

So here we get to the Online Safety Bill, a classic example of overkill and a massive waste of effort. Does the internet need cleaning up or policing? Yes it does. Do these huge and profitable businesses need controlling, possibly even breaking up? You can certainly make an argument for saying yes they do. But at the same time do we want censorship that decides a particular point of view is wrong because of the mindset of these extremely wealthy individuals who have built those businesses? Especially when it can seem their platforms are more powerful than governments.

How can they be regulated in a simple and sensible way which allows a wide variety of voices and opinions but also creates a safety net and takes some of the worst examples of vile, evil abuse and misinformation of the platforms? The Online Safety Bill may help but it could also be used as an instrument to censor views and impede free speech. No doubt months of work have gone into it with allegedly the finest minds in our civil service drafting and redrafting it to present to Ministers as the solution to all the problems. But that, as stated at the beginning is the difficult and unsatisfactory way.

So, what is the simple way? In fact, there are two simple ways to regulate the internet.

The first is to require everyone who posts on the internet to provide their full and correct name and address to the internet providers with the first part of their postal code published each time they post. That would make people think twice about posting vile personal abuse because they are traceable and could be sued under existing laws. The second solution is even simpler. The giant internet companies claim to be content providers and therefore not responsible for what appears. By redefining them as publishers they would come under the law off the land. They would have to be able to identify the people who post on line, so would be forced to put in controls, or themselves be sued for the published posts. Publishers have to be aware of the law of libel and be careful what they publish.

Why do our ministers not look at the laws that already exist rather than tying themselves in knots with new laws? Why have the fine minds of our senior civil servants not suggested the simple way rather than the complicated one? The internet companies would not like it. Our government would have to be prepared to tough out a battle with them, but if they were classified as publishers everybody would immediately know where they stood in relation to UK law.

There is no need to re-invent the wheel, just let the existing one keep rolling.

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