Yet again, the Online Safety Bill has been withdrawn from the Parliamentary schedule with no known date of return. Previously, the chaos of Boris Johnson's resignation had forced the bill off to the sidelines, and history is repeating itself with the resignation of Liz Truss. As campaigners for digital regulation, it's been disheartening to see the government's inability to prioritise meaningful policy.
It's reflective of a conflict at the heart of the Conservative party over what this bill should be. Even the glaring exemptions, exceptions, and exclusions present in this bill are not enough for some, who fundamentally reject the idea that disinformation and abuse should be moderated at all. In our view, the fundamental cause of this divide is the bill's content-removal approach.
Problematically, the bill's strategy of "regulating by exemption" only deepens these divides. The bulk of the regulatory framework will be too harsh (the powers given to the secretary of state, the threats to end-to-end encryption), and the exempt areas (anyone who qualifies as a news publisher – and the bar is low) will be left alone. It means that we can get a bill which simultaneously threatens freedom of expression and fails to tackle some of the most harmful types of users: paid ads, news publishers, and politicians.
Instead of contending with algorithmic systems of amplification that allow such content to cause harm at scale (as we saw in the Buffalo shooting earlier this year, or on January 6th 2021), the bill instead seeks to require platforms to hone in on individual pieces of content. We'd be better served by a bill that limits the targeting and spread of this kind of content using friction measures, mitigates platforms' ability to target users on their personal data, and includes robust transparency requirements for platforms themselves.
The government's own internal party affairs have once again taken precedence over important societal issues that desperately require intervention. These delays are an insult to those of us keen to advise on policy and finally bring accountability and transparency to the big tech firms. We're urging the government to bring it back as soon as possible, and to re-consider key elements of its approach.