Ministers have hit back at Kemi Badenoch’s criticism of the online safety bill after the Conservative leadership contender said the delayed proposals are in “no fit state” to become law.
The flagship bill, which has been seen by some Tory MPs as a vehicle for censorship, has been shunted to the autumn after the government ran out of parliamentary time to push it through.
Responding to the delay, Badenoch tweeted that the bill would be overhauled if she became prime minister, stating: “We should not be legislating for hurt feelings.”
The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, responded on Twitter by saying the bill would require tech platforms to deal with content encouraging others to take their own lives and asked if that could be defined as “hurt feelings”.
The tech minister, Damian Collins, who chaired the cross-party committee that scrutinised the bill, said Badenoch was “completely wrong” and that the bill set safety standards online. “Why would you want to stop that,” Collins tweeted.
The minister also tweeted on Thursday that Penny Mordaunt, a favourite in the Tory leadership contest, had confirmed to him that she would continue with the bill if she became leader.
The bill is due to return to parliament in the autumn but there is speculation that it could be changed significantly or dropped under a new prime minister and culture secretary.
The shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, defended the bill, describing Badenoch’s criticisms as “ill-informed” and telling her to “educate yourself”.
Much of the criticism of the bill has focused on provisions to deal with “priority harms”, which is content that is harmful but falls below the threshold of criminality.
The likes of Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube will have to address how they deal with such content in their terms and conditions, which will be enforced the communications regulator, Ofcom. Last week, Dorries disclosed an initial list of such content, which includes online abuse and harassment, suicide and the promotion of eating disorders.
Tech firms will have to flag to users whether they will ban such content, downplay it in newsfeeds or freely allow it on their platforms. If they choose to allow legal but harmful content, they will need to provide users with settings to help them choose whether they want to be exposed to it or not.
The bill contains three new offences, for communications that are “false”, “threatening” or “harmful”. The latter offence was highlighted by the conservative think-tank director Robert Colvile, who co-wrote the 2019 Tory manifesto, as an example of a part of the bill that “legislates for hurt feelings”. Under the clause, a person commits an offence if they send a message intended to cause “psychological harm, amounting to at least serious distress”.
The new offences, however, are replacements for much broader offences that already exist in UK law and are repealed by the bill. The Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003 contain language that makes it effectively illegal to be rude on the internet. Under the former,an offender can be sent to prison for up to two years for sending a message that is “indecent or grossly offensive”, or “false”, if the intent is to “cause distress or anxiety”. Under the latter, an offender can be sent to jail for six months for sending a message “of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”, or for sending a false message “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety”.
The Malicious Communications Act was behind the arrest of a man in 2021 on suspicion of racially abusing England footballers following the Euro 2020 final, and has been used to charge people for offences ranging from cyberstalking to “revenge porn”. The Communications Act was used to charge and convict Paul Chambers, a trainee accountant, who joked about blowing up Nottingham airport on Twitter.
July 14, 2022 at 07:55PM Dan Milmo and Alex Hern