The delay to the online safety bill won’t make it any easier to please everyone

Read Time:6 Minute, 36 Second

The Guardian

The Goldilocks theory of policy is simple enough. If Mummy Bear says your latest government bill is too hot, and Daddy Bear says your latest government bill is too cold, then you can tuck in knowing that the actual temperature is just right.

Unfortunately, the Goldilocks theory sometimes fails. You learn that what you actually have in front of you is less a perfectly heated bowl of porridge and more a roast chicken you popped in the oven still frozen: frosty on the inside, burnt on the outside, and harmful to your health if you try to eat it.

To its supporters, the online safety bill, which was dropped from the legislative calendar last Wednesday to make space for a no-confidence motion in the government, sits firmly in the Goldilocks zone. The bill is a monster piece of legislation, with its roots in a green paper published way back in October 2017. It’s got the fingerprints of two prime minsters and six DCMS secretaries over it, running the gamut from the extremely online Matt Hancock to Jeremy Wright, who always gave the impression that he’d rather be relaxing with his Lego than being shouted at by Facebook, and it shows.

At 230 pages before amendments, sprawling over 197 clauses and 15 schedules, the cost of simply having one person at every potentially affected platform reading the damn thing has been estimated by the government at £4m (though one expert suggests the true figure is exponentially higher given the bill’s scope and complexity, and risk of criminal penalties).

Such a huge bill defeats all but the most dedicated attempts to analyse it in detail. There is simply too much detail to cover, ranging from efforts to formalise how much work needs to be done by social networks to remove child abuse material, to attempts to provide a working definition of news websites that doesn’t include Russia Today, through requirements to verify the ages of children and bans on taking politically motivated moderation decisions. Any one of those topics could, and should, take a whole bill’s legislative time of scrutiny to ensure that they are future-proof, without false economies or unforeseen consequences; instead, they are mere skirmishes on the edges of the debate.

And so the conversation around the bill has been largely vibes-based. Supporters and opponents have been lumped together in broad caucuses: here, a smattering of Conservative MPs and freedom-of-expression groups who think the bill is a risk to free speech; there, the Labour party and anti-extremism organisations, who argue it won’t go nearly far enough in tackling online radicalisation. A crossbench collection of female MPs are warning the bill does little to tackle hate campaigns that drive women off the internet, while almost the entire internet economy is warning that it is, in various ways, likely to be absolutely ruinous to the sector, to be greeted only with rolled eyes and: “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”

The Goldilocks theory of policy suggests that, if it is impossible to please all those groups at once, then the optimal bill will result in annoying them all equally. And so the many-headed hydra grows some more heads: the free-speech Tories introduce amendments that require tech companies to file a document listing their duties around freedom of expression and privacy with Ofcom; the child protection groups are partially sated with requirements to file risk assessments about the possibility that a kid may stumble across porn, or content promoting self-harm, suicide or eating disorders. Smaller internet firms are told that they won’t be “in scope” for the most stringent requirements anyway, while “big tech” is given a stern finger wag and warned that the whole thing could be much stricter if they complain too much.

For a while, the tactic worked – though not for producing good legislation. Instead, the flurry of amendments has served as a divide-and-conquer tactic: when I speak to MPs worried about online abuse, they have as much to say about the lobbying from big tech as they do about the failures of the government to produce a bill that will actually change the tone of online discourse. When I speak to free-speech campaigners, I’m sometimes given eye-rolling about the motivations of child safety groups, rather than criticism of the bill in parliament.

But then, the prime minister announced his intention to resign, and the bill’s progress began to falter. Legislative time in the Commons, already forcing a compressed two-week discussion, was squeezed still further, as Labour’s jostling over a no-confidence vote in Boris Johnson forced the government to respond in kind. That meant the bill was pulled from the calendar entirely.

The official line is that it is coming back in the autumn, following the leadership contest. But the truth depends on who sits in No 10 at that time, because the candidates for Conservative party leader have been actively engaged in the same vibes-based analysis as everyone else. Kemi Badenoch, who attacked it as “legislating for hurt feelings”, would be likely to push for a very different version of the bill to Penny Mordaunt, who once launched a collection of “good manners emoji” aimed at encouraging people to be kind online. (Supporters, Mordaunt suggested, could send a “that won’t do” finger-wagging emoji to online trolls.) And, of course, a seventh DCMS secretary will probably add some new flavours to the mix.

But whoever takes point, the best thing for the future of the online safety bill – if it doesn’t get tossed out completely – is for them to finally reject the Goldilocks theory of policy altogether. Maybe they like their porridge hot, or maybe they like their porridge cold, but if Mummy Bear and Daddy Bear both say the porridge is absolutely foul, then probably it’s time to throw the whole thing in the bin and pour out a bowl of cereal instead.

What I’ve been reading

Game on
Adrian Hon is founder of Zombies, Run!, an iPhone app that became the poster child for gamification – the art of applying game mechanics to motivate and inspire. But his new book, You’ve Been Played, sees the veteran game designer in full Cassandra mode, warning about the harms that gamification has produced, from the sprawling “augmented realities” of QAnon to the overbearing management of an Amazon warehouse.

Wider consciousness
Artist and technologist James Bridle has a knack for casting tired discussions in a new light, and his latest book, Ways of Being, does just that for the rise of intelligent machines. Bridle’s argument is that we shouldn’t even begin thinking about what “machine intelligence” means until we have broadened our understanding of intelligence to cover the gamut of sentience already on our planet, from the recognisable communities of elephants and dolphins, through the alien intellect of octopuses, to the emergent responses of forests and fungi.

Travel reading
In a timely read given the Guardian’s publication of the Uber Files this week, Paris Marx, host of the tech skeptic podcast Tech Won’t Save Us, has taken apart Silicon Valley’s attempts to remake transportation in Road to Nowhere. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions – I remain a perennial optimist about “micromobility” – but it’s an important reminder that a heavily subsidised taxi app was never the future of anything.

July 16, 2022 at 08:54PM Alex Hern

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