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Friday, 25 May 2018

‘Internet safety’ just means internet censorship

Fraser Myers

t the end of a week in which the House of Commons defeated Labour’s draconian plans to regulate the press, the Tories revealed their own draconian plans to regulate the internet. The culture secretary, Matt Hancock, has pledged to make Britain ‘the safest place in the world’ to be online. But when the world’s ‘safest’ internet is currently found in China, where access is heavily restricted and censored by the state, it becomes clear how terrifying the government’s safety agenda really could be.

Digital secretary Margot James told Sky News the government would order social-media firms to take down any ‘abusive’ content immediately. Fines for non-compliance could run up to four per cent of a firm’s global turnover, which could mean up to £1 billion for the largest firms. Just as clampdowns on press freedom are often justified with tough talk against the press barons, the war on social media is presented as a fight against the new social-media oligarchs. But, in truth, clampdowns on big tech are really just a proxy for clampdowns on us, the users. After all, it is we, the public, who actually produce all the supposedly vile, offensive and abusive content that social-media companies will be ordered to censor.

If anything, outsourcing censorship to social-media firms gives them more power over us, not less – certainly over what we can and can’t see in our timelines. What constitutes material that is abusive or offensive is highly subjective. Under Hancock’s plans, that judgement, for the most part, will be left in the hands of the big social-media companies. Even without legal pressure, Twitter has permanently banned alt-light commentator Milo Yiannopoulos and right-wing rabble-rouser Tommy Robinson. When so much political debate takes place on social media, we need to push back against these companies’ attempts to cleanse our newsfeeds of problematic material – not encourage it.

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