Our online freedom is under attack

State control of the internet is no longer a foreign reality, a distant intrusion reserved for the Chinese and Russians. It is about to start happening right here in the UK.

The Government’s Online Harms White Paper proposes the most comprehensive regulation of online speech in the Western world. The Government is placing legal responsibility on social media platforms, and any other websites with user-generated content, like search engines and web forums, to curate the content posted on their site and to eliminate what they loosely deem as “harmful”. This is being called “duty of care” and will require all companies to make huge, costly changes to avoid fines, jail time, or even website blocks. It also calls for the creation of a new regulator, who will have the extraordinary power to decide what is harmful and when websites are failing to comply.

These heavy regulations are prompted by what the Government has called “harmful content” on the internet, such as child exploitation, terrorist material, and promotion of suicide. But the White Paper goes much further by targeting a very wide array of “harms” - raising the question: what is harmful?

The White Paper itself qualifies harms necessitating regulation as legally clear and unclear. For instance, harms with “less clear legal definitions” include “intimidation,” “trolling,” and “coercive behaviour”-- who will define the intimidating and coercive or trolling and how dependent will this qualification be on the majority power in Parliament?

The threat to free speech is palpable. This proposal stands to name the government as the arbiter of acceptability online. But, what’s more, the White Paper’s proposals will block out small competitors from challenging Big Tech.

The Adam Smith Institute’s new paper, Safeguarding Progress: The risks of internet regulation, explains that this regulation is not only a serious threat to free speech, it is also disproportionately costly to start-ups, hurting competition and innovation.

The “duty of care” will require a large number of personnel, costly automated technologies, and sizeable funding for algorithm redevelopment. The capital required for this overhaul is conceivable for big companies like Google or Facebook, but start-ups just don’t have the resources and could be crowded out of the market. No wonder Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg came out in support of state regulation of social media in his Washington Post op-ed. In it, he writes that the government needs to play a role in defining and enforcing the limits of free speech. And what is he doing to uphold these proposed regulations? Companies like Facebook and Youtube are currently employing thousands of people (Facebook currently boasts 50,000) dedicated to monitoring posts and comments, deeming them as acceptable or unacceptable based on company policy. Small start-ups surely lack this capacity, and should regulations be mandated be imposed, they would be scrambling for resources.

Furthermore, the rules companies like Facebook have been providing content monitors are complicated and often criticized (undoubtedly foreshadowing shady government rules). Facebook has over 1,000 pages of guidelines dedicated to outlining what is “unacceptable” speech. These guidelines are by no means comprehensive and are often contradictory. They are, most problematically, often subjective in interpretation. Many feel Facebook has taken too much control and is becoming authoritarian. Critics like Ben Shapiro on the right, for example, feel that their content is being pushed out by a liberal agenda in Big Tech speech policies. Therefore, if the government provides the guidelines, fingers won’t be pointed at Big Tech anymore, they’ll be pointed at policymakers.

But we must also remember that the actions of the technology companies do not sit in a bubble. The increased harshness of their speech policies - which are of course their own private business choices - come in the context of growing state pressure to censor the internet. “PC culture” and the implications it has on companies’ reputations come at the cost of overly cautious censorship.

The choice looms ahead: either accept the offensive pockets of the internet or regulate Big Tech into stagnancy while pushing speech limitations to the point of censorship. Eliminating “the offensive” comes at the steep cost of freedom of speech and innovation.