James Snell is a senior consultant at the New Lines Institute. He’s writing a book about the war in Afghanistan.
You may not have heard, but the internet is an unacceptably dangerous place. A place full of terrorists, financial frauds, pedophiles and rudeness.
Or at least it is according to the British government.
In the great debate between freedom and security, the British state has always placed itself firmly in the field of security, safe from everything, at all costs. And this time, as is often the case, the government’s eyes are firmly on the Internet while censorship, as always, is the proposed solution.
The UK’s online safety bill continues its long sprint through parliament this week, and as a bill promising dramatic censorship, it has faced many hurdles. However, just like a horror villain, he was continually mutated and resurrected to fight another day.
Pushed endlessly by three Conservative administrations, headed by four Home Secretaries and three Prime Ministers, it all stems from the government’s relentless desire to censor the internet.
For the UK government, there’s no question which censorship isn’t the answer. And there’s no problem whether it’s backyard internet scams, terrorism, radicalization (however defined), the loneliness epidemic, teenage suicide, or eating disorders that he’s not responding to by demanding a new regime of tough discipline and regulation.
Bad technologies have long been the concern of the British right. Censorship takes the place of reason every time and the invention of PCs and smartphones has done nothing but turn the screws further.
At the turn of the last century, the advent of films with titles like Driller Killer led to a widespread moral panic over VHS tapes and so-called video nasties.
When I was a boy, the papers were filled with stories of gleefully slapping a craze where seemingly delinquent teenagers beat up random passers-by as they filmed it on their Motorola Razr. It has led to widespread calls from Conservative MPs to ban young people from having phones in the first place.
Even a previous Conservative government wasted years trying to curb legal pornography. The fact that this may violate personal freedoms? Not Important. That the law was completely unworkable to enforce especially in an era of data protection laws? Of no significance. The plan failed only because it was not a priority in a party already subject to permanent internal chaos.
And of course, censorship is now the order of the day again.
Conservatives are still fighting a long and losing battle against the decentralization and online anonymity underpinning philanthropic sites like Wikipedia. And they’re also fighting another one against basic encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp, again unsuccessfully demanding that the service and others like it weaken the encryption or insert backdoors to allow access to authorities.
Of course, Britain is not alone in calling for such cuts nor are its lawmakers uniquely Luddite. The US Senate and the European Parliament have provided similar examples of vast technological ignorance allied with a censoring zeal. None of these pushes for censorship and surveillance, in any country, understand that any exception would invalidate the logic of using such services in the first place.
Any app that gave in to these demands would be abandoned, and other, more secretive ones would steal market share overnight. Much like their American and European counterparts, British Conservatives have never fully understood the internet or this aspect of the markets.
Interestingly, however, the impetus for censorship goes beyond the Conservative Party in Britain and is increasingly widespread in parliament. In December, the opposition Labor Party even called for a crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs), a deeply unserious proposal that would be deeply chaotic to even attempt.
Much remote working is only possible through VPNs, and those who are security-conscious routinely use them to protect themselves from the very online harms the government is trying to regulate.
Meanwhile, many MPs also want to make it illegal to send nasty messages online. When my former MP, David Amess, was murdered in 2021 with a knife, not a tweet, MP Mark Francois used feverish parliamentary debate to call for the Davids Act, which would punish certain types of online behavior, making it impossible anonymous publication something that would prove to be a surprising overreach of the government.
Compared to other democracies, UK laws are already purely censorial. Individuals are routinely fined or sent to jail for risque messages and spicy tweets under the Communications Act and the Public Order Act. And, if they get out, even messages sent using encryption can send people to jail for committing serious crimes.
In Scotland, for example, internet users are now subject to a new hate crimes law, which could send them to prison for incitement to hatred, a term without a proper definition that could prove hugely capacious in the hands of public zealous ministries.
But beyond jailing individuals for off-color communications, what the UK government basically wants is the ability to censor online platforms, while simultaneously criticizing authoritarian regimes for doing the same. An individual may already be jailed for expressing bad thoughts but the government with much of the opposition on side now wants to deny them the ability and space to do so in the first place.
This is the premise underlying the proposed law. That on the part of Internet users and the state must be made safe rather than understood and approached with measured caution.
But life itself is dangerous; the risks cannot be avoided. And no amount of regulation can make the Internet safe for every user, nor can it protect every user from being offended.
In other areas of life, we have been forced to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions; parents are expected to be responsible for their children. But as the Internet grows too big to control directly, the state and the Conservative Party go haywire.
Politicians believe that the public wants censorship hard and fast and as soon as possible. But while they may be right, the consequences of a vast overrun of the state are never pleasant. And we’ll no doubt see them soon enough.
#amount #regulation #internet #safe #user