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David’s Law: Touching Tribute or Free Speech Failure?

The Internet is the most effective tool in promoting ideals, such as democracy and liberty, in the 21st century. No other instrument has the same reach that the Internet does; citizens can communicate with politicians like never before, oppressed communities can enlighten people across the world to their plight, and the Internet fundamentally can provide a voice to everyone, regardless of who they are behind the screen.

Crucially, the Internet allows freedom of speech along with anonymity, and thus protects those that may face repercussions for voicing their views, due to the governments they live under or their marginalised identities. However, this capacity to provide freedom of speech without repercussions relies on an accessible, uncensored internet. This is why certain governments restrict the Internet so much: the Internet as a tool is potentially threatening to governments. It platforms their opposition, which increasingly is their own citizens. The UK is not the first country one thinks of when deliberating internet censorship, and there is the implication that the UK is above such control or suppression as a democratic, developed country. However, given the upcoming Online Safety Bill, this implication may be worth consideration.

The Online Safety Bill currently proposes increasing social media companies’ obligations to restrict and regulate illegal and dangerous material online. However, in light of Sir David Amess’ tragic assassination, MPs have suggested amending this bill to include proposals that suggest ending online anonymity to curtail the harassment MPs face on social media. The abuse MPs face online is a significant issue that must be dealt with; however, the solution will not be found in the Online Safety Bill, which instead will stifle criticism of politicians and endanger those who require anonymity online.

The Online Safety Bill is facing calls to be renamed “David’s Law” and include proposals that would effectively end anonymity online. However, one of the reasons why the Internet is such a powerful tool in expanding democracy and liberty worldwide is its inherent anonymity. Critics of these proposals are concerned that more authoritarian countries may follow in the UK’s footsteps to curtail internet anonymity online, to restrict the freedoms of their citizens. Citizens living under oppressive regimes require anonymity online to limit their chances of being targeted by the government for their views. Anonymous figures and organisations that are critical of governments may also use the Internet to release crucial information or challenge oppressive regimes. For example, the Panama Papers, which revealed the myriad of ways the rich circumvent paying tax, were leaked by a source in 2016 who remains anonymous today due to safety concerns. MPs are calling to end online anonymity to stop the harassment politicians face online, however, this justification is questionable when one considers that most online abuse does not seem to be anonymous. According to The Evening Standard, 99 per cent of accounts suspended on Twitter due to harmful language during the 2020 Euros were named accounts.

Therefore, online harassment does not seem to be solely, or even mostly, perpetuated by anonymous accounts. Additionally, these proposals seem currently irrelevant in comparison to the other more pressing issues MPs must deal with imminently. Surely, after the horrific and tragic assassination of Amess, the government must focus more on tackling extremism, which is a more pressing contemporary threat to MPs, as opposed to online anonymity.

Crucially, the bill may also stifle criticism of politicians. Although online harassment and abuse should be effectively dealt with, criticism that is not inflammatory must be allowed in a free country. The bill vaguely proposes that social media companies restrict and regulate “harmful content” that has a “significant adverse physical or psychological impact.” Potentially “harmful content” could encompass criticism of MPs if the government decides so as this bill gives the government the right to act as arbiter of what is considered harmful speech online. However, healthy, safe criticism of politicians, parties, and policies is more essential in recent times than it has been in years.

The government’s early response to the pandemic has been criticised as the worst public health failure in decades. Early failures with late lockdowns, lax border controls and unworkable test and trace systems resulted in the preventable deaths of many. These failures, along with the actions of individual MPs to ignore restrictions, have resulted in a climate where criticism of parties and politicians is more necessary than ever, particularly as this criticism seems to work; it is not farfetched to claim that Cummings and Hancock stood down in part due to public criticism of their flouting of social distancing guidelines. In summary, the Online Safety Bill risks endangering a crucial tenet of democracy; the political freedom to criticise the government and its policies in a safe, obliging manner.

Whilst measures to ensure civility remains online are necessary, it is more important that this civility extends to the media and politicians themselves, who often encourage a politics of division that is reflected online. It is unfair that politicians expect online discourse to be civilised when they often fail to self-censor, from name-calling to insulting attire; politicians, from all parties, engage in the same toxic behaviour they lambast social media users for using. Politics in the UK has always been divided but after Brexit, this division has gotten even worse and is fuelled largely by the media. The media itself provides and popularises the language for social media users to insult each other with, with Brexit came Britain’s removal from the EU but also the unfortunate spreading of terms such as “Remoaner” and “Brextremist.” Political discourse online has degraded to schoolyard insults and at times genuinely harmful rhetoric, yet this is not the fault of online anonymity but rather, at least partly, the fault of numerous politicians and the media that popularise inflammatory language and extreme political divide.

In conclusion, the Online Safety Bill will fail to effectively end harassment against MPs, instead individual citizens, social media users, politicians, and the media must take responsibility to foster an environment, both online and offline, where politics is more of a debate and less of a war.

Image: Stacey MacNaught

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