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This article is well worth five minutes of your time
The Government’s Online Harms Bill gives Big Tech too much power to censor opinions it does not like
When they first stood together in the Rose Garden of Downing Street, few would have guessed where David Cameron and Nick Clegg would ultimately end up.
The former mocked, ignored and having virtually no place in public debate. But his erstwhile deputy is now enthroned in Silicon Valley as global affairs chief of Facebook. He’s one of the most powerful men in the world – and I wish that was an exaggeration.
Murdoch, Hearst, Beaverbrook: none exercised as much power over the world’s news as Clegg is now capable of doing.
After the broadcasters, Facebook is Britain’s number one source of news. Its users may think they’re just seeing what they selected – based on who they follow, what they share. But what they actually get is a selection, chosen by algorithms under criteria programmed by Silicon Valley workers.
All overseen by the likes of Clegg.
In this way, Facebook can edit the way tens of millions see the world.
"The power that all this gives to Silicon Valley is matched only by the utter ignorance in government about its nature and implications.
And that’s why Boris Johnson is unwittingly about to give Clegg – and all the Big Tech firms – more power than ever. In a cackhanded attempt to bring them all to heel, the Online Safety Bill will transform Big Tech into our new censors. They’ll obey government orders on a certain number of things, but in return they get the power – nay, duty – to police the rest pretty much as they see fit.
The original idea is sensible: to tackle pornography, criminality, content encouraging suicide: in other words, genuine online filth.
But how to do this in a country with free speech rules?
The Online Safety Bill invents a new category – “legal, but harmful” – with fines imposed on any digital publisher that crosses this vaguely drawn line. The danger, of course, lies in the grey areas. What about articles questioning vaccine policy – are they “harmful”? Or Jimmy Carr’s gypsy jokes? Facebook won’t want to be fined or take the risk. The bots will be told: if in doubt, strike it out.
Consequences can be seen already, with government critics first going digitally missing. The Socialist Workers Party found its Facebook page vapourised. Novara Media, an upstart socialist broadcaster, had its YouTube page taken down. In both cases, services were resumed after an uproar; over-zealous censorship bots were blamed. But this draws attention to something we were never really told: that such bots already are at work, trawling cyberspace, identifying troublemakers and closing them down.
Clegg has never cared much about free speech. As deputy prime minister, he tried to force newspapers to submit to government regulation, but his job now is to maximise Facebook’s profits. It makes money by showing adverts, with “likes”, “shares” and Baby Shark videos: unlike the media moguls, Silicon Valley doesn’t care about news. It has no interest in defending minority voices. Its general approach is: we’ll do anything, just don’t fine us! In fact, we can be your censors! Look how well we’d do it!
The Covid era saw Silicon Valley demonstrating just how effective a censor it can be. Facebook boasted that it was “working with government” to combat “misinformation” – which it seemed to define as stories unhelpful to No 10.
As a viewer, you won’t miss what you don’t see. But editors like me (even The Spectator swims in a digital sea) soon find out which articles the censor bots dislike.
For example, if our weekly YouTube show had criticism of lockdown policy, that episode might have mysteriously fewer viewers – probably because it’s withheld from YouTube’s all-powerful recommendation system.
But we’re never told. Sometimes, an episode is deleted entirely.
Articles, too, are judged harshly. During the debate about face masks, I commissioned an in-depth report from two academics, both experts in their field: they found the evidence unconvincing. The bots hated it and Facebook slapped a “false information” warning on it. I asked Facebook to identify a single error in the article.
It’s Facebook: it doesn’t have to respond. I wish I could say it doesn’t matter, but social media drives about a third of our website traffic (and, ergo, our sales).
So yes, it matters.
The British Medical Journal watched all this, thinking (rightly, as it turned out) that it would be next. In an editorial, it highlighted the risk this posed to basic scientific debate. “It seems 2020 is Orwell’s 1984, where the boundaries of public discourse are governed by multibillion dollar corporations (in place of a totalitarian regime),” it wrote. “And secret algorithms coded by unidentified employees.” Except we know the identity of one of the bosses: Sir Nick Clegg. And he’s about to be the new Big Brother. Quite a thought.
Clegg himself is unlikely to delete Boris Johnson’s account as Twitter did to Donald Trump, but Facebook could, if it wanted. This raises a question: should he have so much power? More to the point, should Clegg’s colleagues in San Francisco be deciding what Brits should be reading? Why can’t we see the criteria, or the decisions? Might we end up with the Left-wards bias, seen time and time again in social media in America?
Reports of Covid leaking from a Wuhan lab were once seen, by Facebook, as fake news – and removed. Now they look all too plausible.
The nature, power and influence of censorship bots is something that politicians struggle to imagine, let alone regulate. The BBC presents an easier, juicer, more understandable target. When the Online Safety Bill was introduced in Parliament, not a single MP asked about bots or speech protection. “My colleagues can’t see that this Bill would make us more exposed than ever to the wokeward drift of Silicon Valley,” says one minister. “It may soon be too late”.
Boris Johnson has been pressing “pause” on a few policies of late, and the Online Safety Bill is the biggest disaster waiting to happen. In the four years that this Bill has been in the making, it has been rendered out of date because the dynamics of digital media and public debate have changed so much. If he goes ahead now, it would cement Clegg’s status as the most powerful Englishman in world media. There’s still time to stop, take stock and think of a better way.