The Government has introduced an Online Safety Bill to bolster regulation of the internet. It risks unfashionable views – like biblical teaching on sexual ethics – being censored because some people don’t like them. This could profoundly limit religious freedom and debate. If something is legal to say offline, it should be allowed online.
Online Safety Bill
The Online Safety Bill was passed by Parliament on 19 September 2023.
Legal but harmful
Tabled in March 2022, the Bill was designed to target and limit ‘harmful’ content being shared and viewed online, but seriously jeopardised free speech.
It tackles a wide range of areas, including making it a legal duty for social media websites and search engines to protect people from illegal or harmful online content. The platforms themselves will be policed by Ofcom. If they fail in their new duties, the regulator can fine them up to ten per cent of their annual global income.
Among other offences, illegal content includes death threats, inciting violence, sexual exploitation and fraud.
The Bill aims to stop children being bombarded with suicide and self-harm content and to force pornography websites to implement strict age verification systems to stop under-18s from viewing explicit content. It also introduces measures to protect people from being abused online by anonymous trolls.
Alongside these positive moves, the original Bill contained a dangerous category of ‘legal but harmful’ material that social media companies would have been expected to police.
This was aimed at content deemed to be harmful to adults even though it didn’t break any laws. It led to understandable fears that social media companies – which have a track record of restricting Christian and socially conservative content – would inevitably go far beyond what the law sets out. With only weak free speech duties in the Bill, there was a serious danger that – in the eyes of ‘Big Tech’ – conservative, traditional views on marriage, sexuality and gender were seen as valid targets for censorship.
Mainstream Christian views would be at the mercy of executives in Silicon Valley. Free speech would have been far more restricted online than offline, where we generally have a great deal of freedom. Our basic position is that whatever you can say on the street you should be able to say online.
In November 2022, the Government announced that it had dropped the ‘legal but harmful’ provisions.
This really was excellent news after many months of trying to persuade ministers that it is possible to protect children and adults from real harm without sacrificing everybody’s freedom of speech.
Then in June 2023, the Government tabled new amendments to strengthen restrictions on pornography. Services that publish or allow pornography on their sites will be required to use “highly effective” age-checking technology to ensure children can’t access them. CEOs of tech companies will be held personally responsible for keeping children safe.