This week the government brought back its Online Safety Bill, but does Nadine Dorries know what an algorithm is?
Howdy partners. This week all the scoundrels and varmints of the internet were shaking in their boots, because there’s a new sheriff in town by the name of Nadine Dorries, and she’s gonna clean this here place up, y’see?
The Online Safety Bill was presented to Parliament on Thursday. It’s a revised version of a draft bill that was published in May 2021 and has been tinkered with following a period of consultation and lobbying. I wrote about the criticisms made of the wide ranging bill, including from readers of the Conservative Home website, where Nadine Dorries wrote a defence of the bill.
I also wrote about measures in the Bill which will criminalise ‘cyber flashing’, after GB News presenter Tom Harwood was criticised for saying he didn’t understand why it was being made illegal. That’s one of numerous measures crammed into this wide ranging bill which seeks to crack down on all the Bad Things online, but may simply end up making tech firms more censorious.
Weary Giants of Flesh and Steel
A map of tweets posted from mobile phones, via Kaspersky.
I’ve been writing about the Government’s attempts to legislate on the internet for a number of years. I grew up with computers because my dad ran a computer hardware business in the 80s and 90s, and remember the early utopian promise of the internet fondly. I also worked for the charity that promotes Wikipedia, one of the few places that still retains that tech utopian philosophy (because it didn’t adopt an advertising based model, which would have totally corrupted the project).
This tech utopianism was crystalised by Grateful Dead songwriter and Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Perry Barlow in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (1996), which declared:
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
In the 90s, the internet was a fruitful canvas for the optimistic projections of the kind of people who monopolised it at that point – white, English speaking, educated, richer people. But as mass participation has come to the internet – about 60% of the world now has internet access – it has become increasingly subject to the kind of policing and legislation that exists in the real world.
Because, fundamentally, the internet is not something that is separate and disconnected from the real world, but a part of it, built on top of the power structures and prejudices that exist everywhere else. We were kidding ourselves to think that governments wouldn’t try to exert control there, and for corporations to extend the logic of capitalism through their quests for platformisation.
And so we find ourselves here, where governments and a lot of the public agree that Something Must Be Done about all the abuse and the scams and the disinformation.
And what are we going to do? We’re going to uh… hold Facebook legally accountable for the content posted there. Which probably means that social media sites will make their algorithms more censorious just in case they get sued.
The Tory urge to ban things
The Tories are being pulled in two directions here. On the one hand, they have a socially conservative constituency which wants the Government to censor harmful content and block children from seeing explicit material. On the other hand, they have a libertarian, pro-free speech constituency which worries about the overreach of big government.
Silkie Carlo, the head of the Big Brother Watch think tank, wrote for The Telegraph on the free speech implications of the Bill. Carlo said the legislation gives “state-backing to social media companies’ distinctly San-Fran, restrictive content policies where they relate to the Government’s “priority harms”. The priority harms are whatever the Secretary of State wants them to be and can target either lawful or unlawful speech.”
One of the reasons the Government’s attempts to regulate the internet rarely work as intended is because the people in charge of making our laws do not seem to know much about what they are trying to regulate. Politico revealed that Nadine Dorries doesn’t seem to know what an algorithm is, saying that she “arrived at a meeting with software giant Microsoft and immediately asked when they were going to get rid of algorithms”.
According to the FT, under the new Bill, “the media and telecoms regulator will also have the power to audit the algorithms that govern what consumers see in their search results and social media feeds, after hearing evidence from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.”
As well as the threat to freedom of speech the Bill represents, another part will ban sex workers from advertising their services online. Activists argue this could drive sex work underground, making it far more dangerous.
What if we just made Surveillance Capitalism nicer?
None of this will make the slightest bit of difference to the toxicity of social media, which is built on a model which unilaterally claims all our data as raw material to be exploited and marketised. This model values engagement above all else, because it creates more data, and therefore privileges the types of posts that create more engagement – these tend to be more emotive, exaggerated, polemic and divisive.
Unless the government wants to regulate the basic economics of that model, any legislation that seeks to stop the inevitable outcomes of that model will invariably involve pressuring the social media platforms to pre-emptively ban more types of speech.
So I am left with the conclusion that the Government’s plans are – for want of a better phrase – a type of virtue signalling. They want to show they care about protecting children, protecting people from cyber bullying, fraud, sexual violence, and all the other negative things that the internet can facilitate but are fundamentally problems with the way our society works.
The internet is not separate from society, it’s a part of it, a projection of it. If we’re not serious about fundamentally reforming the foundations of society, we’re just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
John Lubbock leads on the Right-Watch project at Left Foot Forward