Freedom of Expression (Communications and Digital Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:04 pm ar 27 Hydref 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 4:04, 27 Hydref 2022

My Lords, I thank the committee for this report. Even though I do not agree with many of its recommendations, it was a real treat to read—like a great primer or literature review. There is so much of the Online Safety Bill to worry about in terms of free speech that it is hard to know where to focus, so I will just make a few points.

I was especially grateful to see a refreshingly nuanced approach in the report to misinformation, which I focused on the last time we discussed these issues. As research from Ofcom notes, many believe that the term “misinformation” is being

“weaponised for censorship of valid alternative perspectives.”

The report’s examples from the lockdown and Covid era are pertinent: for example, expert medical opinion—albeit a minority—that challenged either the Government or the World Health Organization were labelled misinformation, deemed so by big tech fact-checkers with no scientific qualifications but

“certified by the International Fact-Checking Network”— whatever that is. It is all the more important to note, as the report does, that even Will Moy, the CEO of Full Fact, has said:

“There is a moral panic about ‘fake news’”,

leading to “frightening overreactions” by Governments and big tech.

I was also glad that the report noted the broader context of what I think is in danger of being a potential moral panic about online safety. Concerns from free-speechers are based on the offline problems of cancel culture and the ever-growing attacks on, for example, academic freedom in universities—such that the Government are attempting to legislate to enhance free expression on campus at the same time as undermining free expression online.

I will add another offline context: there is a contemporary therapeutic ethos that posits safety—especially psychological safety—as trumping freedoms of any sort. I hope that the committee will look at this at some stage. We cannot discuss online harms without understanding that the concept of harm is an ever-expanding category.

Before I look at that, I will make one clarification: whenever I raise problems with the Bill, the justifications that come back at me always centre on children’s safety. I note that I would be happy if the Online Safety Bill confined its focus on the young and children. Instead, the Government use adult worries about children’s access to porn, self-harm and suicides—all right worries—to introduce huge legislative changes that will affect adult freedoms, effectively infantilising citizens and treating us as dependent children in need of protection from each other’s speech.

The report tells us:

“Civilised societies have legal safeguards to protect those who may be vulnerable.”

The problem is when vulnerability gets discussed in relation to adults. In a therapeutic culture, vulnerability and victimhood are valorised and often incentivised because, if we present ourselves as fragile and vulnerable, we have a cultural currency and power not only to gain attention and support but to silence others. For example, the report is extremely helpful in deconstructing the whole concept of harm: the committee rightly rails against the illiberal notion of censoring “legal but harmful” material, and hopefully the Government will indeed drop that egregious clause. The whole premise of the Bill is based on the idea that speech online can be, and often is, harmful. The elastic use of the term “harm” makes it ill-defined and subjective, fudging physical harm with psychological harm—and it is no wonder that many now see words as violence.

The committee helpfully asked the Government whether the

“Bill’s definition of psychological impact has any clinical basis”.

The reply came back saying, “No”; it would be up to “platforms … to make judgements” about speech causing anxiety or fear. This is potentially disastrous, as terms such as “offensive”, “hate”, and “misinformation”—with all their subjectivity—can be said by individuals to mean that something should be banned.

The report notes that, a few years ago,

“the Christian Union at Balliol College … was banned from its freshers’ fair”,

on the basis that

“its presence could ‘harm”’ some attendees.”

Goodness knows what they would make of the harm of having Bishops in this place. Only this week, Cambridge University faculty heads apologised to students for “distressing” them by sending an email promotion for a “potentially harmful” talk. What caused such alarm? A talk by Sex MattersHelen Joyce entitled, “Criticising gender-identity ideology: what happens when speech is silenced”—oh the irony. Actually, much speech is silenced, online and offline, by deploying the language of psychology to suggest that speech, books and ideas are dangerous. Trigger warnings are put on lectures and literature to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is now not clinically diagnosed post war or after a disaster, but by the potential harms caused by upsetting speech or words. So even if “harm” in the Bill is medically diagnosed, it will not help because psychological language is now frequently used to silence us.