30 September 2022

If Truss wants a freer Britain, the Online Safety Bill cannot go ahead as planned


While everyone is talking about the Government’s economic plan and polling woes, we shouldn’t lose sight of their broader agenda. The Online Safety Bill appears set to glide through Parliament as if nothing has changed over the last few months.

As a self-identified partisan of the ‘more freedom, less intervention’ side of the Conservative Party, Liz Truss is now in prime position to expand that perspective across Government. The Online Safety Bill, a vague, sprawling piece of legislation that will result in a massive transfer of power to the DCMS Secretary of State, should be complete anathema to Truss.

For those of you not familiar with its fairly dense 230 pages, the Online Safety Bill would give Ofcom, with significant influence from the Secretary of State, the capacity to compel companies to use ‘proactive technology’ to ‘deal with’ certain types of illegal content. By putting its implementation at the discretion of a minister, the only barrier between scanning illegal content such as child sexual abuse material (‘CSAM’) or planned criminality, and scanning for ‘legal but harmful content’ is a political one.

In practice, ‘proactive technology’ means large tech services providers will be instructed to implement ‘client side scanning’ (CSS), which functions like anti-virus software, but scans for keywords, phrases and images rather than malware, and passes the data on to the relevant authorities. To understand how this works in practice, we need look no further than what is already happening at a smaller scale in our schools via ‘safety tech’. Installed on devices used to access school intranets, its intended purpose is to enable teachers to keep tabs on children and ensure they aren’t being abused, selling drugs or being radicalised.

To the ‘safety first’ minded, this might not seem like an issue. Trading off a degree of privacy might look like a price worth paying if it means children are protected from malign influences. After all, why would a morally upstanding citizen have to worry about, particularly if they don’t talk about things the CSS system is designed to flag?

As it turns out, quite a lot actually. School safety tech has pulled up everything from bank details to personal notes written outside of school time, designed only to be shared with family members. As CSS systems expand their libraries to adapt to the ever changing slang young people use, more and more becomes subject to scrutiny. For example, Impero’s ‘Education Pro’ system included the word ‘biscuit’ on the grounds it is slang for guns. There is also concern that such a system unfairly targets queer kids.

The Government’s intention, it seems, is to scale this sort of system up to apply across the internet. DCMS has recently undertaken analysis of the safety tech sector, projecting a compound annual growth rate of 35% a year from 2021. Damian Collins MP, Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy, has referred to the safety tech sector as a ‘catalyst for UK growth’, and going from ‘strength to strength’.

Unfortunately, these systems don’t scale well. Apple’s proposed CSS solutions ‘are notoriously unreliable and prone to mistakenly flag art, health information, educational resources, advocacy messages, and other imagery’, and they have since retracted their suggestion that their system is ready for implementation.

If growth really is at the top of Truss’ agenda, she should recognise that this legislation would be incredibly damaging to the UK’s tech sector. Indeed, WhatsApp’s CEO has suggested it would have to consider leaving the UK market should the bill pass in its current form, and the regulatory burden imposed on other multinational tech companies would likely mean leaving the UK out of first access to innovative new products. This without even mentioning the corrosive effect it would have on trust in strong encryption and genuinely private online communication, which has underpinned $250bn of economic benefit over the last 20 years.

Allowing the Online Safety Bill to pass in its current incarnation would drastically undermine our right to privacy. It would likely lead to the implementation of untested, poorly understood surveillance technology, potentially resulting in perfectly legal, mundane and even intimate exchanges of information to be scrutinised by outside parties. It would also undermine international confidence in the UK’s role as a hub for tech innovation at a huge cost to the economy. If the PM wants to stand up for her values of personal freedom and market liberalism, this bill cannot pass.

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John Macdonald is Director of Strategy at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.