14 December 2021

The Online Safety Bill promises an unholy trinity of bad regulation

By Camilla de Coverly Veale

The tech sector contributes over £150bn to the UK economy every year and employs over 1.5m people. That works out to around £100,000 of value for the UK for every single job.

And yet, if you were to read the opinion pieces put out by MPs and some government ministers, you would be forgiven for thinking that the tech sector was a scourge on British society. You could easily forget that it is the tech sector that saved many businesses from having to shut down entirely during the pandemic. Or that it was tech that allowed families to keep in touch while they isolated and quarantined to keep themselves and others safe.

With its Online Safety Bill, the Government is rightly seeking to ensure citizens are kept safe online, but in pursuing that ambition it has so far failed to adequately define what it considers ‘safe’ to mean. It has also so far failed to distinguish what regulation can and cannot achieve. More concerningly, its actions threaten the open internet as we know it.

Drafted and discussed in reference exclusively to social media giants, by the Government’s own admission the bill will pull into scope well over 20,000 UK businesses – possibly thousands more. The overwhelming majority of these will be start-ups, scale-ups and SMEs. Is more regulation and cost what they need after a pandemic?

The Government wants platforms to stop content that is ‘legal but harmful’. Harm is, by its very nature, subjective. What is harmful to one person is beneficial to another. Legal but harmful content, the bill tells us, might be something which causes psychological harm. We should not be outsourcing this to businesses to decide for us. Apart from being profoundly disempowering and anti-democratic, it would be a crushing duty on start-ups who already struggle to compete with incumbents.

This is the heart of our concern with the bill. As currently envisaged, it threatens to curtail innovation and make it much harder for start-ups to operate. Far from restricting the power of Silicon Valley tech giants, this legislation firmly entrenches their position. It sends us down a path towards an ever narrower internet, one funnelled, built and controlled by the current incumbents.

The Government did put this bill out for pre-legislative scrutiny, giving Parliament a chance to clarify and refine proposals thrown together by six Secretaries of State over four years, as well as multiple consultations. Unfortunately, the Joint Committee tasked with examining the bill has concluded by flinging a whole load of new ideas into the mix and creating additional confusion. This isn’t a case of too many cooks – it’s a whole cookery school.

More concerningly, over the past few months the committee chose to hear from over 50 witnesses, but the smallest tech business it heard evidence from was Wikipedia – the seventh most visited site in the world.

In failing to take evidence from organisations like Coadec, the committee is ignoring thousands of start-ups, scale-ups and other small tech businesses that face having to grapple with a bill that is currently everything effective legislation isn’t: difficult to understand, difficult to comply with, difficult to enforce.

If the bill remains in its current form, this unholy trinity is guaranteed. We will get legislation that doesn’t satisfy anyone, helps the tech giants gain ground and makes the UK a global laughing stock when it comes to regulating innovation.

The Government says it’s ‘unashamedly pro-tech’, now is the time to show it.

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Camilla de Coverly Veale is Head of Regulation at The Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec).

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