James Snell is a senior advisor at the New Lines Institute. He is writing a book about the war in Afghanistan.
You may not have heard, but the internet is an unacceptably dangerous place. A place full of terrorists, financial scammers, pedophiles and rudeness.
At least according to the British government.
In the great debate between freedom and security, the British state has always placed itself firmly in the camp of security – protected from everything, at all costs. And this time, as is so often the case, the government’s sights are resolutely on the internet – while censorship, as always, is the proposed solution.
This week, Britain’s online safety law continues its lengthy progression through parliament, and as a bill promising dramatic censorship, it has faced many hurdles. Yet, like a horror villain, it has continually mutated and resurrected to fight another day.
Endlessly pressured by three Conservative governments, chaired by four interior ministers and three prime ministers, this all stems from the government’s relentless desire to censor the internet.
For the United Kingdom government, there is no doubt that censorship is not the answer. And there is not a single problem – be it Internet scams of all kinds, terrorism, radicalization (however defined), the “loneliness epidemic”, teen suicide or eating disorders – that it is not responding to by a new regime of strict discipline and regulation.
Technological nasty things have long been the concern of the British right. Censorship takes the place of reason every time – and the invention of PCs and smartphones has only further turned the screws.
At the end of the last century, the arrival of films with titles such as “Driller Killer” led to widespread moral panic over VHS tapes and so-called “video nasties”.
When I was a boy, the newspapers were full of stories about “happy slapping” – a craze in which teenage offenders apparently beat up random passers-by while filming it on their Motorola Razrs. It led to widespread calls from Conservative MPs for young people not to have phones in the first place.
A previous Conservative government also wasted years trying to clamp down on legal pornography. The fact that this could infringe on personal freedoms? Not significant. That the law was completely impractical to enforce, especially in an age of data protection laws? Of no significance. The plan failed only because it was not a priority in a party already committed to permanent internal chaos.
And of course censorship is now the order of the day again.
The Conservatives are still fighting a long and losing battle against decentralization and online anonymity – the foundation of philanthropic sites like Wikipedia. And they’re also battling another against simple encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp, demanding — again unsuccessfully — that the service and others like it weaken encryption or insert “backdoors” to allow authorities access.
Of course, Britain is not alone in demanding such carve-outs – nor are its legislators uniquely Luddite. The United States Senate and European Parliament have given similar examples of massive technological ignorance combined with the zeal of a would-be censor. None of these pushes for censorship and surveillance, in any country, understand that any exception would invalidate the rationale for using such services in the first place.
Any app that gave in to these demands would be abandoned and other more secretive apps would steal market share overnight. Like their American and European counterparts, British Conservatives have never fully understood the internet or this aspect of markets.
Interestingly, however, the censors’ drive extends beyond the Conservative Party in Britain, and is increasingly appearing in Parliament. The opposition Labor Party even demanded a crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs) in December – a very unserious proposal, which would be highly chaotic to even attempt to implement.
Much remote work is only possible through VPNs, and those who are security-conscious usually use them to protect themselves from the online harm that the government is trying to regulate.
Meanwhile, many MPs also want to make it illegal to send them unpleasant messages online. When my former MP, David Amess, was murdered in 2021 – with a knife, not a tweet – MP Mark Francois used the feverish parliamentary debate to call for “David’s Act” which would penalize certain forms of online behaviour, making it impossible to post anonymously – something that would prove to be an astonishing reach of government.
Compared to other democracies, Britain’s laws are already uniquely censorship. Individuals are regularly fined or sent to prison for risqué texts and racy tweets under the Communications Act and the Public Order Act. And if released, even messages sent using encryption could send individuals to jail for causing “gross trespass.”
In Scotland, for example, internet users are now bound by a new hate crimes law, which could send them to prison for “incitement to hatred” – a term without an adequate definition that could turn out to be extraordinarily broad in the hands of diligent prosecutors.
But beyond jailing individuals for dissenting communications, what the UK government fundamentally desires is the ability to censor online platforms, while at the same time criticizing authoritarian regimes for doing the same. An individual can already be imprisoned for expressing bad thoughts, but the government – with much of the opposition on its side – now wants to deny the opportunity and space to do so in the first place.
This is the premise of the bill. That on the part of users and the state, the internet should be made safe rather than understood and approached with measured caution.
But life itself is dangerous; risks cannot be avoided. And no regulation of any kind can make the Internet safe for every user, nor can it protect every user from being offended.
In other areas of life, we must take responsibility for the consequences of our actions; parents are supposed to be responsible for their children. But as soon as the internet becomes too big to control directly, the state and the Conservative Party go into overdrive.
Politicians believe the public wants censorship – hard and fast and as soon as possible. But while they may be right, the consequences of massive state supremacy are never pretty. And no doubt we will see them soon enough.