The ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament was a little different thanks to Covid-19, but the significance of the occasion in the parliamentary calendar remains the same. The reading of the Queen’s Speech, though it contains little detail, signals the arrival of a new set of proposed new laws for parliament to consider.
Among them this year is the Online Safety Bill, which gives legislative form to the ideas set out in the Online Harms White Paper that I was partially responsible for as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I was therefore delighted to see the Bill’s inclusion and I look forward to seeing its detail.
I have written and spoken many times about the importance of its objectives, which are to establish a duty of care on online platforms like social media companies or search engines to keep their users as safe as they reasonably can, and to create a regulator able to enforce such a duty. It remains unacceptable to me, and to many others, that restrictions on bad behaviour and protections for the vulnerable which are available in other environments do not exist at all online, especially as we are now living more and more of our lives in the online world. Some worry that this legislation will choke off free speech on the internet, but this need not and should not be so. An online regulator should be charged with protecting freedom of speech as well as making the internet safer, and striking the kinds of balances found elsewhere. What we say and do is not unrestricted in print or broadcast media, or out on the street. It should not be unrestricted online either.
Others say that effective action to regulate the behaviour of the online companies, generally large multinational entities, can only be taken with international consensus. To that I say international consensus is certainly desirable, but the United Kingdom can and should take a lead in this field.
This new legislation will not be perfect, either when it arrives in parliament or, realistically, when it leaves it, but it can offer the global leadership in making the internet safer for all of us through sensible, balanced regulation that this country’s support for innovation and its respect for the rule of law make us well suited to provide.