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The Online Safety Bill can be used against us

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A new internet bill promises to protect young people from harmful content, but, writes Sarah Bates, it has a wider agenda
Issue 2839
online safety bill tories internet

A new internet bill won’t protect children from harm (Picture: Wikicommons)

Will the Tories’ new Online Safety Bill really live up to the promises it has made?  Will it be a silver bullet against harmful content floating around social media platforms?  In the hands of the government, it won’t—but it will be a tool to wield against their enemies.

Last week a backbench ­rebellion by Conservative MPs hardened up the bill, the proposed landmark ­legislation to regulate online content. As well as embarrassing prime minister Rishi Sunak into another U-turn, their pressure produced two significant changes.

Firstly, social media bosses that don’t adequately ensure that ­children are protected from seeing harmful content will face jail time.  For example, this includes ­material about eating disorders or self-harm or content that is racist or sexist. But the amendment leaves a lot of wriggle room for ­billionaire Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg to escape the confines of the prison cell.

Culture secretary Michelle Donelan said that custodial sentences would be reserved for those who had “consented or connived in ignoring enforceable requirements, risking serious harm to children”. She said that bosses wouldn’t be targeted if they had “acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way” to stick to the rules.

The new rules are set to be enforced by media regulator Ofcom. Firms are also threatened with penalties for obstructing investigations into potential law breaking. Otherwise, tech giants risk a fine of up to £18 million or 10 ­percent of global turnover. It’s not chump change—for Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, this would be around £95 billion.

Tech bosses aside, the bill is a bumper piece of legislation that introduces several criminal offences. So, for example, the state will have powers to prosecute those who post a message that conveys a threat of serious harm. This might sound good, with people being more shielded from sexism, racism and bullying.

But in the hands of a Tory ­government and the capitalist state it heads up, what constitutes a threat of serious harm will be shaped by their political agenda. The legislation allows ­governments to prosecute ­campaigners under the flimsiest of pretences.

The Tories aren’t sometimes good, sometimes bad. Every part of their agenda is shaped by wider ­considerations of targeting their opponents. One part of the Online Safety Bill will take on the anti-refugee agenda. An amendment last week criminalises the posting of videos of people crossing the English Channel if they show the journey in a ­“positive light”.

Donelan said the measure was “to better tackle illegal immigration encouraged by organised gangs”. Other MPs claim it is to stop “TikTok traffickers” who allegedly use the social network to advertise their services. But it’s another attempt to hush up the desperate—and often deadly—reality faced by those ­fleeing to safety. 

Most people who see videos of refugees crossing the channel react with sympathy. Ministers want to stop that. It is another example of how, when a racist, capitalist, ­government is in charge of making laws, ordinary people can become the targets.

Social media and internet reflects how the system causes us to feel mental distress  

The death of fourteen year old Molly Russell, who killed herself in November 2017, is being used by the Tories to push for more internet regulation.  At the coroner’s inquest last September, Meta and Pinterest came under pressure for the way their platforms allowed Molly to access harmful content.

Molly viewed thousands of posts about suicide, depression and self-harm on the internet in the months leading up to her death. She also watched videos uploaded by a social media influencer from the United States who spoke about “suicide and depression on a regular basis.” 

Coroner Andrew Walker said that Molly died not from suicide but from “an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”.

Of course, social media bosses should not be let off the hook for the harmful content they peddle. They make massive profits by cashing in on people’s anxieties and insecurities. But the internet itself does not directly and solely cause suicide. 

In the same way, it doesn’t, on its own, cause people to become fascists or start an insurrection.  

Instead, the web only exacerbates and uncritically reflects some of the problems in society.  The pressure on people to conform to impossible beauty standards, have the nicest clothes or go on luxurious holidays might be more intense online. 

But this is just one facet of a system where the bosses fight to make money from our insecurities.  Mental distress can be made worse by seeing posts on the internet, but very often, it is not the primary factor behind it. 

In a recent Public Health Audit, carried out on behalf of Torbay council in Devon, it was found that suicide was the leading cause of death for those aged 20 to 29.  The reports found that suicide and mental distress disproportionately affected those living in poverty. 

But of course, it’s easier for the Tories and the government to focus on the internet as the main reason young people suffer mental distress and suicide.  And it also lets them off the hook for slashing mental health services for young people. 

The Commission on Young Lives report in August 2022 highlighted structural problems with the way that young people’s mental health is treated. It shows a lack of funding, “overwhelmed” specialist services, and the effects of the pandemic were causing a profound crisis among young people.

While the internet might be a minefield for those who are already suffering mental distress, it can only put a mirror up to an alienating and unequal system.

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