James Snell is a senior advisor at the New Lines Institute. He is writing a book on the war on Afghanistan.
You may not have heard, but the internet is an unacceptably dangerous place. A place full of terrorists, financial frauds, pedophiles and rudeness.
Or at least it is according to the British government.
In the grand debate between freedom and security, the British state has always firmly placed itself in the camp of security — secure from everything, at all costs. And this time, as is so often the case, the government’s sights are firmly set on the internet — while censorship, as always, is its proposed solution.
This week, Britain’s Online Safety Bill continues its protracted progress through parliament, and as a bill promised dramatic censorship, it has faced many hurdles. Yet, much like a horror villain, it has been continually mutated and resurrected to fight another day.
Endlessly pushed by three Conservative administrations, presided over by four home secretaries and three prime ministers, this all stems from the government’s unceasing desire to censor the internet.
For the United Kingdom’s government, there’s no question to which censorship isn’t the answer. And there is no problem — be it garden-variety internet scams, terrorism, radicalization (however defined), the “loneliness epidemic,” teenage suicide or eating disorders — to which it doesn’t respond by demanding a new regime of strict discipline and regulation.
Technological nasties have long been the preoccupation of the British right. Censoriousness takes the place of reason every time — and the invention of PCs and smartphones have only turned the screws further.
At the end of the last century, the advent of films with titles like “Driller Killer” led to a broad moral panic about VHS tapes and so-called “video nasties.”
When I was a boy, newspapers were full of stories of “happy slapping” — a craze where teenage delinquents would apparently beat up random passers-by while filming it on their Motorola Razrs. It led to widespread calls from Conservative MPs to prevent young people from having phones in the first place.
A previous Conservative government also used years attempting to restrict legal pornography. The fact that this might infringe on personal liberties? Not important. That the law was entirely impractical to enforce — especially in an era of data protection laws? Of no significance. The plan only failed because it wasn’t a priority in a party already beholden to permanent internal chaos.
And, of course, censorship is now the order of the day once more.
The Conservatives are still fighting a long and losing battle against decentralization and online anonymity—the foundation of philanthropic sites like Wikipedia. And they are also fighting another one against basic encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp, demanding — again unsuccessfully — that the service and others like it weaken encryption or insert “back doors” to allow authorities access.
Naturally, Britain isn’t alone in demanding such carve-outs — nor are its legislators uniquely Luddite. The United States Senate and the European Parliament have furnished similar examples of vast technological ignorance allied with a would-be censor’s zeal. 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 caved to these demands would be abandoned and other, more secretive ones would steal market share overnight. Much like their American and European counterparts, Britain’s Conservatives have never fully understood the internet or this aspect of the markets.
Interestingly, however, the censors’ urge goes beyond the Conservative Party in Britain, and is increasingly widespread in parliament. The opposition Labor Party even demanded a crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs) in December — a deeply unserious proposal, which would be profoundly chaotic to even attempt to implement.
Much remote work is only possible via VPNs, and those who are security-conscious use them regularly to keep safe from the very online harm the government is attempting to regulate.
Meanwhile, many MPs also want to make it illegal to send them unpleasant messages online. When my former member of parliament, David Amess, was murdered in 2021 — with a knife, not a tweet — MP Mark Francois used the febrile parliamentary debate to call for “David’s Law,” which would punish certain kinds of online behavior, making it impossible to post anonymously — something that would prove astonishing government overreach.
Compared to other democracies, Britain’s laws are already uniquely censorious. Individuals are regularly fined or sent to prison for risqué texts and spicy tweets under the Communications Act and the Public Order Act. And, if they get out, even messages sent using encryption can send individuals to prison for causing “gross offenses.”
In Scotland, for example, internet users are now beholden to a new hate-crime law, which could send them to prison for “stirring up hatred” — a term without adequate definition that could prove extremely capacious in the hands of zealous prosecutors.
But beyond imprisoning individuals for off-color communications, what the UK government fundamentally desires is the ability to censor online platforms, while simultaneously 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-side — now wants to deny the ability and space to do so in the first place.
This is the basic assumption behind the proposed bill. That on the part of users and the state, the internet must be made safe rather than understood and approached with measured caution.
But life itself is dangerous; risks can’t be avoided. And no amount of regulation can make the internet safe for every user, nor can it protect every user from being offended.
In other areas of life, we’re made to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions; Parents are expected to be responsible for their children. But the second the internet gets too big to control directly, the state and the Conservative Party fly 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 vast state overreach are never pretty. And we will no doubt see them soon enough.