Britain is sleepwalking into censorship and we’re running out of time to stop it
When Rishi Sunak ran for the Conservative Party leader, one of his promises was to defend freedom of speech. It was certainly in jeopardy: Nadine Dorries was planning a bill that would give her, as culture secretary, the power to censor anything deemed “legal but harmful.” That dangerously nebulous phrase could mean anything: She cited a Jimmy Carr joke as an example. Social media companies would be instructed to break their censorship algorithms and pay hefty fines if anything slipped through. Britain would end up with one of the most draconian regimes in the free world.
Earlier this week we heard that the online safety law is set to be changed and the threat lifted. But this turned out to be a false alarm. The legal but harmful rule remains in place, albeit intended for those under the age of 18. The problem, of course, is that cyberspace doesn’t differentiate between children and adults. Not even if anonymity and privacy are to be preserved.
Michelle Donelan, who has become the 10th culture secretary in 10 years, has told Silicon Valley she will be after them for “billions of pounds” if kids find the wrong content. So the obvious thing for them is to censor for everyone.
Which brings us back to where we started: Britain is sleepwalking into a system far tougher than anything the EU or US is proposing. Worse, that’s not even intended. It’s happening because ministers haven’t really thought through the implications and are in a panic rush to clean the internet for the youth. Big Tech has no friends and very many enemies, but a censorship law that tries to take them down will end up having profound consequences that will transform our public debate.
A robot, for example, will have already read this column and tried to determine whether my reasoning justifies the headline. If not, the article will be penalized and pushed way down in the search results. This is a standard Google practice designed to improve search results.
But how, I asked a tech boss the other day, does an algorithm assess the quality of an argument? As an editor, I have found that top notch sub-editors are the most valuable and rarest people in the business. Can their craft really be judged by a bot? I have my doubts. But we will never know as the process is invisible.
And this is the problem. Bots make mistakes all the time – but nobody knows because their decisions are never made public. The online safety law could end up with all kinds of articles being targeted, but we would never know or know. YouTube will say that such secrecy is vital. For example, it has recently removed thousands of Russian propaganda videos. Does she really have to inform the Kremlin every time?
But then come the other victims. The audience recently aired an interview with a Harvard scholar about the Ukraine war. It was removed (by a TikTok bot) and found to lack “integrity and authenticity”. We have appealed. We lost. No explanation.
Part of an editor’s job now is battling with these bots. I wish I could say that my magazine is untainted by the digital world, but we rely almost exclusively on digital to find new readers in print.
A third of The audienceTraffic comes from search engines, a quarter from social media. They’re the new kiosks where people pick us up, browse, see if they want to buy something. Every publication, even the oldest weekly newspaper in the world, now sails these waters. And we’re doing this against a swarm of bots that will make the British government even more powerful.
The notion that all of this will be solved with age restrictions is naïve. Surely, say ministers, are we imposing age restrictions on films, magazines and video games? Yes, but for the last few centuries we haven’t censored the written word (with a handful of fairly famous exceptions). Why start now? Where could it lead?
The anonymity of Internet use is an important principle of data protection. Keystrokes and browsing history can help companies guess a user’s age, but it’s just a guess. If they’re being fined billions for doing something wrong, why take the risk? Why not just treat everyone like a kid without telling them?
Ms Donelan argues that Big Tech wouldn’t dare because they make such good money off news. If only. Facebook, Google et al wield more power than all the press barons combined, asking bots to curate the newsfeeds of billions. But they never asked for such power – and now see it as a liability.
That brings a lot of headaches, regulatory risks – and hardly any cash. YouTube makes a lot of money selling ads in exchange for things like baby shark Videos (his all-time number one). Less than 2 percent of Google searches are related to news, and ads are rarely sold against it.
If news were enormously profitable, its independence could be defended more vigorously. But in my own conversations with big tech bosses, they’re usually pretty frank. For them, news is a marginal part of their business. And if the UK is the most dangerous place in the free world to post anti-seed opinions, it gives them tremendous incentive to tell these bots to take a more risk-averse approach.
The role of algorithms in our everyday lives is far greater than is assumed at Westminster. The rise of machine learning means even Google doesn’t know exactly why its bots make the decisions they do. But such decisions curate the digital world and the news as seen by billions. Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, is quite vocal about the politicization of the system he inherited. “The obvious reality,” he said recently, is that Twitter “interfered with elections.” The question, he says, is what to do about it.
Another apparent reality now is that more kids get their news from TikTok than the BBC, more adults get their news from Facebook than any newspaper — and it’s all being orchestrated by algorithms. The government has tremendous power to tamper with these algorithms by threatening such insanely large fines – but is it certain what impact that will have? How are they monitored?
The best option would be to ban the really bad things and not censor the written word – as successive governments have done for centuries. This is an enormously complicated problem. But Mr. Sunak still has time to do the right thing.