Home » Killing free speech is no way to honour David Amess
Comment Matthew Paul

Killing free speech is no way to honour David Amess

Whatever inspired Ali Harbi Ali to attend Sir David Amess’ constituency surgery last Friday and stab him to death, it wasn’t Angela Rayner describing Sir David –and, by extension, around 40% of the voting population– as ‘Tory scum’.

As Ali chose, after stabbing Amess, to sit down next to his victim’s body and calmly await the arrival of the police, he probably intends to tell us in due course what was going on inside his head. The signs are that he killed the politician (who, in four decades of public service, doesn’t appear to have done anyone the slightest harm) out of a strong conviction that Allah would approve.

If that’s right, six dozen virgins will be hanging around getting very bored and sexually frustrated for the next forty years or so, while Ali gets his head down and does his time. Either way, it doesn’t look as though Angela Rayner was heavily implicated in the affair.

The strong likelihood that the murder had nothing whatsoever to do with people being rude about Tories didn’t preclude certain amount of opportunistic dot-joining by Tory MPs, anxious to score a few points back against the left, after being collectively blamed for the past five years –on similarly spurious grounds– for the murder of another Parliamentary colleague, Jo Cox.

Eager to turn the narrative away from his deputy, the leader of (some of) the Labour Party, Sir Kier Starmer, used his slot at Wednesday’s PMQs to call for a crackdown on online nastiness. Specifically, he asked the Prime Minister to bring forward the planned Online Safety Bill.

Usually at PMQs, it’s some ambitious patsy on the Tory benches who asks exactly the question (drafted by the whips’ office) that Boris would most like to be asked: “Does the Prime Minister agree with me etc. etc.?” Yes, a thunderstruck Commons is dazzled to learn, the Prime Minister very strongly agrees with him.

It comes as more of a surprise when the Leader of the Opposition seems somehow to have intercepted the note from the whips and decided to ask the planted question himself. Boris thanked the Rt Hon. sucker opposite for his support, and was delighted to assist: “The safety of MPs,” Boris intoned as Labour backbenchers fidgeted, “is of vital importance. The Online Safety Bill…is one of the most important tools in our armoury.”

The Online Safety Bill, unfortunately, is an absolute stinker. A Bismarck-sized floating turd of a law. 145 pages, 141 clauses and five schedules of mind-addling incoherence.

And the parts of it that aren’t mystifying are terrifying. It builds OFCOM –the entity you complain to if your broadband is patchy– into a vast Index Librorum Prohibitorum with authority to govern, or to purport to govern, the entire worldwide web.

It creates regulatory requirements so cumbersome, unwieldy and intrusive that only the major tech giants will be able to afford to comply. It will kill off online competition, and entrench Facebook, Google and the like as something similar to organs of the state.

It will create a chilling effect around free expression online, where tech companies take a default position of presuming controversial speech to be in breach of the law. Section 46 requires them to censor content where “the provider of the service has reasonable grounds to believe that the nature of the content is such that there is a material risk of the content having, or indirectly having, a significant adverse physical or psychological impact on an adult of ordinary sensibilities.”

Unpacking the legal meaning of gibberish like this is hard enough for lawyers. Algorithms aren’t lawyers and will have to operate on a precautionary basis. In a world where students need trigger warnings about anything nasty that happens in a poem, and half the shadow cabinet faint at the mention of the word “cervix”, it would be a foolish service provider that didn’t protect our feeble sensibilities by blocking first, asking questions later.

The Bill also sets out to make the state the arbiter of what is true, and what is “fake news”. Section 98 creates a committee of panjandrums whose job it is to decide what online content should be classed as “misinformation” or “disinformation” (unhelpfully, neither of these terms, nor the distinction between them, is defined in the draft legislation). At a guess, the Committee’s starting point in defining mis/dis might be “any information with which a bien-pensant employee of the BBC might disagree.”

The man in Whitehall has no business telling us what news, fake or otherwise, we should not hear.
This week, YouTube pulled down a video, where David Davis MP set out his opposition to vaccine passports, claiming that Davis’ speech violated its policy on “medical information”. David Davis is an experienced campaigner who quickly drew press attention to this stupid decision, and the platform admitted it had made the wrong call. Under the Online Harms Bill, if the mis/dis committee took against the speech, YouTube might find that the law of the land backed up its arbitrary prejudices.

David Amess’ murder must not be used as an excuse to foist bad laws on us, that put free speech at risk. Amess’ death wasn’t caused by people being foul to each other on Twitter, and a country where opposition politicians can call members of the governing party scum –online or in person– is far better than one where they can’t, or wouldn’t dare.