The OSB’s future is now uncertain – but not for good reasons

The news broke on Wednesday that due to motion being tabled on a vote of no confidence, that the planned Third Reading in the Commons of the Online Safety Bill would be postponed for scheduling reasons, and would return to the Commons in September instead.

This was, let us say, a shock. The rescheduling to the autumn does not mean the Online Safety Bill is definitively finished: but it puts it at the mercy of whoever wins the leadership contest, and whoever will be the Secretary of State for DCMS in the autumn, as to whether it gets brought back at all. Third Reading, which had been essentially a formality before the Bill went to the Lords for further debate, has suddenly become an existential event that in its absence, brings into question the entire future of digital regulation in the UK.

At Demos, we have long argued that there is a clear need for regulation, and that leaving the design and operation of our online spaces entirely up to the whims of private companies, is not only antidemocratic but actively dangerous – leading to violence against marginalised groups, facilitating cyber and information warfare, and leading to the arbitrary exclusion and silencing of voices.

But we have also argued there are serious flaws in the Bill: that as currently drafted, it carries a whole host of risks, from threatening anonymity online and undermining the use of end-to-end encryption, to increasing the risks of disinformation online, to making platforms act as proxy law enforcement, to requiring greater use of data collection to surveil users. 

If the OSB does not go through – the fight for digital regulation which protects people’s rights and protects them from violence in the UK is essentially over for the next decade: it will be put in the ‘too difficult’, the ‘remember that time we tried it and it was a disaster’ box. If the OSB does go through, however, the fight to protect civil liberties online from government overreach will have only just begun. As such: people are divided as to whether this news is to be celebrated or commiserated.

But the question should not have to be, whether a bad Bill is better than no Bill at all. As citizens, we should demand more than a straight choice between platform power and state power. If this is the true demise of the Online Safety Bill, those of us who care about democracy should be deeply worried. This is no victory for freedom of expression or for privacy having triumphed over the state’s attempts to control them. This is not the outcome of a democratic process, the result of the hours of scrutiny, of consultation, of engagement, of analysis that has been done around this Bill – a collective conclusion come to by thousands of members of the public who have signed petitions and written to their MPs, the activists and whistleblowers who have shared their stories and their experiences; civil society, academics and researchers who have researched and scrutinised, the civil servants and policymakers who have drafted and debated every aspect of the Bill.

This has not been a considered reflection that, given the weight of the evidence, or given consensus, or given the international context, the risks to liberal democratic values, or the feasibility, or the economic impact, that there were structural flaws in the Bill that meant it should not go forward. This will have been a casualty of a political system driven by personality politics, facilitated by a timetabling clash that means a Bill with cross-party support gets thrown out in the midst of a battle for the support of one party’s members, in which the OSB has already been weaponised as part of the alleged ‘culture wars’. This would be a Government which, faced with a Bill that needed fixing, decided just to take the easy option and throw the whole thing out.

It may, of course, not be the end at all – and is simply a scheduling issue, and in September we’ll all be back here again. And that we don’t know – and that it will be almost certainly the source of contention for months to come – is also deeply troubling – that the workings of Government are so fragile, so swayed by political infighting, that simply a nudge of the timetable could mean the end of one of the – good or bad – most significant pieces of UK legislation this decade – or it could mean nothing at all. World-leading, indeed.