In the now three years (wtaf?) that the UK’s Online Safety Bill has been on my professional horizon, there has been one comment that I’ve heard from people across the board at every stage, from green paper to white paper to draft regulation to committee review to this very week.
That comment, however it’s worded, and whomever it comes from, goes a bit like this:
How is this a Conservative piece of legislation? I can’t believe this is a Conservative proposal. This is the most un-Conservative thing ever.
Nope. You’re wrong.
Let me explain to you why the Online Safety Bill isn’t just a quintessentially Conservative project; it’s the most Conservative law yet.
Before I do, it’s important for you to understand that we are talking about the actual Conservative government, and the Conservative Party, which holds power today. Not the Thatcherite party of the recent past, not the Churchillian party of wartime. Not some nostalgia-drenched fantasy that lives only in your head and on OAP TV. The present, active, real-life one.
Now let’s consider what characterises modern British Conservativism, and how those things have powered up their final form, the Online Safety Bill.
The first factor has been the erosion of Britain’s social safety net. Families, communities, public services, local authorities, employment support and training, healthcare, education, social care, and mental health services have all been stripped to the bone, starved of support, overworked, and told to do ten times better with ten times less.
That has not been an act of carelessness: that has been the deliberate strategy of Conservative austerity.
And all of that is completely outside any mention, or context, of both Brexit and Covid.
The deliberate destruction of Britain’s social safety net has fueled discord, desperation, and as Parliament knows all too well, a level of hatred that can tip over into cold-blooded murder. People are cold. People are angry. People feel hopeless. People are hurt. People take that hurt, and those feelings, online.
The online world reflects the real world, and that is the world that this government has created.
The second factor has been the push to replace that social safety net with privatised for-profit companies, painted as a post-Brexit entrepreneurial opportunity. Where the Online Safety Bill is concerned, government’s wish to encourage the growth of a lucrative sector tasked with “keeping us safe online” – that’s marketing-speak for domestic stalkerware and surveillance – has been one of their explicit goals for the Bill. Those companies, in turn, will be used to surveil, snoop, and spy on all of us, reporting all our deeds and words and transgressions to…
Under the Bill, platforms and online service providers won’t just be expected to act as privatised police, judge, jury, and penal system. They’re also expected to use all that data they will be obliged to collect to report our trespasses to the relevant authorities. Sometimes that will be the speech police, sometimes that will be the actual police, and sometimes it will be both. Sometimes it will be schools. Sometimes it will be the council. Sometimes it will be the NHS. Sometimes it will be the local fly-tipping hotline. All of it used to be called a social safety net.
And those tattered shreds of a social safety net, the ones that can barely survive now, will receive a daily barrage of automatically reported red flags from platforms and surveillance vendors picking up on every swear word in every bloody tweet and every facially-scanned AI report about our insufficiently happy British faces.
Private companies forced to act as the social safety net, whether the largest platform or the smallest startup, will, no doubt, work out a deal with government to be paid by the report; maybe even a penny. And tasked with the supervision of seventy million citizens presumed to be trolls, terrorists, and paedos – that bizarre duality that holds us all to be vicious perpetrators and helpless victims at the same time – those pennies will add up fast.
What a tidy bit of entrepreneurship that will all be, keeping us safe, keeping the economy growing, and keeping government small.
But that brings us to the third factor you need to understand about this law, the government which backs it, and the modern British Conservatism that underpins it:
In modern British Conservatism, personal responsibility has no place.
In modern British Conservatism, everything is someone else’s fault.
The internet. Platforms. Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg. Nick Clegg. Twitter. Jack Dorsey. Google. Sundar Pichai. Pornhub. OnlyFans. WhatsApp. Facebook Messenger. End-to-end encryption. Online harms. Offline harms. 157,000 deaths. Poverty. Austerity. Heat or eat. CAMHS queues. Dole queues. Lorry queues. Food banks. Civil servants. Judges. Enemies of the people. Traitors. Saboteurs. Migrants. Europe. Remoaners. The woke. Snowflakes. Millennials. The BBC. The global elite. The metropolitan elite. Keir Starmer.
Why, these days, no one ever walks into their own party in their own house during lockdown restrictions. Someone else obviously forced him to do it, someone else is obviously out to get him, and somebody obviously must be scapegoated.
In tech, we say that the output of a system is its function. The output of modern British conservatism is manufactured outrage against manufactured enemies. Policy is merely the background noise for show. No one is responsible for their own actions and someone else must always be blamed. Someone else must be held responsible. Someone else must be at fault. Someone else must be punished.
And in that light, the Online Safety Bill, which takes a tattered safety net, privatises it for the benefit of surveillance capitalism, and points the finger at the internet as the blame for all our society’s woes, is as Conservative a concept, and a law, and a British future, as it is possible to invent.
Speaking of the Prime Minister, there’s another C word at play here, which I haven’t yet mentioned. No not that one: children.
The selling point for the Online Safety Bill, and all of government’s aspirations for it, is keeping children safe online.
That talking point implies that children are, by contrast, safe offline.
Because let me tell you this about the world the Conservatives have created:
Children aren’t safe if they’re cold, because their parents can’t afford to top up the meter.
Children aren’t safe if they’re hungry, because their parents working four jobs still necessitates universal credit and the food bank.
Children aren’t safe if their heads are a mess from two years of Zoom school and the CAMHS waiting list is 18 months long, and the only way they can get an appointment before that is if they’re suicidal.
Children aren’t safe if they’re growing up in unsafe accommodation because their parents have no financial hope of ever renting, or buying, someplace better.
Children aren’t safe if they can’t play in the playground because the last time mum took them there, she got racially abused in broad daylight. (this happened to me, immigrant scum that I am, in front of my then-tiny child.)
Children aren’t safe if they can’t learn in the library because they’ve had to sack staff and get rid of the young adults section.
Children aren’t safe if their academic futures are being decided by an algorithm.
And you will never hear any advocate of the Online Safety Bill saying a word about any of these offline harms.
Nor will you ever hear any lobbying group demanding the Bill, and demanding it now, mention a single thing about the tattered social safety net failing our children in every way.
Nor will it ever occur to them that the reason a child might be spending so much time on their phone is because it’s the one bit of light – literally – they have to look forward to in their deeply damaged offline lives.
I’ve been wrestling with this bigger picture for a long time, and there’s a question I keep asking. It doesn’t have an easy answer. So please join me in thinking it through:
What is going on in the UK, under modern British Conservatism, which holds that the only way to “keep children safe” is through state control, surveillance, and the criminalisation of everyday civic discourse, while children’s basic needs remain deliberately compromised as a political strategy?
Pick a side. I’ve picked mine. I’m watching where you choose yours.