Why the “Nick Clegg Law” is saying the quiet part out loud

UK policy
A locked hiding place I spotted hidden in a forest. I wonder who has the key.

The UK’s post-Brexit online regulation debate is a war of words. To make the UK the “safest place in the world to be online” – or is that safer? – the tone, intention, nuance, and subtlety of what we are saying, and who we are saying it to, is as much on the table as the content of what we say itself.

But that works two ways. What government says about its legislative programme is as much about its tone, intention, nuance, and subtlety, as the content of the draft regulations themselves.

And that’s why a recent change in the messaging which government is using to discuss its draft Online Safety Bill is the most terrifying development I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been dealing with it.

During a recent media push to revive the most draconian senior management liability provisions possible, government ran puff pieces in the right-leaning media (The Sun and the Daily Mail) renaming the senior management liability provisions in the Online Safety Bill to the “Nick Clegg Law.”

The senior management liability provisions, you’ll recall, are a byproduct of various wild west sheriff fantasies which hold that we’ll make the internet safer by arresting employees at tech companies, holding them legally liable for the ways that members of the public misuse their services, or say legal and subjective things which government doesn’t like.

As I’ve explained ad nauseam about this ad hominem, the senior management provisions are entirely centred – to the point of open psychiatric derangement – around Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg.

The fixation on Nick Clegg isn’t new. He’s long been a hobby horse for both the Tories and, even more obsessively, for Labour. (We all shook our heads during a Parliamentary committee hearing where an MP’s first question to American representatives from Facebook was “do you know Nick Clegg?”, as if the MP was your petty ex asking your friend for gossip about you rather than an adult lawmaker.) Both parties, as well as the media, haven’t hesitated to position Nick Clegg as the new Zuck: the public figure, and the public face, for all the evils of the internet.

Because ‘the internet’, in policymakers’ minds, means Facebook.

There is nil comprehension of the impact that the senior management liability provisions, as well as the compliance requirements that are deliberately setting them up to fail, will have on every other business, from the smallest startup onwards, who are in scope of the law. Nor is there any plan B for what happens when the bloodthirst over those two American-based celebrities is sated, and the red tops are demanding British blood on British soil.

Rather than take that on board, though, government isn’t just doubling down on it. They’re openly renaming the project after its goal, hence, the “Nick Clegg Law”.

There’s just one problem with that.

He’s the wrong guy.

Now, none of this is an apology for him, or me making excuses for him, or me fanboying him, not by a long shot. I have a lot of issues with the guy and could probably start one hell of a fight with him – to be fair, I’m Scottish, I could start a fight with anyone – and I most certainly do not agree with Nick. Nor am I an apologist for Meta/Facebook: a company whose suite of products I have never once used and never will.

But unlike many of the policymakers in the Online Safety Bill debate, I am also a grown adult who has chosen not to build a career for myself around revenge fantasies and wilful technical ignorance. If those policymakers felt the same, they’d know this:

Nick Clegg is basically just a spokesman for other people’s decisions and a talking head for the press room. There are other managers within the company who have been there far longer than he has, and have been far more involved in its system design as well as the business decisions which informed them. I can name a few of them.

There are also other decision makers, long out of the company, who are now presenting themselves as the heroes to the problems they created. You can name a few of them.

The damage was done, and was being inflicted, long before he joined the team.

Whether you want to hear this or not, the guy isn’t even the right target.

You might as well say we must arrest Sir Tim for creating the world wide web.

Pesky details, of course, because that’s not what the “Nick Clegg Law” is about, is it? Because the rebranding to the “Nick Clegg law”, and the push to adopt him as the public face of the most authoritarian senior management liability provisions, is purely political.

It’s not about the work he’s done at Meta. It’s about the work he did at Number 10.

It’s about finding a political means to “get” a political enemy of yesterday, by creating a legal framework to “get” the political enemies of tomorrow.

It’s saying the quiet part out loud.

One of my core values – the rules of engagement I bring to the game of policy – is play the ball, not the man. Wherever possible, make it about the issues on the table, not the person bringing them. Depersonalise and see the bigger picture, even when the other person is a complete twat. Don’t pick ad-hominem fights wherever possible – and no, it’s not always possible – but always run your ideas past the better angels of your nature.

In a policy environment, specifically Brexit Britain, where it’s perfectly normal to design a regulatory framework around “getting” a specific individual as revenge for a past political insult, that makes me a bit of a freak.

So I’m going to fly my freak flag here, and suggest that cheering the loss of your fundamental rights because that loss has been rebranded the “Nick Clegg Law” – no matter how much you hate the guy, no matter how much you hate his company, and no matter how much you hate the world we live in – is a red light which should be blinking so brightly in your face that you should still see it when you close your eyes.

It’s not a red light warning about him. It’s a red light warning about you.

If you’re going to applaud the “Nick Clegg Law” because it “gets” someone whose politics you despised, you have to consider what’s going to happen when the shoe is on the other foot, and those very same liability provisions are used to “get” the people whose politics you wholeheartedly agree with, and to silence the voices of the people who believe in them.

Including yourself.

We are three years into a highly politicised debate about the ways that the tone, intention, nuance, and subtlety of what we are saying, and who we are saying it to, will be limited and constrained and regulated and punished. The better angels of our nature have been hard to find.

In their absence, we’ve become so emotionally anaemic that when an increasingly lawless government publicly declares they’re going to “get” their political enemies, by means of a legislative framework that will take away our own basic rights, everyone just…cheers along with it.

Everyone just cheers along with it rather than holding their applause and thinking of the bigger picture and the consequences and what’s going to happen after a cartoon bad guy gets their comeuppance and how this is going to change your life, not his.

That’s why government’s rebranding of the senior management liability provisions in the Online Safety Bill to the “Nick Clegg Law” matters more than you think. It’s not about what kind of a place the Great British Internet will become.

It’s about what kind of a person you already are.

This is hopefully the conclusion of a trilogy of posts on the Online Safety Bill for the winter, unless it’s not, in which case it wouldn’t be a trilogy. Other topics will follow next week.

The Author

I advocate for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. This is my personal site, and the opinions on it do not reflect the views of any current or previous employer.