Much chatter amongst the chatterati, then, with yesterday’s addition to the saga that is the Online Safety Bill. Two prominent think tanks, Demos and Fair Vote – both of whom have invested years of good-faith work into the Bill process – took a principled stance to wise up and walk away.
In their joint op-ed in Politics Home, titled “We can no longer support the Online Safety Bill”, Ellen Judson of Demos and Kyle Taylor of Fair Vote wrote:
…the United Kingdom’s proposed Online Safety Bill, designed to make social media and search services safer and more secure, is no longer fit for purpose. Both our organisations have long championed better digital regulation in the UK and have been a critical friend throughout the development of the bill. We have contributed evidence and expertise, including testifying in Parliament. But we are afraid that after too many missed opportunities to course-correct, and too many unworkable additions, the bill prioritises catchy slogans over delivery, and now risks making the online world less safe for many.
And that’s perhaps the most honest thing said about the Bill in years.
It’s not what you thought when you first began it.
Regardless of where you stand on the Bill, you have to acknowledge that this decision took courage. And whether or not you agree with it, you also have to acknowledge their professional integrity in publicly explaining their decision, their rationale, and their intention to continue fighting this fight. Just elsewhere.
I know that not everyone has what it takes to walk away from years of work which have defined who you are. I know that not everyone can walk away from years of work because at the end of the day, the funder has the final say. And I know that not everyone understands why sometimes you have to walk away so that you can walk forward.
But I do, because I walked away from a marriage.
You wise up.
A while ago I joked that the Bill was feeling like the end, in more ways than one:
The Bill is really starting to have denial-at-the-end-of-a-marriage vibes, isn't it. Everyone is stuck thinking "We've invested years into this thing so we might as well tough it out" when all it's doing is making everyone miserable.
— Heather Burns (@WebDevLaw) January 1, 2023
As with most of my jokes, there’s a lot of truth behind it, because the Bill and the end of a marriage aren’t all that far apart. After seven years of political psychodrama, a process defined by “narrative over substance every time” is now all narrative over substance. The substance of the thing itself, that is, the sub-paragraphs and the clauses and the cross-references and what they say and what those things will result in, is not the reality we are living in. The narrative, that is, the spin and the slogans and the campaigns and the podium-thumping, is defining the reality we will live in for many years to come.
You got what you want, but you can hardly stand it though by now you know.
Like the end of a marriage, the Bill’s backers are stuck in a walking delusion defined by closing your eyes, putting your hands over your ears, and screaming as loud as you can.
Because in both situations – the Bill and the end of a marriage – people who used to have a brain and a heart are trying to keep something alive that died years ago.
In both situations, people are irrationally committed to propping up a dysfunctional situation because they once stood in a sacred building and chanted some special words after prayers, and that somehow binds them to it.
In both situations, people are irrationally committed to living in denial of time and space, thinking they are still who they were years in the past, in a world which no longer exists, pushing forward an idea born on that day that is barely legible now.
In both situations, a lot of outside help has been called in – experts, lawyers, social workers, counsellors, spin doctors, PRs, therapists – though none of them have the guts to say “this just isn’t working”, because that is not what they are being paid to do.
In both situations, people are seeing only the years of time and energy they’ve sunk into the thing already, and not the time and energy they’re already committing to lose for the future.
You’re sure there’s a cure, and you have finally found it.
And in both situations, people don’t realise how badly that dysfunctional mess has miswired their thinking. They’re not thinking straight. They’re not hanging out with the right people. They’re not making rational decisions. They’re not actually helping the work or the situation. They’re not supporting those around them. They’re not respecting those around them. They’re not respecting themselves. And they are heading towards one hell of a crash and burnout.
Or they are, until they understand that it’s not going to stop ’til you wise up.
And once you wise up, fast forward to sitting in the spring sunshine, smelling the magnolias, free of all that toxic sauce that was clogging your brain and your body, and, well.
You’re free to be one hundred times better than you were before, doing work one hundred times better than you did before.
As Demos and Fair Vote will undoubtedly do now.
Or you can continue pretending that the past is going to come back and that the same situation you’ve been staring at, the one that began in a gothic building after prayers, is the only fight you’ll ever be worthy of.
I’ll repeat what Ellen Judson said on her own Twitter account as she explained Demos’ decision to walk away from the Bill:
Does this mean we are giving up on digital regulation, and all the work of the last four years has been for nothing? Absolutely not! Getting regulation right doesn’t mean abandoning the concept entirely. And there is so much amazing work in civil society, among industry, within regulators, international institutions, activists, academia: the passion and the knowledge and the ability to make change. The path to make it better is there! But the Bill hasn’t taken it: it’s been so far changed and weakened, with the original ambition and promise undermined and stretched beyond recognition. It doesn’t tackle the systemic issues at play and doesn’t protect users…
And those who are most at risk from threats in online environments – be it violence, abuse, targeted hate, censorship, or surveillance – deserve better. We will not give up fighting for everyone’s rights to a free, open, safe, equal and empowering internet.
Demos and Fair Vote have made the decision to walk away from the Bill so they can walk to something better.
And it’s not going to stop ’til you wise up
No, it’s not going to stop, so just give up.