By Neil Lock
In the UK, there is an “on-line safety” bill, currently under discussion in parliament. Whose name has recently – and somewhat strangely – been changed from “on-line harms” to “on-line safety.” As I looked closer and closer at what is going on, I found that this is only one aspect of a rising wave of government infringements on our rights and freedoms. COVID measures and environmental regulations are two other aspects. There may well be more.
But I’ll begin with the on-line safety bill. Here is the government’s “fact sheet” from about two months ago: [[i]]. I’ve also had a look at an analysis of and response to the bill by barrister Francis Hoar: [[ii]]. This is dated May 26th, 2022.
Freedom of speech on-line: the current situation
Existing regulations on communications over the Internet and social media in the UK are based on common-law principles. There is a relatively clear boundary between criminal offences such as death threats, and mere torts, such as uttering abusive words without intending to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
Among service providers, there is a distinction between a “publisher” (someone who is able to review and edit statements made before publication) and a “platform” (someone who merely provides a facility for others to publish). A publisher is responsible for the content of what it publishes, willy-nilly. On a platform, the poster is responsible for the content he or she uploads. But the platform itself does not have any responsibility for content, unless and until it has been informed of that content. At that point, the platform host can consider the ramifications of leaving up, or taking down, the content in question. And make a decision.
Such a system is imperfect, surely. But it seems to have been tolerably workable up to now.
What they’re doing
Now, along come the proponents of the on-line safety bill, with a slew of new and very complicated proposals. First, they want to force social media companies to put in place systems to monitor speech that might be “harmful.” And all companies within the scope of the bill must do risk assessments to identify the risks of having users upload illegal content to their service.
Second, they want to empower Ofcom, a UK regulatory bureaucracy, to monitor compliance with the bill’s provisions, and to be able to impose very stiff fines on companies it considers to be in breach. As a result, platforms will end up being held responsible for content they publish, even when they have not had the content brought to their attention. Yet there is no clear, objective definition of where the dividing line is between what ought to be removed and what not. This is likely to lead to platforms becoming far keener to take down content pre-emptively, on the grounds that it might breach some regulation. Instead of “publish and be damned,” their default attitude is likely to become “censor and be safe.”
Third, the bill’s backers want to create a criminal offence of “harmful communication.” This will make it a crime to express any opinion, for which there is a real risk that some adult might suffer “psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress.” But what, exactly, is “serious distress?” And who is to make the judgement? Is it to be left to the subjective feelings of those who feel aggrieved by this “harmful communication?” Surely not! For in many places today, and most of all in American universities, there are lobbies that regard the expression of any viewpoint different from their own as a cause of distress. And they go so far as to seek to ban all expression of such viewpoints within their echo chamber, using methods such as “de-platforming.” Taken to its logical conclusion, this measure would end up banning expression of all viewpoints that do not accord with the political dogmas of the in-crowd of the day.
This “risk of harm amounting to serious distress” standard is not only a subjective one, but will also put innocent people at risk of censorship far more than does the existing law, which requires a communication to be at least “grossly offensive” before it can constitute a crime.
Combine all three of these proposals, and quite clearly, no opinion expressed on an Internet platform or on social media will be safe from suppression. The platform hosts have so much at stake, that they will likely feel pushed into a mode of “if in doubt, remove.” But even if the material was left up, and the case came to court, the court would have to make a political judgement on whether the communication really was harmful, and whether or not it could be justified by being in the public interest. That isn’t what courts are supposed to be for.
Fourth, they want to create another criminal offence of “false communication.” This will require only evidence of “non-trivial harm” to constitute a crime. Such an accusation will be very hard to defend against, and most of all when the statement made is actually true, but goes against the dogma of the day. The accused will be in a similar situation to the victims of the Inquisitions! The likely effect is that many platforms will routinely censor any discussion, even purely factual discussion, on any controversial subject, if it does not support the establishment line (as represented by Ofcom’s line).
Those of us, for example, who oppose the “nett zero” agenda, because there is no hard evidence proving beyond reasonable doubt that human emissions of carbon dioxide gas have caused or will cause any significant damage to the global climate, can expect to be “cancelled,” and our comments or posts deleted. Even if the case came to court, it would leave the court in the position of having to adjudicate the truth or otherwise of the statement made. Which it would almost certainly be unable, and very likely also unwilling, to do.
There is another important point here. There is a considerable gain to the public at large in allowing all points of view to be expressed freely, including offensive ones, biased ones, unpopular ones, and ones that are just plain wrong. If people are not exposed to all these points of view, how are they ever going to acquire the skill of critically analyzing ideas, to see whether they hold up or not? Or the skill of countering bad ideas by reasoned argument?
Fifth, there is a category of “priority content,” material that is already illegal that, according to the government’s fact sheet on the bill, “all platforms in scope of the Bill will need to proactively remove.” Yet it appears that the government will be able to change the definition of what is “priority content” at any time, without parliament or anyone else being able to challenge or amend the definition.
Sixth, the bill will apply not just to publishers and platforms, but to search engines too. The fact sheet is rather coy about what the impacts will be on search engines, saying only that they “will have tailored duties focussed on minimising the presentation of harmful search results to users.” This could mean almost anything! At one extreme, it could require only that the search engines do not inadvertently breach the bill themselves by showing excerpts from “priority content.” At the other, it could force search engines to perform full-on censorship, and not to show links to any page that they think might breach a regulation. Or even to de-list, or degrade the ordering priority of, all links to platforms they consider untrustworthy.
Seventh, there are some rather strange seeming changes in the latest version of the bill, supposedly to protect “democratic” and “journalistic” content. What exactly constitutes such content, and what not, I expect to be a very grey area. (For example, would an article pointing out serious flaws in democracy, and suggesting radical changes, qualify as “democratic content?” Would this article itself qualify for either of these two protections?)
The devil will be in the detail, but I suspect that many platforms will be reluctant to accept that content written by ordinary people can be protected under either of these headings. While views from well-known people will be OK. If that happens, they will be violating our right to equality before the law.
How they’re doing it
To return to the fact sheet. There’s a lot of political correctness in there, and hand-wringing about all this not being nearly as bad as it sounds. But that is just window-dressing.
I found myself growling and gritting my teeth when I read: “Freedom of expression will be protected because these laws are not about imposing excessive regulation or state removal of content, but ensuring that companies have the systems and processes in place to ensure users’ safety.” But, as I observed above, the likely effect of these laws is that no opinion expressed on the Internet or on social media will be safe from suppression, and many platforms will routinely censor any expressed position on a controversial subject that does not support the establishment line. And platform hosts that do censor, and those brave ones who don’t, will become separate “echo chambers,” with no communication between them. That is hardly protecting freedom of expression!
I was not much happier when I read that they had “amended the legislation to no longer defer the power to bring in criminal sanctions for failures to comply with information notices.” In other words, companies will become liable to criminal punishments almost immediately the law is passed, with no time to pilot procedures for dealing with the new situation. So, the instant Silly Lizzie approves that bill, all our on-line freedoms will be pretty much gone. It’s yet another sign of the breathless rush the establishment are in to destroy our freedoms.
Ofcom will “be able to bring criminal sanctions against senior managers who fail to ensure their company complies with Ofcom’s information requests, or who deliberately destroy or withhold information, should companies fail to take the new rules seriously.” “The regulator will have the powers necessary to take appropriate action against all companies in scope, no matter where they are based. This is essential given the global nature of the internet.”
Do you see where this is leading? It means that, as soon as the régime of legalized censorship starts, smaller companies with less resources to deal with all the rigmarole and red tape will be at a serious disadvantage. And does anyone think that a such an egregious violation of our rights, and one so convenient to the globalist establishment, will not be picked up on by other governments, and similar legislation made in other places? So, foreign governments will start playing tit-for-tat, and attacking UK based service companies.
I expect that only the biggest, and most establishment friendly, companies will be able to survive that double whammy. The world market for Internet and social media service provision will be restricted to a handful of large, global, politically correct companies. Far from competition pressuring them to serve their customers as they should, companies with names like Fishhook and Twatter will end up in even more dominant market positions than they have now. And the “little people” will lose out. Yet again.
I’m also concerned about the possibility that platforms will be allowed to take down content published before the bill comes into effect. That strikes me as equivalent to book-burning.
Moreover: “News publishers’ websites are not in scope of online safety regulation.” What exactly is a “news publisher?” And if you are not one already, how do you become one? This looks to me like a ruse to entrench existing news publishers in their positions of privilege, and protect them from upstart competitors.
The requirements on search engines are particularly worrying. For they are likely to enable a second level of gatekeeping, in effect blocking access by the general public to content that goes against politically correct dogmas. Is there not a danger, for example, of search engines being subtly tweaked to obstruct access to the websites of organizations which promote civil liberties, such as Together [[iii]] or Liberty [[iv]]?
Whatever the motives behind this bill, it’s abundantly clear that its proponents do not regard freedom of speech for ordinary people as important at all. They want to replace a tolerably workable legal framework by one that actively encourages censorship of ideas that are not mainstream and “approved.” And we are unlikely to get much if any help from our elected “representatives.” For members of parliament, being themselves often subjected to attacks (justified or not) on social media and the Internet, will have selfish reasons to support the bill. And so, to destroy freedom of speech for the “constituents” they are supposed to “represent.”
If it goes through, the on-line safety bill will be a bad law. I am minded of Edmund Burke’s famous dictum: “Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny.”
Oh, and a fun thought for you. Would not the government be in breach of its own proposed regulations, by publishing – or even having published – the specific content in this fact sheet? Is the statement “these laws are not about imposing excessive regulation or state removal of content” not itself a “false communication?” For in reality, this is the state threatening to hit Big Tech with a big stick, in order to ensure that it removes content the state wants removed. There is no difference in outcome between this and the state removing the content itself. So, I regard the statement as at the very least dishonest. And dishonesty by government towards the people should never be tolerated in any democracy worth the name.
Moreover, is this same statement not also “harmful communication,” because it seriously raises the hackles and the tempers of anyone who cares about human rights and freedoms? Including me?
A culture of safety at any cost
All this is sold to us under a pretext of “keeping people safe.” Safety, defined as “the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury,” is a good thing, isn’t it?
To which my answer is: well, sometimes. Of course, other things being equal, it is better to be safe from a particular hazard than to be exposed to it. But other things are not always equal. If there are costs associated with lessening your exposure to a particular hazard, it is a real question how much it makes sense for you to spend to avoid that hazard. The answer will depend on the relation between those costs and the likelihood and severity of loss due to the hazard. And since some individuals are more risk-averse than others, and perceptions of different risks vary, there is always a subjective element to the decision.
Further, when governments make laws to promote some particular ideal of safety, there will always be winners and losers. One man’s apparent increase in safety, for example, may mean the ruin of another man’s livelihood. Think, for example, of the effects of the on-line safety bill on those who earn their living through publishing on controversial subjects.
Yet more and more, governments have come to treat safety as like a deity; something to be worshipped, and whose worship is to be enforced on others. They seem to regard a higher level of safety as a desirable, even where the costs are far higher than any benefits that can be objectively expected, and regardless of any negative effects that might be caused to some individuals or groups of people.
To make things worse, governments are always inclined to err on the side of over-restriction. This is because the individuals making the decisions will get kudos from their peers if the restrictions are (or appear to be) successful. Yet they themselves are not held accountable for the consequences to the people government is supposed to be serving, and will not pick up any of the tab. It is the ordinary people who will end up both suffering the over-restrictions and paying the costs. The result is a culture of safety at any cost, which favours, and tends to increase the level of, government overreach and tyranny.
It is not only in the area of freedom of speech that this culture is rampant. The speed-bumps, chicanes and creeping reductions in speed limits on the roads, which we have suffered over 20 years and more, have not brought anything like the kind of reductions in UK road deaths which had been achieved in previous decades. Road deaths were pretty much static from 2011 to 2019, yet speed limits have continued to be progressively tightened. All this has slowed our journeys, and made driving more arduous. It has also reduced our freedom of movement, and increased the general level of frustration in our lives.
Risk and the green agenda
There is evidence that successive UK governments have deliberately helped along this culture of safety at any cost. Most notable was the 2002 report of the Inter-departmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment (ILGRA), which in effect re-wrote the precautionary principle to enshrine an attitude of “if in doubt about a risk, government must act.” I covered this in an article here: [[v]]. The ILGRA report itself is here: [[vi]]. It is worthy of note that the ILGRA began their work in 1994, not long after the UK government had signed up to the extreme green agenda at the 1992 Rio summit, and that the document explicitly references the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development in its Summary section.
They saw the purpose of the principle as “to create an impetus to take a decision notwithstanding scientific uncertainty about the nature and extent of the risk.” And they wanted to invoke the principle “even if the likelihood of harm is remote.” They said, too, that “the precautionary principle carries a general presumption that the burden of proof shifts away from the regulator having to demonstrate potential for harm towards the hazard creator having to demonstrate an acceptable level of safety.” And they misused an aphorism attributed to Carl Sagan, saying: “‘Absence of evidence of risk’ should never be confused with, or taken as, ‘evidence of absence of risk’.”
By doing this, they threw away any pretence of objective, unbiased analysis and assessment of risks. They also inverted the burden of proof, requiring the defendants (that’s us, who want to do things like heat our homes and drive our cars) to prove a negative. And they in effect decreed, contrary to our right to the presumption of innocence, that absence of evidence of guilt is not evidence of absence of guilt. We skeptics of the green agenda have been denied, for decades, our right to a fair and public hearing. And our experts have been harassed and, in some cases, lost their jobs or been forced to leave their field altogether. Is that not bad faith by the UK government, and others, against the people they are supposed to serve?
And it’s not just on the side of exaggerating risks that the UK government has shown bad faith over the green agenda. They have also made it impossible to assess objectively the costs versus benefits of actions proposed to “mitigate” the risk of climate change. Here’s how they did it. Prior to 2009, they used a measure based on the “social cost of carbon” (the total cost to all affected of the effects of UK carbon dioxide emissions) to calculate the predicted damage resulting from human emissions in the UK of carbon dioxide gas. That’s fair enough, as long as the social cost is calculated accurately. But in 2009, they dropped this in favour of a system called “mitigation/adaptation curves.” This made it, in practice, impossible to answer the question: “How much harm would CO2 emissions cause if we did nothing at all to reduce them?” A question which must be answered before you can even assess whether there’s a real problem or not!
Cynically paraphrased, their argument seems to have been: “We know we can’t do a credible cost-benefit analysis that justifies any political action on this. But we’re already committed to political action. So, we’ll make up numbers to match the commitments, and hope that no-one notices.” This was a clear case of politics masquerading as science. I wrote an article uncovering what they did, and much more, here: [[vii]]. And even in 2019 when plans were made to go full steam ahead with the “nett zero” project in the UK, there was no objective, quantitative, unbiased cost-benefit analysis of the consequences to the people.
It’s fair to say that, in their actions on this matter, the UK government have showed extreme bad faith towards the people.
And then there’s COVID. We have had proposals for vaccine passports to be mandatory in order to enter social venues, and for health care workers who are unwilling to be vaccinated to be sacked from their jobs. Now, it so happens that I have spent a lot of time over the last two years looking at world-wide COVID statistics. I recently wrote a report [[viii]] which, among much else, plotted cases per million against percentage fully vaccinated for more than 200 reporting countries. That showed cases per million going up by about 3,000 (0.3% of the population) for every per cent increase in the proportion fully vaccinated! That doesn’t prove beyond doubt that the vaccines don’t help to lessen the spread of cases. But it certainly does suggest that they fall far short of being the “magic bullet” for controlling the spread, that we were led to believe they would be. And in consequence, to attempt to make vaccination mandatory for the performance of any activity was, and is, ethically wrong.
Even beyond this, to force anyone to take against their wills any medical treatment beyond emergency and palliative care is extremely unethical. It ought to have been included in the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but wasn’t. For a precedent that shows how unethical this is, consider the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. They sought to subject unfortunate victims, who were judged “unfit to reproduce” by some cabal of doctors, to forced sterilization. In the USA, more than 60,000 people were sterilized in this way. And when the nazis got their hands on the idea, they sterilized more than 400,000 people. Yet for several decades up to 1939, eugenics was supported by many of the “great and good” of the day, including Winston Churchill and John Maynard Keynes.
Then there are the things we were told about the vaccines. As late as November 2020, even scientists working on predicting the future of the epidemic were assuming that one jab would provide strong protection. Then it was two jabs needed, then there were boosters required. (More profits for Big Pharma!) We were also told that RNA vaccines would be able to react to new variants of the virus as they arose. That was dubious from the start; and when omicron arrived, they hardly seemed to work against it at all. We were lied to. Or, at the very least, we were fed hype, when what we needed was facts, and rational, unbiased assessments of them.
Then there was the question of legal immunity for vaccine manufacturers for damage caused by side effects of COVID vaccines. The UK government chose to give them immunity (you can’t prosecute them) rather than the far more sensible indemnity (if you prosecute them and win, the government picks up the tab). See this article from The Conversation [[ix]]. It does seem odd, as the article says, that the government was not “putting its money where its mouth is.” Again, this gives a strong ethical reason for refusing to take the vaccine.
Then there is the question of how much immunity against the virus you have when you have had the disease and recovered from it. This is very important to me, since I caught COVID so early that I fell ill with it on the very day the first confirmed UK case was reported. In the summer of 2021, the Office for National Statistics were reporting that up to that point, if you had already recovered from the disease, you had only one chance in a thousand of getting it again. Omicron has changed that proportion. The latest UK figures show around 5% of all cases as having been re-infections. Even so, having had the disease gives far better protection than any number of vaccinations. But were we simply told the facts, and left to make our own judgements on them? No. Instead, we got vaccine passports and “no jab, no job.”
Then there have been lockdowns. Now, I am not one of the extremists who think lockdowns were never necessary or justified. If a health care system has a fixed capacity, and credible predictions show it in danger of being exceeded because of the speed of spread of an infection, then some kind of temporary restrictions on association may be justifiable. I think this situation was reached in March and April 2020. But after this, the lockdowns went on far longer than they need have done. In particular, the lockdown that began early in 2021 lasted well into April, when the peak of the cases wave, in my area at least, had been receding since mid-February. This was a consequence of the abandonment of the tiered lockdown system, which operated in the autumn of 2020 and seemed to have been designed quite sensibly, in favour of a much harsher nation-wide lockdown régime.
Then there is SAGE. In October 2020, I wrote an article about this group of highly powerful, unaccountable, freedom-hating technocrats: [[x]]. It is clear that it was SAGE that politicked to bring about the abandonment of the tiered lockdown system. It is also clear that to have such a group driving policy is not in any way in the interests of the people. This episode perfectly illustrates my point about lack of accountability in government encouraging the culture of safety at any cost, and so creating tyranny.
And then there is the jewel in the crown of SAGE, “Professor Lockdown” Neil Ferguson. In my article on SAGE, I referenced some newspaper articles about his “projections,” and now I will compare them with the outcomes.
On March 16th 2020, he told ministers that the UK “might face more than 500,000 deaths if the government took no action.” That was what triggered the first lockdown. Although, with hindsight, the quality of the mathematical model he used was dubious. But it gets worse.
Prediction: On March 25th 2020, Ferguson was “reasonably confident” that “total deaths in the United Kingdom will be held below 20,000.” Outcome: The 20,000th COVID death in the UK was reported on April 21st, 2020. By the end of June 2020, the death count was above 40,000. As at June 28th, 2022, the total of UK COVID deaths exceeds 180,000.
Prediction: On August 17th 2020, Ferguson was optimistic that: “Europe won’t see very large numbers of new COVID-19 cases this year.” At that date, the European cases total was 3.2 million. Outcome: By December 31st 2020, the total had risen to 23.8 million.
Then, on September 22nd 2020, he claimed that his “projection” of 500,000 COVID deaths if the government took no action had been an under-estimate! Well, that may conceivably have been so. Though given his March 25th prediction, he seems to have had an extreme faith in the efficacy of lockdowns at saving lives. With hindsight, though, it doesn’t look as if there is much evidence for lockdowns having saved many lives. Indeed, my own analysis, which I referenced above, shows a positive correlation between deaths per million and average lockdown stringency throughout the epidemic.
This is a so-called expert! The leader of a team of the best scientific minds on the subject! Yet, as his August 17th prediction shows, he didn’t see the second wave coming. Even though he had already discussed the possibility in earlier papers. And at a time when, again with hindsight, that second wave had already started in Europe.
Moreover, his prediction of March 25th was worse than wrong. Did he, perhaps, give a deliberately low number in an effort to make people believe the lockdowns were having a big positive effect? And his claims on September 22nd were part of the moves SAGE were making in their fight to take over control of lockdown policy. I have to ask, could Ferguson have been using the mask of “scientist” to advance his and his friends’ own political agendas? If so, this was dishonesty and bad faith towards the people.
Government and science
Epidemiological models are, mathematically, very simple. If epidemiologists can get it as wrong as Ferguson did, how much more likely are errors when the models under consideration are far more complex? As, for example, with atmospheric and oceanic climate models (AOGCMs), or the “integrated assessment models” (IAMs) which are used to assess the likely economic impacts of changes in the climate? And is it unthinkable that climate “scientists” with activist political views might try to bias their results towards the politics they favour? Particularly if their paymasters and the government also share their bias?
Those questions, of course, are rhetorical. In my more than averagely informed view, that is exactly what has happened with the catastrophic human-caused global warming scam. Forces with a political agenda hostile to ordinary people have corrupted supposedly independent “scientists.” And as a result, they have corrupted not only the direction taken by policy, but also science itself.
It’s interesting to note that climate scientists and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, like Ferguson, also make “projections,” not predictions. That is telling, because “projections” play no part in the scientific method. A true scientist makes falsifiable predictions from his hypothesis, then tests those predictions. If the predictions are not borne out, the hypothesis must be modified. But that does not happen in climate science. Nor, so it would seem, in epidemiology.
To sum up
Whatever are the motives of the proponents of the UK “on-line safety” bill, it’s clear that they do not regard freedom of speech on-line for ordinary people as important at all. They are seeking to tear down a tolerably workable common-law framework, and replace it by one which actively encourages censorship, particularly of ideas outside the mainstream.
In governments today, and in the UK in particular, there has grown up a culture of “safety at any cost.” This culture favours, and tends to increase the level of, government overreach and tyranny. It has its origins in agreements committed to by John Major at the 1992 Rio “Earth Summit.” But it has spread into other areas of government too, notably freedom of speech and the handling of the COVID epidemic.
Under the current system, government officials and advisors involved in policy decisions are not held accountable for the effects of those decisions on the people. This favours the growth of the “safety at any cost” culture. It has also allowed and even encouraged them to act with dishonesty and bad faith towards the people they are supposed to be serving.
Successive UK governments since 1992 have deliberately helped along the culture of safety at any cost. In several of these instances, they have been extremely dishonest towards the people they are supposed to be serving. In at least a few cases, the dishonesty has been so great that it constitutes clear bad faith towards the people.
Among the consequences of this culture have been policies which are against the interests of the people, corruption at the interface between government and science, politics masquerading as science, and corruption of science itself.