There was a small but significant victory for freedom of speech this week when the government announced it was dropping a draconian “legal but harmful” clause in the Online Safety Bill.
The Bill, which should become law before next summer, aims to introduce some kind of regulation into the Wild West of the internet and to make sure that something regarded as criminal in real life should be treated the same online.
The idea is that the big tech companies – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and the like – would have to remove images of child sexual abuse, terrorist material and content which incites violence or racism. New clauses in the Bill also outlaw material designed to encourage self-harm and deep fake porn, where images of women are somehow superimposed onto actresses in sex scenes.
There is also extra protection for children from seeing harmful content, and the big tech firms will have to explain how they are checking people’s ages using age verification technology.
The broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom, will become a sort of super-regulator tasked with bringing control to the internet, along with TV and radio.
All this I fully support, along with the threat of fining companies 10 per cent of world turnover – a massive amount – if they refuse to take down this illegal content. But the “legal but harmful” clause was a step too far.
Under this clause the government would have forced the big tech companies to take down material aimed at adults that someone – probably some impeccably woke social media moderator – decided was “harmful”.
It would have created the ridiculous situation where something that was perfectly legal and acceptable to say in the pub or the queue for the supermarket checkout would suddenly be subject to censorship when posted on Facebook.
The question of who gets to decide what is “harmful” is very important because we live in some very strange times. For example just a few years ago the dictionary definition of a woman as an “an adult human female” would have been considered an unexceptional truism that would not have raised an eyebrow.
These days saying that phrase can see you sacked from your job, ejected from political parties and thoroughly “cancelled” and ostracised as an unredeemable bigot.
That’s because there are many people, particularly on the “progressive” left, who now see that simple, scientific definition as hateful towards trans people, and therefore “harmful”.
There is, of course, a debate to be had about the clash of rights between women and trans people, but we won’t further that debate by trying to silence feminists because their entirely legitimate views – that sex matters and that it helps explain the subjugation of women – are seen as hateful and harmful and therefore should be silenced.
I listened earlier this week to the fascinating BBC Reith lecture given by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I didn’t agree with everything she said, but it was interesting stuff and I would recommend you listen to it on BBC Sounds if you missed it the first time around.
She recounted an occasion at a book signing when she was accosted by an American student who asked angrily why she had something at an interview. Ms Adichie replied that what she said was the truth, and the student agreed and then asked why should we say it even if it is true.
She went on: “I should not have said it because it did not align with my political tribe. I had desecrated the political orthodoxy. It was like being accused of blasphemy in a religion that is not yours.”
She said this incident illustrates a “morale stridency” , a fierce, punitive adherence to the collective, sanctioned attitudes and behaviours of this era.
As I walked through my local wood listening to this on my headphones I found myself nodding in agreement. And I gave a small cheer when she said that the answer to bad speech was more speech.
In her lecture Ms Adiche went on to quote one of my all time favourite thinkers, the English Philosopher, John Stuart Mill, author of amongst many things the feminist tract, The Subjection of Women, alongside his wife, Harriet, and his daughter, Helen.
I recalled another important work by Mill, On Liberty, where he argued that freedom of speech is at the heart of democracy and that the expression of ideas cannot be prohibited simply because people find them offensive. And I cannot do better than to end with a quote from the great man himself:
“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”