Dowden: ‘The idea that free speech can be switched off by a button in California is unsettling’

Digital secretary says there is a ‘burning need’ for governments to take a greater role in regulating the online world

Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

The recent riot at the US Capitol exemplifies both “the power of social media” and the need for governments to do more to regulate it, according to digital secretary Oliver Dowden.

In an opinion piece the Times, republished on GOV.UK, the cabinet minister said that the last 10 years have been defined, more than anything, by the rising influence of social networks.

“Its opening saw the hope of the Arab Spring, whilst its closing witnessed [the] disgraceful scenes at the US Capitol,” he said. “Both were the product of social media’s unprecedented ability to spread ideas and bring people together, for both good and bad.”

Dowden referenced the fact that “Iran’s ayatollah has a Twitter account, whilst the elected president of the United States is permanently suspended from holding one”.

He also pointed to the example of Norway’s prime minister having a Facebook post taken down because it contained the famous ‘napalm girl’ photo – in contravention of the site’s child-nudity policy – while claiming users in Myanmar are, meanwhile, using the platform “to whip up hatred towards Rohingya Muslims”.

“Those facts alone should make anyone who loves democracy pause for thought,” he said. “The idea that free speech can be switched off with the click of a button in California is unsettling even for the people with their hands on the mouse.”

The digital secretary added: “As we enter a new era in our relationship with tech, who should decide its rules?”

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The first issue to address, he said, is the long-standing debate about whether social networks should be treated by authorities as merely a platform that is largely exempt from responsibility for what people choose to publish there, or as a publisher, with the same liabilities as a traditional media company.

Dowden said that “neither truly hits the mark”, arguing that the former would be difficult to impose in world where, for example, 500 hours of content is added to YouTube every minute. 

“But equally, when these companies are curating, editorialising, and in some cases removing users, they can no longer claim to be bystanders with no responsibility whatsoever,” he added.

“However we categorise social media, one thing is clear: as with other forms of mass communication, democratically elected governments must play a role in regulating it.”

In the UK, the government wants to create and enforce legislation that will bring about “a new age of accountability for tech”.

This will include the measures set out in the Online Harms Bill, which is due to be brought forward this year. The law includes proposals to give Ofcom the ability to enforce a duty of care on social networks, including expectations for stamping out harmful content, such as abuse, terrorist material, and suicide-related content.

Those that fail to meet these new duties will face fines of up £18m or 10% of the company in question’s global turnover – whichever amount is higher.

In Facebook’s case, this would equate to more than £5bn, while Twitter could theoretically face a penalty of around £250m.

According to Dowden, ensuring greater protection for the UK’s “most vulnerable citizens… particularly children” is the biggest priority of the new online safety laws. Protecting free speech is not far behind, he said.

“As Lord Justice Sedley put it in 1999, that definition has to include ‘not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative’. Without the latter, we are making an empty promise,” he said.

“Under our legislation, social media giants will have to enforce their terms and conditions consistently and transparently. This will prevent them from arbitrarily banning any user for expressing an offensive or controversial viewpoint. If users feel like they’ve been treated unfairly, they’ll be able to seek redress from the company. Right now, that process is slow, opaque and inconsistent.”

“And it’s absolutely vital that internet regulations can’t be used as a tool to silence an opponent or muzzle the free media. So, news publishers’ content on their own sites will be exempt.”

Even if and when its proposals for new regulation are passed into law, government “needs to be flexible enough to adapt as social media evolves”, and respond to the proliferation of new platforms.

“No-one had ever used TikTok in the UK before 2018 but now 17 million of us do: almost double the total newspaper circulation in 2019,” the digital secretary said.

Government will also need to continue “navigating some complex philosophical disputes [such as]: how do you resolve the inherent tension,… between protecting people from dangerous misinformation in a global pandemic, whilst also protecting their right to express an opinion?”

Whatever issues and questions it needs to grapple with in the future, government “can no longer outsource difficult decisions.”

“There’s now a burning need for democratic societies to find ways to impose consistency, transparency, fairness in the online sphere,” Dowden said. 

“Decisions affecting democracy should be made democratically – by governments accountable to parliament, not executives accountable to shareholders.”


Sam Trendall

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