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Misunderstanding of online safety bill muddies the debate

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Good morning. Rishi Sunak faces a tricky set of parliamentary battles over the policy and detail of the online safety bill, while hoping to set one of his own over immigration. Some thoughts on both topics in today’s note.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to

All things considered

Rishi Sunak is facing rebellion in the House of Commons over the online safety bill, which aims to protect under-18s from harmful content and remove illegal online material. Thirty-six Conservative MPs, including several heavyweights on the party’s right, have signed an amendment to toughen the bill. Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe and Ian Johnston have the details.

Michelle Donelan signalled that she is willing to consider amendments — including this one to make managers of tech firms face two years in prison if they fail to protect children — in an interview with the BBC’s Newscast:

“I’m not ruling out any of those amendments because I’ve been working through them and they’ve been coming in today as well, looking at, you know, what colleagues are putting forward. I’m somebody that always takes a sensible approach to these things. If people have good ideas, just because I didn’t think of them doesn’t mean that we’re not going to do them.”

The “online harms” legislation has been significantly watered down since its introduction, thanks in large part to Conservative party opposition to its original “legal but harmful” clause which was seen by some as impinging on freedom of speech. (Or, as trade secretary Kemi Badenoch put it, “legislating for hurt feelings”.)

A lot of Conservatives are unhappy with the new bill and as the legislation still has to go to the House of Lords, I doubt we have heard the last of “legal but harmful”. There are going to be a lot of intra-Tory battles over the detail of this bill in the coming weeks.

As Robert Shrimsley noted a while back in a thoughtful column on the legislation, this stuff is really difficult. The UK is the first jurisdiction to try to tackle this policy area in such depth, and I’m not going to pretend I am sitting on the perfect solution here.

As Dave Rich, head of policy at the British charity Community Security Trust, argues in his excellent forthcoming book about modern anti-Semitism, Everyday Hate, the “legal but harmful clause” wasn’t dreamt up by civil servants because Nadine Dorries was worried about hurt feelings:

When it comes to antisemitism, conspiracy theories are the gateway to a whole set of anti-Jewish slanders that end, ultimately, with incitement to murder.

As I write this, there is an ongoing political debate in the United Kingdom over whether online content informally described as “legal but harmful” should be subject to regulation. I can think of no better example of ‘legal but harmful’ material than the conspiracy theories about Jews, Zionists, Rothschilds and all the other code words that swamp social media.

I’m not saying this should be the only consideration on whether “legal but harmful” is a useful tool, and there are reasonable concerns that “legal but harmful” is too broad a definition. But it’s not going to be helpful for anyone — not anyone interested in getting the legislation right — to talk as if “legal but harmful” and the other measures in the bill are about legislating for hurt feelings or anything like it.

Unite the right

Something that almost all Conservatives can agree on is the importance of tackling the “small boats” crisis, with new laws aimed at swiftly removing those intercepted to Rwanda. As Katy Balls explains in her Spectator column, many with Rishi Sunak’s ear think they can make looming votes on the issue a key dividing line with Labour:

‘We could say “get the boats done” and run a “stop the boats” election,’ argues one government adviser. They point to the ‘stop the boats’ campaign in Australia, which is viewed by several senior Tories as a way to keep elements of the Johnson electorate on side.

But, as Katy reports, some MPs are worried (in my view, rightly) that they have set themselves an impossible target in “stopping” the boats. Ultimately there is always going to be a degree of illicit migration, and because Brexit has taken the UK outside of the EU’s frontiers, that migration now happens via small boats (and not, as it used to be before Brexit, in and underneath lorries).

In terms of the task the government has set itself, the only way to “stop the small boats” would be to let would-be migrants to the UK take the ferry instead. It just seems unlikely to me that an election in which small boats feature heavily will favour the Conservatives.

Now try this

I saw A Man Called Otto at the cinema. I hated it, but I honestly have no one but myself to blame: the film is basically exactly what you’d expect from the trailer. It was a bit like an Anne Tyler novel: I can see that it was well done for what it was, but “what it was” was an overly saccharine tale of a man alienated from his surroundings who gradually learns to live, laugh and love again. Danny Leigh didn’t care for it either.

However you spend it, have a wonderful weekend.

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