Julian Knight: Online Safety Bill is ‘simplistic and bad politics', Tory MP tells Boris Johnson

Asia's Tech News Daily

Banning anonymous social media accounts is “simplistic and unworkable”, the chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee has told i.

Julian Knight also took aim at Boris Johnson in a wide-ranging interview, for seeking to rush through the Online Safety Bill in the wake of the murder of Sir David Amess.

The new Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, wrote in the Daily Mail on Saturday that the Bill would “end anonymous abuse, because it will end abuse, full stop”.

But Mr Knight warned that people should still be able to “speak truth to power” and use anonymous accounts to disclose wrongdoing.

“I’ve received important information – for instance on my local health services – via anonymous Twitter,” he said.

“Anonymity shouldn’t be outlawed; I don’t think that’s possible given [social media’s] global nature and just the number of anonymous accounts on those platforms, particularly Twitter.”

Julian Knight: Online Safety Bill is ‘simplistic and bad politics’, Tory MP tells Boris Johnson
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While saying that a ban was “simplistic and unworkable”, Mr Knight agreed that reforms were needed.

“The right of social media companies to have anonymity should come with strings attached that they have a duty of care and our robust regime. I would like to see compliance officers in place and paid for by them.”

The MP for Solihull raised concerns that the new Bill, which will address huge issues such as online anonymity, free speech, and access to pornography would get “torn apart” if it was rushed through.

“It’s really bad politics,” he said. “Suddenly, in the bat of an eyelid – in understandable circumstances given the emotion and under pressure from the Opposition – the Prime Minister decides we will have it prior to Christmas.”

“We must be careful that in our grief we don’t conflate the issue of terror and online abuse, and online abuse of those in power.”

‘How much do you want your government to know about you?’

Julian Knight, a former journalist who heads the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, knows how to turn a phrase and make a story.

In recent weeks, he has called Alan Shearer an “apologist” for the Saudi regime, Facebook “a bit of a cult” and accused the BBC of having a “collective nervous breakdown” over Brexit. As legislation to regulate social media finally reaches Parliament later this year, we are going to be hearing a lot more from Knight, an influential figure on the debates ahead.

Boris Johnson made the commitment to speed up the legislation in the wake of the murder of Sir David Amess that highlighted the increasing threat posed to MPs and abuse amplified by social media.

Knight worries that the Online Safety Bill, which will address huge issues such as online anonymity, free speech, and access to pornography, will get “torn apart” if it is rushed through.

For three years, says Knight, the Government “prevaricated” because it wanted to avoid the “hospital pass” of being the first major developed economy to seek to impose new limits on the hugely powerful industry.

“It’s really bad politics,” he says. “Suddenly, in the bat of an eyelid, in understandable circumstances given the emotion and under pressure from the Opposition, the Prime Minister decides that we will have it prior to Christmas.

“We must be careful that in our grief we do not conflate the issue of terror and online abuse, and online abuse of those in power.”

Julian Knight: Online Safety Bill is ‘simplistic and bad politics’, Tory MP tells Boris Johnson
© Provided by The i Nadine Dorries said the Online Safety Bill would end anonymous abuse (Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty)

He immediately adds, however, that while social media companies co-operate in “acute situations” such as terror investigations, way too much is left to firms’ “judgement calls”. MPs who struggle to have content removed that compromises their security – such as pictures of their homes – soon

realise the limit of their power.

But as Britain tries unilaterally to bring the big tech firms in the US and China to heel, the Government risks merely exposing its own weakness. “The Government has always been stuck between a rock and a hard place,” says the 49-year-old Tory MP. “They want the UK to be a centre of data sharing and products but then react to groundswells in opinion.”

Knight is not in favour of banning online anonymity – “simplistic and unworkable” – but says it should come “with strings attached”, including a requirement for social media firms to recruit and pay for compliance officers to police tough, new regulations that impose on them a duty of care to wider society not just their own profits.

He agrees that the legislation will expose a split among Tory MPs over the limits of free speech, with libertarians like David Davis determined to resist what they describe as a “censor’s charter”.

Mr Knight says: “It’s not just free speech but this will raise questions about how much do you want your government to know about you. Are we going to see a ‘porn law’ where there is age verification, not just assurance, to access certain websites? Where do you rely on algorithm and where demand ID?”

Julian Knight: Online Safety Bill is ‘simplistic and bad politics’, Tory MP tells Boris Johnson
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The MP for Solihull was elected chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee after promising to take a harder line on the BBC than the previous incumbent, Damian Collins.

He admits that any hope of killing off the licence fee when the BBC’s current charter runs out at the end of the decade died when Johnson was forced to abandon his pledge to get full-fibre broadband into every home.

Knight is chivvying the corporation to do more to prepare for life after the licence fee, especially since revenues relentlessly decline as viewers migrate to subscription services. He acknowledges the BBC’s efforts to address concerns that it lost touch with its viewers during Brexit but warns that new divisions loom.

“I think areas like the trans[gender] debate are where we are going to see a real challenge for the BBC,” he says, adding that he detects a difference of approach between its news website and Radio 4 to one of the most contentious issues of the day.

The BBC faces accusations that it has allowed the LGBTQ+ lobby group Stonewall too much influence from those who oppose its stance on gender and identity. Entering that minefield, even the tough-talking Knight drops his visor, saying: “I’m disquieted by the influence Stonewall has had on the BBC.”

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