RealClear Policy: Censoring Online Pornography Is A Slippery Slope For Free Speech

This article was published by RealClear Policy.

Covid-19 taught us a great deal about misinformation online — or it should have. In the space of a few months, the Wuhan lab leak theory went from fringe conspiracy theory in need of censorship, lest it spread, to the consensus among the mainstream scientific community. The episode brought into sharp focus how hard it can be to tell harmful content from harmful censorship, and the flaws of any attempt to centralize and codify content moderation.

Ever determined to ignore the lessons of recent history, politicians are pressing ahead with a censorship agenda. A new wave of content moderation bills has cropped up across the country. From Minnesota to Tennessee to California, lawmakers are inserting themselves into the relationship between the internet and the consumer, this time under the guise of protecting children from harmful content such as pornography.

Thousands of pages could be written about the individual issues with each of the dozens of similar bills, but they are all cut from the same cloth. They represent an approach to policing the internet whose flaws have been repeatedly exposed. Government cannot unilaterally block access to content it deems harmful, nor should it try to.

Using the government as an adult content watchdog is a slippery slope. If we permit the state to prevent access to pornography, there is no clear logical conclusion to that line of thinking. Once we have consented to sidestepping our First Amendment rights, where does it stop? Will we also allow the government to determine the types of videos we can watch when it comes to other forms of entertainment? How about political speeches? Do we really want politicians creating lists of websites we are forbidden from viewing, even when their content is perfectly legal?

Mission creep is a real problem. Lawmakers are incapable of staying within their bounds. They are practically guaranteed to use any new powers we grant them to grow the extent of their influence over our lives as far as they can manage. If you think Big Tech censorship is bad, it is nothing compared to what would happen if our leaders gained the right to dictate what content you can or cannot see.

Ironically, there is huge overlap between the politicians who bemoan — rightly — the apparent suppression of counter-mainstream views about the origins of the coronavirus and those who believe government should have the right to decide what content adults can and cannot access.

There are few limits to how far the pro-censorship lobby want government to go in cracking down on content they do not like. What would a state-censored internet look like in America? Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security will hand out criminal penalties against people working in the porn industry, and consumers themselves. While that would no doubt create a substantial new revenue stream for the government, it is not representative of how a free, civilized country treats the internet.

Before long, the black market would rear its ugly head. Prohibitions or onerous new restrictions on legal pornography will only push the industry underground, where cooperation with law enforcement will be non-existent and porn money would flow much more easily into the wider criminal world. Such a popular, profitable industry being forced out of the purview of the law would be a boon for criminals who operate on the dark web.

The push to criminalize porn will do little to protect children, who are increasingly au fait with using VPNs and other tools to circumvent censors, but it will open a backdoor to further censorship and fuel criminality.

Jason Reed is the spokesperson for Young Voices and a policy analyst and political commentator for a wide range of outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JasonReed624.

Townhall: How This One Simple Experiment Can Transform Every Policy Area – From Finance to Transport

This article was first published on Townhall.

Start-ups often struggle to penetrate markets which are dominated by industry giants with deeper pockets. That hurts innovation and progress.

But what if there was a way to neatly sidestep that problem?

Regulatory sandboxes represent a fantastic step forward. They provide a red tape-free bubble for certain companies to do business free of much of the regulation which would otherwise hold them down. Some rules, such as those protecting consumers (e.g. product liability) remain in place but other than that, companies are broadly given free rein to disrupt the market.

That’s a silver bullet for competition and innovation.

The problem regulators face is balancing competing interests. On the one hand, they want to prevent monopolies. When a particular company gains too much power over their sector, it’s bad for everyone, especially consumers. On the other hand, regulators also want to allow the incumbent giants in the sector to continue doing their thing and providing for their consumers.

We don’t want Apple, for instance, to crowd out its competitors and become a monopoly in the technology industry. Regulatory sandboxes are a great way to allow smaller, newer tech start-ups – innovators and disruptors – to explore the industry, build their brand and consumer base and stoke competition.

And that doesn’t only apply to tech, of course. Regulatory sandboxes can be used in every sector, from finance to transport, to make things better for consumers by keeping prices low and fuelling innovation, so that private companies are always striving to find new ways to make our lives better.

Regulatory sandboxes also provide a solution to the issue of regulator sluggishness. When new developments emerge like drone technology or cryptocurrency, regulators often react slowly and haphazardly thanks to the bureaucracy of centralized law-making.

The pace of innovation is always accelerating – and that is a very good thing for all of us. Have you ever considered how difficult it would be to explain modern technology to people who had never encountered it before?

How would you go about communicating to someone who lived just a couple of centuries ago that it is now possible to store an entire library’s worth of information on a tiny metal chip? The late boss of IBM, Thomas Watson, was famously thought to have said there would only ever be global demand for five computers. It is incorrigibly difficult to imagine a world so radically different to one’s own.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the cumbersome apparatus of the state struggles to keep up with innovation. Governments are necessarily instruments of bureaucracy and expecting them to understand ever-changing technological advancements deeply enough to be able to regulate them effectively is always going to be a lost cause.

It is hard to forget, for instance, the countless examples of lawmakers very publicly failing to understand the basics of how modern technology works, such as Google searches and social media. Clearly, the current system is failing us.

By providing regulatory sandboxes, new technologies can be explored in a safe, controlled environment, without the burden of having to pre-emptively regulate emerging industries and technologies.

Too often, regulators use other tools such as taxes and new regulations instead. They are often working towards laudable aims, such as preventing monopolies, but by using those outdated methods, they cause a great deal of collateral damage.

Taxes only make the end product more expensive for the consumer, which is a particularly bad idea when we’re heading into a cost-of-living crisis. Drowning new innovations and developments in red tape is actively bad for competition because it cements the position of the incumbent industry giants at the top of the food chain, since they can afford the extra costs and delays that come with clumsy regulation, but start-ups often cannot.

Plus, excessive taxes and regulations make America an unattractive prospect for investors and entrepreneurs, leading them to take their ideas – and their money – elsewhere.

So many world-changing innovations have humble beginnings. When someone is chasing the American dream by working on a new gadget in their garage which has the potential to change the way we live our lives, the role of government is to pave the path for them to success – not make their life more difficult and encourage them to waste their talent and drive.

That’s where regulatory sandboxes come in. They have a proven track record of success, such as in the insurance and legal industries in Utah, and now it is time to roll them out more widely in states across America to truly unleash the potential of the free market.

Jason Reed is the PR Manager at Young Voices and a policy analyst and political commentator for a wide range of outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JasonReed624

Adamah: Hands off our GIFs!

This article was first published by Adamah Media.

Those of a certain vintage will remember the British TV series Dad’s Army, a BBC sitcom about the British Home Guard during the Second World War. It has now been on UK screens for over 50 years and still manages to raise a laugh, not least when the elderly Corporal Jones howls “Don’t panic!” at the slightest problem.

There was a bit of that going on in the UK recently as the Chancellor of the Exchequer commented on the latest movements among the big beasts in the tech jungle.

“I don’t think people need to be that anxious about it. No one should come away from that thinking we’re somehow against this activity.”

Those words of Rishi Sunak to the British tech industry raised more than a few eyebrows. He was responding to widespread concern following the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) coming down like a ton of bricks on the merger of Facebook and Giphy.

The CMA is opposed to Facebook taking over Giphy. It conducted a months-long probe and concluded that Facebook buying Giphy would result ‘in a substantial lessening of competition in social media, harming users and businesses in the UK’.

Giphy is an online library of shareable GIFs. (For the uninitiated, GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format and is a bitmap image format that was developed by CompuServe back in 1987.) Giphy is not the only supplier of GIFs, nor the largest. In fact, with the aid of free websites and apps, anyone can make GIFs. 

The CMA’s objections to the deal hinges on its claim that Giphy was about to become a competitor to Facebook because both companies operate in the ‘display marketing’ industry. Facebook’s takeover of Giphy would thereby have ended that competition and so reinforced its dominance in the field. But that isn’t how it works.

Competition laws are important. They prevent monopolies. Let’s say I own a business selling chocolate bars, and John down the road owns a rival chocolate business. We’re the only two chocolate companies in town. If you want to buy a chocolate bar, you have to come to either me or John.

John’s business is hitting tough times, whereas I’m doing great. I decide to take advantage of the situation and buy John’s business. Now I’m the only chocolate maker in town, meaning I can jack the prices up as high as I like and all the local chocoholics have no choice but to fork out for their fix.

Monopolies are bad for consumers because the free market relies on people having choice between different businesses. But in this case (the case of GIFs rather than chocolate bars!) the CMA is misusing competition regulation.

Facebook’s social media competitors will still exist once it has bought Giphy, and alternative GIF libraries aren’t going anywhere. There is no threat to competition or users here.

That brings us onto the second problem with what the CMA is doing – it sets a precedent.

The reason Rishi Sunak felt the need to tell tech startups and investors not to be anxious is because polling shows a huge number of people in that industry are very frightened about what might happen next. If the CMA can block the Facebook-Giphy deal without any real reason, it could block any deal at all.

A survey by the Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec) found that more than half of investors in UK startups – the people who fund the innovations which fuel economic growth and improve our quality of life – are planning to significantly reduce the amount they invest in British companies as a direct result of the CMA’s actions. Nearly a quarter said they would stop investing in UK startups altogether.

This is a very worrying sign. 

When the CMA set up its new Digital Markets Unit earlier this year, it promised it would be ‘pro-competition’ – but the reality is looking very different. If we continue down this path, we will feel the consequences for decades to come, as tech money and innovations pour out of the UK.

City AM: From junk food ad bans to new smoking bans, the UK is in an age of state intervention

This article was first published in City AM.

We have slipped into a new age of state intervention. Even after a year of unprecedented interference in our everyday lives, attacks on personal freedoms are emerging from every quarter. Take gambling, for example. The government’s review of the Gambling Act looks set to introduce new spend limits to dictate what people can and can’t do with their money, with some calling for it to be illegal to spend more than £100 per month.

Elsewhere in gratuitous growth of the state in the name of public health, the government has finally signed off on its plan to ban advertising for what it deems “junk food” in an effort to curb obesity, albeit a slightly watered-down version which promises not to criminalise family-run bakeries posting pictures of cakes on Instagram.

There is no disagreement whatsoever in the science on this. All the evidence demonstrates that it will do much more harm than good. The government’s own in-house analysis of the policy concluded that it will remove a grand total of 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day – roughly half a Smartie.

Nonetheless, keeping with the theme of following sentiment rather than science in public health, the junk food ad ban will sit alongside ineffective and punitive sugar taxes as part of the government’s wildly ill-informed interventionist obesity strategy – and its loudest critics are those suggesting it doesn’t go far enough.

Meanwhile, local authorities are queuing up to be the first to become “smoke-free: by imposing new restrictions on when and where people can smoke, starting with banning smoking for outside hospitality. These restrictions will culminate in the department of health’s plan to make England “smoke-free” by 2030.

That strategy was pioneered by Matt Hancock – it remains to be seen whether his successor, Sajid Javid, will continue down this road. Given the overall direction of the government, it would be extraordinary if he didn’t.

The World Health Organisation has declared war on vaping, and our government is listening – despite it being by far the most effective item in the tobacco harm reduction toolkit, given its remarkable record of doubling a smoker’s chance of quitting and weaning more people off cigarettes than any other method.

As if that wasn’t enough, the government is also gearing up to meddle unnecessarily with the big tech giants, with catastrophic consequences for freedom of expression online. The ominous new quango for tech regulation, the Digital Markets Unit, is gearing up for a fight. The government is also sticking by its online safety bill, despite the fact that it is a “censor’s charter” and will be “catastrophic” for freedom of speech, as David Davis put it.

Politicians seem fixated on changing people’s behaviours by following the doomed thirty-year-old playbook for tobacco regulation, failing to consider if it is still fit for purpose. After three decades, nanny statists, tax enthusiasts and red tape fetishists are still pushing the same disastrous policies, from outright bans on advertising to gratuitous health warnings on food packaging, and from excessive lifestyle taxes to enforced calorie counts on pints in pubs, punishing those who can least afford it and having little to no effect on public health outcomes.

What is even more alarming is much of this policy is being pushed by Boris Johnson, a conservative Prime Minister who fought vehemently against the tyranny of the European Union’s interventionist approach.

We desperately need backbench Tory MPs to stand up against the consensus forming between the government and opposition that rampant interventionism is the best way forward.

The Conservative benches have already given rise to many such rebellions. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group single-handedly ended Theresa May’s premiership and ensured the full delivery of Brexit. Since then, similar groups have appeared to campaign on Covid restrictions, China and the interests of red wall voters.

We now badly need another to push back against the hand of the big government. We need a Civil Liberties Research Group. MPs must stand up for civil liberties

This article was first published on

The government has unleashed an avalanche of new taxes and regulations aimed at making Britain healthier. The first was the soft drink sugar tax, which dates back to 2018, and the most recent is the ‘junk food’ ad ban, which has now been signed off by the government despite widespread outcry about the harm it will do to the advertising and broadcasting industries.

Interventionist measures like these have always comprehensively failed and will continue to do so. The UK’s obesity rates are higher than ever, with excess body fat responsible for more deaths than smoking every year since 2014 and over a million hospital admissions for obesity-related treatment in England in the year leading up to the pandemic.

When it comes to changing people’s behaviours for the sake of public health, it rather seems as though health regulators are still signed up to the ‘tobacco playbook’, having failed to question whether it’s fit for purpose in 2021. Be it calling for outright bans on advertising, excessive health warnings on packets and gratuitous lifestyle taxes, after thirty years the same health regulators appear to be asleep at the wheel. They have nothing new to add to the policy debate.

Those who run public health and claim to be acting in our best interests need to wake up. Obesity is shaping up to be our next pandemic and if we continue down this road, it might be even more damaging to British civil liberties than the last one. But the omens are not good – the failed interventionist obesity strategy is now being exported to other areas of government.

Take smoking, for instance. Before his departure from the health department, Matt Hancock set into motion a plan for a ‘smoke-free England by 2030’. Local authorities like Oxfordshire, who took it upon themselves to ban smoking for outdoor hospitality, were jumping the gun, but not by much. Nanny-statism is becoming the new normal.

Even when it comes to vaping – by far the most effective tool for helping people quit smoking, as it happens – it looks like our lifestyle freedoms are on the chopping block. The World Health Organisation has vaping in its sights and the government looks set to kowtow to the unaccountable bureaucrats at the expense of civil liberties.

Even our freedom of expression is under threat. Ofcom will be empowered by the online safety bill to crack down on ‘lawful but harmful’ content online, with the authority to impose huge fines, which risks making vast swathes of the internet unusable and creating two tiers of online expression. There are some extra tech policies for good measure, too, to ensure that service providers, as well as consumers, feel the sharp end of this government for no good reason, like Rishi Sunak’s wildly ill-thought-out global tech tax deal.

On all kinds of simple lifestyle choices, more restrictions seem to be coming down the road. The government even wants to decide for us how we spend our own money by introducing a £100 monthly cap on gambling – the list of reasons for our civil liberties to be thrown onto the fire grows and grows.

Conscientious MPs, most of whom are to be found on the Conservative back benches, must take up the mantle of civil liberties. MPs like Steve Baker, Nus Ghani and countless others have shown in the past how much they value individual freedoms. If they meant what they said, now is the time to show it. Civil liberties are under threat like never before. They must coalesce to defend freedom.

Time is running out. We urgently need a post-covid anti-nanny state coalition. While the government and opposition are in violent agreement about the crying need to interfere in people’s everyday decision-making, the voices of ordinary people who want to run their own lives and have the government leave them be must be heard in the halls of power.

Boris Johnson talked relatively recently of the need to roll back the “continuing creep of the nanny state”. He even promised to put an end to “sin taxes” before his election as leader of the Conservative party. He would at one time have called himself libertarian, speaking of Britain as a “land of liberty”.

It’s time for Johnson’s party to remind him of his ideological roots. When Labour is enthusiastically supporting a Tory government in introducing new taxes and regulations like this, something has gone wrong. MPs with even the slightest libertarian leanings must not stand by and watch this happen. There is a gaping need for a strong collective of voices speaking up for personal freedoms. We urgently need a Civil Liberties Research Group.

Conservatives Global: We don’t need State meddling in the digital marketplace

This article was first published on Conservatives Global.

Earlier this month, the Government launched a new regulator called the Digital Markets Unit, a quango designed to introduce new checks and balances to the wide-ranging activities of tech giants like Facebook and Google. It is the Government’s answer to calls from around the world to ‘rein in’ big tech. The body’s launch had been trailed for several months, but it’s still unclear exactly what its parameters or purpose will be.

Some of the rhetoric around the DMU has been positive. The Government’s press release describes it as ‘pro-competition’, which is encouraging. The spin around the DMU launch also places an emphasis on the need to ‘spur development of digital services and lower prices for consumers’.

That all sounds very positive – if it turns out to be true. A consumer-focused approach which seeks more competition, not less, would indeed be a boon for the technology industry and would be a good thing for all of us. Only time will tell whether the Government bears out this consumer-centric rhetoric in the policy of the DMU, or whether it slips into that trap to which state bodies are so often vulnerable, of erring on the side of gratuitous intervention in the market.

There does appear to be some degree of appetite within government for a more intrusive regime which would be highly damaging, both to the companies involved (and therefore the UK economy as a whole) and everyday users of online services like you and I. Health Secretary Matt Hancock, for instance, applauded the Australian government for its pioneering new law forcing online platforms like Facebook and Google to pay for news content.

That move was incredibly damaging in Australia and repeating it in Britain would be a catastrophic mistake. Never before has anyone had to pay a content producer in order to a host a link on their platform. In fact, even a rudimentary understanding of how the online marketplace works makes it clear that the dynamic is the other way around – people fork out huge sums for digital advertising packages, meaning they pay in order to put their links on more people’s screens.

The Australian government’s decision, then, to intervene arbitrarily in the market and force Facebook and Google to pay news outlets in order host their content did nothing for the user or the free market. All it achieved was moving some money from Mark Zuckerberg’s pocket into Rupert Murdoch’s. Matt Hancock’s strident approval of that policy – for which no one, not even the Australian government which implemented it, seems able to provide a coherent defence – is a bad sign.

Factions and frontiers are beginning to form within the Government and the Conservative Party more broadly on this. Even within Cabinet, dividing lines are starting to emerge between figures like Hancock, who seem to favour more intervention from the Government, and others like Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and  Digital, Culture, Media and Sport secretary Oliver Dowden who – so far at least – appear to be on the side of the free market and of the belief that the DMU should aid competition, not seek to restructure it from the ground up.

Only time will tell which side wins out in the end. The DMU could yet be a hero or a villain. We can only hope that the Government will keep the consumer front and centre in their minds when crafting their technology policy.

CapX: Knee-jerk reactions are no way to regulate big tech

This article was first published on CapX.

Regulation enthusiasts around the world have set their sights on big tech.

In the UK, the outlet for this newfound appetite to rein in Silicon Valley is a brand new quango called the Digital Markets Unit [DMU], set to form part of the existing Competition and Markets Authority [CMA]. Specifics about the DMU’s remit are hard to come by, but the Government says it intends to foster a ‘pro-competition regime’ as it adapts the regulatory landscape to the challenges of big tech.

Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the minister holding the levers of power behind the DMU, is keeping his cards close to his chest. His stance remains murky, for instance, on the recent regulatory punch-up between Facebook and the Australian government. State powers down under emerged victorious after Mark Zuckerberg agreed to fork out new fees in order to host news links on Facebook.

Dowden has reportedly been chatting to his Australian counterparts – and has sent cryptic messages to the t-shirt-wearing gurus across the Atlantic (and Nick Clegg) – but has yet to come down on either side of the fence or offer any substantial hints about whether or not Britain might follow in Australia’s footsteps.

Others in Westminster appear much keener on an agenda of active hostility towards the American tech giants. Matt Hancock has already said he wants to see the UK mimic Australia’s hamstringing of social media companies by forcing them to pay news producers, calling himself a ‘great admirer’ of countries which have done so successfully.

Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak is already planning his next move. In the manner of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Dictator in a 100-metre sprint firing a gun at runners as they pull out ahead, Sunak has set his sights on the uber-successful technology industry, and wants to slow that success down by taxing it.

Not only does Sunak want to penalise tech giants for their successful business models with a new tax, he is also planning to use this year’s G7 summit in sandy Cornwall to lobby his international counterparts to do the same, with US treasury secretary Janet Yellen first in line to hear his pitch, which has the support of the Prime Minister. Companies like Amazon are already taxed for their digital services in the UK, but the chancellor views the current system as a stopgap until a global tech tax can be implemented.

This dramatic influx of punitive policies is set to do much more harm than good. Some new regulation may well be needed in this area – but there is an urgent danger that the Government will hurriedly execute a raft of headline-hungry policies which will do immeasurable damage in the longer term.

Poorly thought-out attempts to ‘level the playing field’ between old and new forms of commerce is not the area where post-Brexit Britain should be chasing a world-leading status. Instead, let’s set an example for what a modern, free economy which regulates big tech without being hostile towards it can look like. It’s not too late to keep the Digital Markets Unit’s in-house red tape production line from getting out of hand. The impending war with big tech

This article was first published on

The last few weeks have seen a substantial ramping up of rhetoric from Westminster towards big tech. Facebook’s dramatic show of power against – and subsequent capitulation to – the Australian government over its new law obliging it to pay news outlets to host their content made for gripping viewing, and it has since become clear that senior ministers across the British government were tuning in to the action.

Matt Hancock came bursting out of the blocks to declare himself a ‘great admirer’ of countries which have proposed laws forcing tech giants to pay for journalism. Rishi Sunak has been bigging-up this year’s G7 summit, which will be held in Cornwall. From the way he is talking, it sounds like he is preparing to lead an army of finance ministers from around the world into battle with Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, Oliver Dowden, the cabinet minister with responsibility for media and technology, indicated that he has been chatting to his Australian counterparts to learn more about the thinking behind their policymaking process. He followed that up with a series of stark and very public warnings to the businesses themselves, promising to “keep a close eye” on Facebook and Twitter, voicing his “grave concern” over the way big tech companies are operating and threatening sanctions if they step out of line.

This one-way war of words comes against the backdrop of a menacing new regulatory body slowly looming into view. The Digital Markets Unit, a quango which is set to form part of the existing Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), will be the chief weapon in the government’s armoury. As things stand, we know very little about what it is intended to achieve.

Big tech in its current form is a young industry, still struggling with teething problems as it learns how to handle owning all the information in the world. There are plenty of areas where Facebook, Google, Amazon and countless others are arguably falling short in their practices, from users’ privacy to threats to journalists, which Dowden and others have picked up on.

But the natural instinct of state actors to step in has the potential to be cataclysmically damaging. The government is running out of patience with the free market and seems poised to intervene. Countless times, haphazard central policy has quashed innovation and sent private money tumbling out of the country. Against the backdrop of the forthcoming corporation tax rise, there is a fine balance to strike between effective regulation and excessive state interference.

The nature of government interventions is that they block innovation, and therefore progress. Superfluous regulation is like a dazed donkey milling about in the middle of the road, bringing the traffic to a halt. Of course, the donkey is then given a charity collection bucket and the power to oblige passers-by to contribute a slice of their income for the privilege of driving society forwards, generating unfathomable wealth and providing us all with access to free services which have improved our quality of life beyond measure.

As the government ponders the appropriate parameters of the new Digital Markets Unit and seeks to place arbitrary limits on what big tech companies can do for the first time in the history of their existence, it should consider users’ interests first. There is a strong case to be made for shoring up the rights of individuals and cracking down more harshly on abuse and other worrying trends. But let’s not fall into the same trap as our cousins Down Under in making online services more expensive to use and passing those costs down to consumers.

As the much-fabled ‘post-Brexit Global Britain’ begins to take shape, we have a valuable opportunity to set an example for the rest of the world on how to go about regulating the technology giants. The standards we will have to meet to do that are not terribly high. In essence, all the government needs to do is avoid the vast, swinging, ham-fisted meddling which has so often characterised attempts at regulation in the past and Britain can become something of a world leader in this field.

Conservative Home: Dowden’s latest task? Regulating the internet. Here’s what Australia can teach us about that challenge

This article was first published on ConservativeHome.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden finds himself burdened with an almighty task: regulating the internet. His new ‘Digital Markets Unit’, set to form part of the existing Competitions and Markets Authority, will be the quango in charge of regulating the social media giants. Dowden, like the rest of us, is now trying to discern what can be learned by rummaging through the rubble left behind by the regulatory punch-up between Facebook and the Australian government over a new law forcing online platforms to pay news companies in order to host links to their content.

Google acquiesced immediately, agreeing to government-mandated negotiations with news producers. But Facebook looked ready to put up a fight, following through on its threat to axe all news content from its Australian services. It wasn’t long, though, before Mark Zuckerberg backed down, unblocked the Facebook pages of Australian newspapers and, through gritted teeth, agreed to set up a direct debit to Rupert Murdoch.

The drama down under has been met with a mixed response around the world, but it is broadly consistent with the trend of governments shifting towards more and more harmful and intrusive interference in the technology sector, directly undermining consumers’ interests and lining Murdoch’s pockets. The EU, for one, is keen to get stuck in, disregarding the status quo and unveiling its ambitious plan to keep tabs on the tech giants.

In the US, the situation is rather different. Some conspiracy theorists – the type who continue to believe that Donald Trump is the rightful president of the United States – like to allege that the infamous Section 230, the item of US legislation which effectively regulates social media there, was crafted in cahoots with big tech lobbyists as a favour to bigwigs at Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on. In reality, Section 230 was passed as part of the Communications Decency Act in 1996, long before any of those companies existed.

Wildly overhyped by many as a grand DC-Silicon Valley conspiracy to shut down the right’s online presence, Section 230 is actually very short and very simple. It is, in fact, just 26 words long: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Not only is this a good starting point from which to go about regulating the internet – it is the only workable starting point. If the opposite were true – if platforms were treated as publishers and held liable for the content posted by their users – competition would suffer immensely. Incumbent giants like Facebook would have no problem employing a small army of content moderators to insulate themselves, solidifying their position at the top of the food chain. Meanwhile, smaller companies – the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow – would be unable to keep up, resulting in a grinding halt to innovation and competition.

Another unintended consequence – a clear theme when it comes to undue government meddling in complex matters – would be that vibrant online spaces would quickly become unusable as companies scramble to moderate platforms to within an inch of their lives in order to inoculate themselves against legal peril.

Even with the protections currently in place, it is plain how awful platforms are at moderating content. There are thousands of examples of well-intentioned moderation gone wrong. In January, the Entrepreneurs Network’s Sam Dumitriu found himself plonked in Twitter jail for a tweet containing the words “vaccine” and “microchip” in an attempt to call out a NIMBY’s faulty logic. Abandoning the fundamental Section 230 provision would only make this problem much, much worse by forcing platforms to moderate much more aggressively than they already do.

Centralisation of policy in this area fails consistently whether it comes from governments or the private sector because it is necessarily arbitrary and prone to human error. When Facebook tried to block Australian news outlets, it also accidentally barred the UK-based output of Sky News and the Telegraph, both of which have Australian namesakes. State-sanctioned centralisation of policy, though, is all the more dangerous, especially now that governments seem content to tear up the rulebook and run riot over the norms of the industry almost at random, resulting in interventions which are both ineffectual and harmful.

The Australian intervention in the market is so arbitrary that it could easily have been the other way around: forcing News Corp to pay Facebook for the privilege of having its content shared freely by people all over the world. Perhaps the policy would even make more sense that way round. If someone was offering news outlets a promotional package with a reach comparable to Facebook’s usership, the value of that package on the ad market would be enormous.

Making people pay to have their links shared makes no sense at all. Never in the history of the internet has anybody had to pay to share a link. In fact, the way the internet works is precisely the opposite: individuals and companies regularly fork out large sums of money in order to put their links on more people’s screens.

If you’d said to a newspaper editor twenty years ago that they would soon have free access to virtual networks where worldwide promotion of their content would be powered by organic sharing, they would have leapt for joy. A regulator coming along and decreeing that the provider of that free service now owes money to the newspaper editor is patently ludicrous.

That is not to say, however, that there is no role for a regulator to play. But whether or not the Digital Markets Unit will manage to avoid the minefield of over-regulation remains to be seen. As things stand, there is a very real danger that we might slip down that road. Matt Hancock enthusiastically endorsed the Australian government’s approach, and Oliver Dowden has reportedly been chatting with his counterparts down under about this topic.

The humdrum of discourse over this policy area was already growing, but the Australia-Facebook debacle has ignited it. The stars have aligned such that 2021 is the long-awaited point when the world’s governments finally attempt to reckon with the tech behemoths. From the US to Brussels, from Australia to the Baltics, the amount of attention being paid to this issue is booming.

As UK government policy begins to take shape, expect to see fronts forming between different factions within the Conservative Party on this issue. When it comes to material consequences in Britain, it is not yet clear what all this will mean. The Digital Markets Unit could yet be a hero or a villain.