LONDON — Britain’s digital minister has Big Tech in her sights — but critics worry she’s not sufficiently across the details for her reforms to stick.
Promoted to Boris Johnson’s top team last September, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Nadine Dorries initially made headlines with enthusiastic attacks on “woke” culture and because of her personal loyalty to the prime minister.
But the outspoken romantic novelist has also proved eager to ramp up pressure on tech platforms, both because of what she sees as their failure to deal with terrorist propaganda and child sexual abuse and, since Russia invaded Ukraine, as a vocal critic of disinformation online.
Beyond Britain, many will eye her efforts as early examples of attempts to balance tackling harmful or misleading content online with the freedom of speech demanded by democratic societies.
In her first six months in the job, Dorries has earned plaudits for bringing new life to long-stalled tech legislation that’s spent years in civil service limbo.
Yet her detractors warn the same zeal — both for Johnson himself and against Big Tech — could prove problematic as she grapples with the deeply controversial brief of reining in harmful content on social media platforms. They argue her determination is not always matched with an eye for digital details.
“She is very clear on the stamp that she wants to leave on her time at DCMS [the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] — the Online Safety Bill and wanting to ensure that children are protected, and dealing with the power of the platforms,” a department official who has worked closely with Dorries said.
The day before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Dorries wrote to the U.K.’s media regulator Ofcom calling for “timely and transparent” action against RT, the Kremlin-backed broadcaster formerly known as Russia Today. She warned the Russian government was conducting an “aggressive set of information operations against Ukraine and NATO in a transparent and shameful attempt to justify their renewed military action against Ukraine.”
While Dorries’ letter acknowledged “Ofcom’s regulatory independence,” some critics worry the secretary of state was overreaching, undermining a regulatory set-up that is supposed to keep politicians out of the business of policing news, and they worry such willingness to interfere does not bode well for the regulation of harmful content online more broadly.
“Much as I feel personally that I would like Russia Today held to account, if there is a regulator, it must be the regulator that does that,” said Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group. “All that letter serves to do is to help Nadine Dorries grandstand on the one hand, and apply political pressure to a regulator that we need to be independent.”
“The fact that they’re prepared to do that in this circumstance tells you they will do this in every circumstance to do with online harms,” he added. “It is an obvious problem with the model they propose.”
DCMS declined an interview request.
Tough on tech
The U.K.’s proposed law to regulate harmful content online floats hefty penalties for sites that fail to remove illegal material such as terrorist propaganda and child sexual abuse. It also imposes a so-called duty of care on platforms where people can interact with each other, making them responsible for policing online content and protecting users from content deemed “harmful.”
The full text of the proposal will be published Thursday, though many of the government’s key objectives have already been made public.
Dorries was quick to put her stamp on the law. Social media sites hosting large amounts of pornographic material will have to work under the same age-verification rules as adult content sites.
She’s unveiled plans to force social networks to let users filter out unverified accounts, and promised the biggest platforms will have a legal duty to protect users from fraudulent paid-for advertisements — a move previously resisted by the government.
Campaigners wanting tougher action against Big Tech already spy an ally. Imran Ahmed, the founder of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which highlights misinformation online and pushes reform, said Dorries is “a conviction politician — and that is what you are going to need to take on one of the world’s most aggressive lobbying industries.”
“The final Online Safety Bill is likely to be tougher for businesses under Dorries than it would have been under former secretaries of state,” agreed Ben Greenstone, a former senior official in the department who now runs the consultancy Taso Advisory. He cited the recently-published “broad” list of illegal content platforms will be required to act on when the new bill becomes law.
Dorries’ sprawling brief also includes sport, media and culture but she has focused on online safety. International data flows — a topic her predecessor Oliver Dowden took up with relish as chance to boast about Brexit dividends — has been left to junior minister Julia Lopez, according to one insider, who said Dorries delegates far more than her predecessor.
Dorries has framed the online safety debate as a deeply personal mission.
She often references her three grown-up daughters in meetings, and has spoken about her “devastating” experience meeting parents of children who had taken their own lives when she was Johnson’s mental health minister.
“It was not that they went online and looked for the means to do so, but because algorithms took them in that direction, whether it was to pro-anorexia sites, suicide chatrooms or self-harm sites,” she told MPs in November.
A second official close to Dorries said she’s pragmatic about what’s achievable. “We can write a bill which says ‘protect children,’ but if it won’t pass, that’s not going to help anyone,” they said.
Dorries herself is no stranger to controversy. A self-made businesswoman and successful author who by her own admission was surprised to be promoted to the Cabinet, the Conservative MP was already well-known in Westminster when she was appointed to the brief.
She previously angered some in her party after going on the reality television show I’m A Celebrity in November 2012, taking her away from parliamentary duties. She was temporarily suspended from the Conservative Party by former Prime Minister David Cameron as a result. Her feud with Cameron is legendary — and apparently, still ongoing. She recently likened him to “ticket tout” when a picture of the ex-PM wearing a baseball cap was published.
With Johnson, however, she’s displayed a loyalty so fierce it has been criticized for crossing the line into “fake news.”
At the height of the so-called Partygate row, in which Johnson and his team were accused of hosting boozy parties during coronavirus lockdowns, the prime minister hit back at opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, for spending most of his time “failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile” — a former television personality who sexually abused hundreds of children at the height of his fame. Dorries swiftly jumped to her boss’ defense, despite fact-checking websites concluding Starmer was not personally involved in decisions on that case.
Challenged on claims Johnson was promoting conspiracy theories, Dorries insisted “the prime minister tells the truth” and her supporters dismiss criticisms about disinformation as political point-scoring.
On Twitter, Dorries rarely holds back from voicing her views, making jokes and taking on critics with an approach that opponents argue has led to multiple gaffes.
Past Twitter comments on race, culture and media have been scrutinized again since she was put in charge of government digital policy. She was criticized for telling a British journalist to “appreciate” the country she’d lived in for decades instead of tweeting about abuse. And she drew flak when London’s first Muslim mayor read out an Islamophobic death threat he had received, telling Sadiq Khan he should instead be talking about Muslim grooming gangs.
Ban those algorithms
For all Dorries’ passion, some of those who have worked closely with her say she has, at times, lacked a grasp of the detail.
Dorries arrived at a meeting with software giant Microsoft and immediately asked when they were going to get rid of algorithms, according to an official given an account of the meeting. She also raised the same issue in a separate stakeholder meeting, a lobbyist familiar with the exchange said.
While campaigners criticized the way algorithms are used by platforms, alleging they value user engagement at all costs and promote harmful biases, calls for reform focus on their design and a push for transparency rather than an outright ban.
The second official close to Dorries accepted her desire to combat negative behavior may have been “lost in translation.”
John Nicholson, a political opponent who holds the culture brief for the Scottish National Party, is unimpressed.
“When you see her before the select committee [of MPs], she’s rarely able to answer a question on her own, she has to turn to the civil servants or the minister or whoever she’s with. She’s just not briefed, doesn’t bother to brief herself, and doesn’t seem to have much background knowledge on any of the subjects in her portfolio,” he said.
But the second official close to Dorries insists she is simply allowing the “female experts in the room to speak out,” including the top official working on the legislation, Sarah Connolly, the director of security and online harms.
“There are people in team who have worked on this for five, six years, some really smart, dedicated officials. Nadine regularly turns to officials in the meetings because she’s not afraid to empower the people around her, particularly the people who are experts in their fields and give them the space to speak out. That’s a positive thing,” the second official added.
Others suggest snobbery and sexism prompts much of the criticism. “I think she is certainly no worse than lots of male Cabinet members, and politicians generally,” a second lobbyist said.
“It is always going to take time to get over the details [of tech policy.] It’s almost a different language,” the first official quoted above said.
Officials, former ministerial colleagues and lobbyists all say Dorries’ warmth, genuine interest and passion for child protection has won over many stakeholders. An approach which is not “technocratic, bureaucratic or expert” is a “benefit,” said a third Whitehall official, with knowledge of the bill.
“She’s been able to drive [the Online Harms Bill] more because she’s got a clearer vision in her head of what she’s trying to achieve rather than trying to balance lots of countervailing positions that can’t be squared off,” the first official quoted above added.
However, one Conservative MP colleague predicts trouble ahead — and fears Dorries will come up against “some very heated, and I think rather disingenuous free speech arguments in parliament.”
There are “inherent tensions” between protecting users from harmful content and abuse, and those who believe the legislation could see tech companies censor free speech, the MP said.
“I think she will find that deeply uncomfortable because she’s much more comfortable being a friend of [the libertarian Conservative MP] David Davis, than she is being a friend of someone she would think of as a sort of snowflake. She is going to find herself in a very uncomfortable position,” they added.
Dorries addressed some of those criticisms in a piece for the ConservativeHome website on Wednesday insisting there will be considerably stronger protections for free speech in the bill. “Right now, there is no official right to appeal when a post is taken down. Under this Bill, there will be,” she said.
For his own part, Davis said he is a fan of Dorries’, praising the fact she is not a “boring conformist.” He is sympathetic to her plight of protecting children, but says the problem comes in identifying children online. “It seems to me that the departmental philosophy has ignored that option,” he said. “We have gone down the route of trying to protect everybody from things it is proper to protect children from.”
Dorries’ department believes she has the wider public firmly on her side in taking on tech titans. That theory is about to be put to the test — and many across the world will be watching to see if she’s right.
Vincent Manancourt contributed reporting.
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