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Online censorship in the name of regulation?

May 2019

I wouldn’t blame you if it has slipped you by, but the government has released new proposals to regulate the entire internet. It wants to fine websites that fail to tackle ‘online harms’. It proposes to set up a new independent watchdog which will introduce a ‘code of practice’.

What’s that got to do with us as evangelicals? Well, the scope of the new proposals is alarming. Everything on the internet will come under the plans – so that includes your church website, or the online content of any Christian organisation, or any pastor who has a blog.

The definition of an ‘online harm’ is wide open to interpretation. Yes, we can all agree that using the internet for child sexual exploitation or for planning terrorist activities is harmful. But those things are already illegal.

Could your pastor’s sermon on heaven and hell be an ‘online harm’? Or his blog post about the biblical view of sexual ethics? Or the social media postings of an evangelistic organisation who urges sinners to repent? Would you want a secular regulator to judge those things?

While you ponder that, remember that international rugby star Israel Folau faces dismissal for posting biblical material on the internet. And a Christian school worker has been fired for using Facebook to raise concerns about relationships education. In other words, people are already censoring the things Christians can say online.

It’s not only evangelicals who see the dangers of government regulation. Several secular civil liberty groups have written a joint letter to the press expressing their deepest concerns. They say, if the UK goes ahead with this proposed regulation, it will lead to the kind of censorship of which China would be proud.

The internet has been a wonderful tool for evangelical churches. It helps them to reach huge audiences at home and abroad. Most churches upload their sermons every week, and many use social media to reach out with the gospel.

I don’t deny that the internet is full of harms, some even done in the name of ‘Christianity’. And perhaps the big technology companies could have done more to tackle the obvious cases. But nevertheless, we must be very wary of sweeping government regulation. It can so easily become censorship against biblical truth.