Is Britain going to see the return of the Lord Chamberlain?

Staff member Mike Laughton was following the Queen's Speech. Although it's known around the world as a chance for the British to bring back traditions most had forgotten about, this Address from the Throne might seek to bring back one more: censorship. We parse the pomp and ceremony to ask questions of the government's programme for the technology sector.

Keen watchers of the Queen’s Speech last week will have noticed three things.  Firstly, the Lord Chamberlain of the Household.  Now mostly a constitutional ornament, the Lord Chamberlain was, for the 231 years to 1968, the state’s censor in the theatre.  He (invariably he), along with a team of play readers, was able to change the text – famously returning scripts annotated with blue pencil – or prevent the showing of any play in the country designed for public audiences altogether if, in his view, it was fitting for “the preservation of good manners, and of the public peace to do so.”

Second to be spotted was the Minister for Internet Safety and Security, a post created the week after the General Election.  Among other laudable and positive policy goals, the holder, Baroness Shields, will be responsible for delivering protection from “extremist” and “harmful” content.  The Conservative Party’s efforts in the last parliament have not been limited to the removal and prevention of illegal content – it attempted to mandate opt-out content filters at the ISP level in 2013.  Under pressure from government, Britain’s leading ISPs now voluntarily presume their customers wish content filters to apply, unless they explicitly request otherwise.

Thirdly and finally, the Investigatory Powers Bill (formerly known as the  Communications Data Bill).  The bill is yet to be published, but is rumoured to contain provisions to monitor not just the information about a given communication (who sent it, to whom, from where and when it was sent) but the communication itself.  It will also strengthen the powers of Ofcom to deal with broadcasters airing anything “extremist”.  The working definition of extremism is that which undermines “British values” (or, to borrow the phrase, the public peace).

The category of broadcasters, it bears mentioning, now frequently includes on-demand services.

The Queen’s Speech this year puts these otherwise disparate developments into a theme for government.  The sum may have more profound consequences than the parts, as they indicate a direction of travel toward greater regulation.

Those of us concerned with constructive Internet regulation, guaranteeing freedom and prosperous industry, should perhaps keep half an eye on the stationery orders of the office of the Lord Chamberlain – and indeed the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – for any increase in the number of blue pencils.  It may be an acid test for future developments.

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