The Nature of Public Debate – a win for Conference

Last conference, I moved a vote to reference back the paper on the Nature of Public Debate. Referring a paper back – a procedural move that returns the paper to a federal committee for six months’ reworking before the next conference – is designed for cases where conference believes that the broad approach of the paper is correct but that there are notable flaws with the detail that need reworking. That was the case here, with a number of issues around the thorny issue of regulating speech on the internet that needed working out or tightening up. In my speech last autumn to move the referral back, I said that I’d be happy to sit down with the working group to iron out some of those details – that’s what I did, and members voting for that reference back has led to a far more robust paper.

The changes made to the paper are in the detail, but online regulation is a world where details can have immense ramifications. A more effective definition of algorithms has ensured that proposals to give people more control of their content viewing online are workable and effective, where the paper’s previous versions would have been impossible to enforce and risked weakening our reputation as a party able to make effective proposals on tech issues. We also clarified language on online content provision and built more explicit alignment with EU regulations into the proposals, ensuring we’re better in step with the front line globally on these issues.

We also worked to improve the focus on who the proposals are aimed at. We tightened up the definition of social media in the paper to ensure our proposals only hit companies big enough to account for them – a looser definition risked new regulations hitting smaller companies and communities, stifling competition and hurting diversity of spaces online. We clarified much more effectively, too, that people’s speech rights in online communities of any size exist with regard to the rules of those communities, not an external legal precept. As liberals, we should never want to force companies or communities to host, for example, racist speech, and we shouldn’t want it to be possible for the wealthy to threaten smaller outlets with legal battles for moderating or refusing to publish their views. The changes to the paper protect smaller forums and communities from the full scope of the new regulations, better protecting free speech and our ability to build a diverse array of different spaces for which varying rules on members’ speech will be appropriate.

Finally, there are important shifts when it comes to abuse online. Conference-goers were rightly concerned that new rights to challenge companies for failing to uphold free speech could discourage companies from tackling abuse: as a result, companies’ duty of care to users is now explicitly enshrined in the policy paper. One of the paper’s most important advances in its revised form is enshrining the mirror image of that right in Lib Dem policy so that those facing online abuse would also have a right to challenge social media giants who failed to uphold their own policies on stamping out bigoted and abusive speech online.

Whether or not you agree with every policy in the paper, they now form a sharper, more effective platform: I’d like to thank the working group and supporting staff for sitting down with me and making these improvements a reality. We have a particular responsibility to get these things right, in a world where governments are too often happy to take heavy-handed and poorly thought through regulatory actions, and where all too often the loud voices of right-wing columnists and giant social media companies end up dominating the debate and overruling the needs of small digital communities, marginalised voices, and those facing online abuse. Those are challenges I believe the paper is now far better placed to respond to.

Finally, whilst I know some people in the party question the value of the various procedural mechanisms at conference, this is a great example of why it’s so important that conference is able to refer motions back to committees. Putting a paper past the wider body of the membership can reveal issues, especially with policy areas covering a wide and technically detailed remit, which necessitate further work. Having an accessible, effective capacity for ordinary members to turn those papers round at a conference means that we can deal with those problems at that stage – the alternative being risking making public proposals that don’t live up to the high standards we should set ourselves, or that leave holes and open the potential for electorally damaging attacks. The improvements I’ve outlined above, for all the work I and the working group did to achieve them, were possible because you, fellow Liberal Democrat members, voted to make them happen. This is a real win for conference and for our policy processes, and one of which we should all feel proud.

* James Baillie is a member and activist from Breckland and a former chair of the Lib Dems' Radical Association. He is currently a doctoral student at the University of Vienna, where he works on digital studies of medieval Georgia. He blogs about politics at

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  • Olly Craven 9th Mar '22 - 4:46pm

    While it is slightly embarrassing that I missed these problems while on FPC, I do appreciate James bringing the success of this reference back up. I know that a few people consider references back just a procedural trick, but they are an important tool in ensuring that we get the best possible policy.

    The embarrassment of our MPs going out to bat for the poor original policy and getting ridecule for it would have massively outweighed any embarrassment anyone on FPC or the working group felt at the reference back.

    Thanks for contributing to the strength of this policy, James!

  • “We clarified much more effectively, too, that people’s speech rights in online communities of any size exist with regard to the rules of those communities, not an external legal precept.” Thank you for that.
    Here on LDV I have been subjected to abuse more than once for turning down a post. Typically the person shouts “censorship” at us and cites Freedom of Speech as the reason why we should publish absolutely anything that is sent to us.
    Lib Dem Voice is an edited blog and we can choose what we publish – in the same way that any newspaper chooses which letters to publish. If my letter isn’t published in The Guardian (though several have been) I don’t accuse them of suppressing free speech.
    So I’m very pleased that those contexts are understood.

  • Chris Moore 10th Mar '22 - 8:36am

    Hello Mary, the moderators do sterling voluntary work on LDV. I’m very sorry to hear you’ve received abuse as a result.

    LDV isn’t a newspaper. It’s a blog, with articles and comment pertinent to the party.

    The comparison to the letters’ page of the Guardian doesn’t work. The reason the vast majority of letters sent to the Guardian don’t get published is lack of space. So the editors have the luxury of choosing the most interesting wittiest hard-hitting ….etc

    Here there is boundless space for comment below the article. The subsequent conversation is the lifeblood of this blog, which presents itself as a forum for members.

    Could I humbly ask all the moderators to re-think this line about being a newspaper? I believe it’s conceptually mistaken and is very occasionally leading you astray.

  • David Garlick 10th Mar '22 - 10:00am

    Good work and in the current turmoil well worth getting improvements to guard free speech which is under attack in Ukraine for example. A fast moving developing area of communications which will need to be reviewed and updated regularly I expect.

  • Fraser Graham 10th Mar '22 - 10:01am

    Ahead of conference, this is a great article to show how important it is to have procedural motions such as the reference back.

    Too often the phrase ‘lets not let the perfect be the enemy of the good’ is used to attempt to push through flawed policy, in the hope it will be tidied up later.

    Reference back allows it to be sent back to be adjusted to be more perfect, and remove the room for interpretation. And this particular use shows why that is important.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Mar '22 - 5:10pm

    A well intetioned and well mannered contribution from James.

    I am shocked that anyone could abuse colleagues here, like Mary. Goodness knows I have disagreed with a decision once or twice, with Mary, Caron or another of the excellent volunteers. But to actually insult or offend, rather than challenge or disagree, is a disgrace. I do favour, on free speech, quite a liberty loving attitude. My view is only racism, and insults ought to be turned away, views, unless inciting hatred, or violence, should all be heard. I do not see this site as a free for all, though in feeling that, it should not be a controlling approach, rejecting comments, or contributions, in my opinion, other than as described.

    I do think Caron, Mary, Paul, Mark, do a terrific job. But what can we do to get more coverage or participation in forums ;like this, or others I engage with? Unless you get a following on twitter, or facebook, or you tube, that is a mass following, you preach to the choir too much , you me et al!

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