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By Jonathan Isaby
Before the Commons rose for the Easter recess last week, Labour MP Mike Gapes introduced a ten-minute rule bill, the Electoral Registration, Identification and Eligibility for Voting Bill.
Whilst his main aim was to ensure that the electoral register is more accurate and to combat electoral fraud, he also wanted to "strengthen measures to control negative campaigns by third party groups and websites".
Gapes said that a variety of organisations had run negative web-based campaigns at the last election and lamented that
"Liberal Democrats or other people were elected having been beneficiaries of this negative campaigning. We should tighten up the rules to regulate what can be put on the internet."
It was this measure alone which provoked Conservative MP Robert Halfon to oppose the Bill.
"Effectively, he is calling for regulation of the internet. He has built a Trojan horse of censorship under cover of making every vote count fairly. His proposal is wrong for two reasons: it would amount to a huge assault on individual freedom of expression, and it is unenforceable.
"Last Friday, the hon. Gentleman said in an interview on the "Today in Parliament" programme – I almost choked on my hot chocolate – that he objects to so-called attack websites because they can be 'very effective in the modern world'.
"I agree that all election materials must be sourced and that publishers must be clearly identified. He went further when he said: 'It is not just attack websites. I think there should be a framework whereby publishing materials about elections, about candidates-either promotion, or negative campaigning-needs to be brought within the normal election law.'
"The interviewer put it to him: 'You do wonder if the cure might be worse than the disease on this. You might stop people who want legitimately to comment on an election, because they have to go through some massive registration process.'
"His reply went precisely to the heart of the problem when he said: 'I am not calling for censorship. I am calling for regulation.' That is a false argument, because when it comes to free expression, regulation is censorship by another name.
"With free expression, regulation is censorship of the worst kind, because it deters amateur enthusiasts, small neighbourhood groups and free-thinking individuals. Any increase in red tape and bureaucracy would leave the battle of ideas to special interest groups: the rich, the media establishment, those with extreme views, and professional groups such as trade unions and political parties.
"The hon. Gentleman justifies his reform by saying that 'other election literature is restricted'. However, I believe that election literature is too restricted as it is. There are too many rules regarding second and third-party endorsements, for example, and the Electoral Commission regulations can be a minefield."
"Negative campaigning, however frustrating, is part of free speech and we must hope that the truth will ultimately shine through in a marketplace of ideas."
"My second objection is that the provision is clearly unenforceable, as the hon. Gentleman said on BBC Radio 4. Web postings can be made overseas and domain names can be registered in different territories. Even if we restrict one individual from commenting, it will like the Hydra's head: another will pop up in its place.
"We all know what Voltaire said, but as a good Tory let me quote Hayek: 'In any society freedom of thought will probably be of direct significance only for a small minority. But this does not mean that anyone is competent, or ought to have the power, to select those to whom this freedom is to be reserved'."
Halfon then forced a vote on the Bill and defeated it by 86 votes to 30.