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Academic accuses government of ‘hypocrisy’ for cancelling her speech over criticism of policies

‘It is politically loaded. They are playing into culture wars rhetoric. It is really excessive,’ Kate Devlin says

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Tuesday 11 October 2022 12:56 BST
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Dr Devlin, an academic at Kings College London, says she received an email saying the government had blocked her talk ‘because’ she ‘had made a criticism of government policy via social media’
Dr Devlin, an academic at Kings College London, says she received an email saying the government had blocked her talk ‘because’ she ‘had made a criticism of government policy via social media’ (Kate Devlin)

An academic has accused the government of “hypocrisy” for cancelling her planned speech after she criticised their policies, while also proposing laws to fines universities for blocking speakers with unpopular views.

Kate Devlin, who specialises in artificial intelligence, told The Independent she had been due to speak at an event at a major UK government department on Tuesday about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) but had her invitation revoked last week.

Dr Devlin, an academic at Kings College London, said she received an email saying the ministry had blocked her talk “because” she had “made a criticism of government policy via social media”.

The email, seen by The Independent, stated it would not allow speakers with historical social media material criticising the government.

In a Twitter thread detailing the cancellation, which has been shared over 4,000 times, Dr Devlin noted she was “openly critical of some government policies”, explaining she was “opposed” to the much-delayed Online Harms Bill.

“My criticism comes from years of research, and I certainly don’t confine it to the current government,” the academic added.

Dr Devlin, who specialises in artificial intelligence and sex, told The Independent the online safety bill, which the government has promised to reintroduce to parliament soon, is “well-intentioned” but warned the “removal of one set of harms will lead to a new set of harms”.

The academic added: A large part of this is in the rollout of AI to automate the process – and that this will be done by private companies, notably big tech platforms”.

Dr Devlin researches the social impact of AI and is “concerned that such systems are flawed and therefore such monitoring is flawed”.

Open Rights Group, a campaign group that Dr Devlin sits on the board of, has raised concerns the Online Safety Bill generates a “mandate for the widescale monitoring of every social media post, and potentially every chat message too”.

“This monitoring could only be conducted by means of artificial intelligence systems. In doing so, it automates the process of determining whether or not speech is lawful, and therefore, whether it should be censored,” the campaign group, which champions digital rights, states.

Dr Devlin said she found it “hypocritical” and “deeply ironic” the government was “pushing the Higher Education (Freedom of Expression) Bill while simultaneously blocking guest speakers from talking to civil service networks because they don’t necessarily agree with government initiatives”.

Dr Devlin added: “The higher education bill is being introduced by the government on the poorly-evidenced pretext that speakers are being denied a platform. The bill would force universities to comply or face sanctions.

“They are going on the premise there is such a thing of cancel culture, to get universities to hire speakers in order to avoid fines. Speakers can get financial confirmation if they feel they have been no-platformed. But legislation already exists to protect freedom of speech.

“It is politically loaded. They are playing into culture wars rhetoric. It is really excessive and it assumes there is some kind of culture war and cancel culture in place which I don’t think is evidenced.”

The government is “defending something that doesn’t need to be defended”, Dr Devlin said, noting it was “troubling and worrying” she had been blocked from giving a government department talk.

“By this government, I am not especially surprised, I am more disappointed,” the academic, who has written a book called Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots, added.

The government said the civil service does not have policies in place to block speakers if they share critical tweets, adding it believed there was more to the situation and it would keep looking into it.

A spokesperson added the Civil Service Code necessitates political impartiality, which sets its activity apart from what happens in wider society.

Dr Devlin said she had received messages of support from people across the political spectrum after tweeting that she had been disinvited from the talk.

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