"For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens 'as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone'"
It's sometimes easy to forget that European and American notions of the rule of law aren't all that similar. For all that Cameron's quote sounds alarming, the actual laws being proposed are even more so; they would grant courts the power to "silence any group or individual they believe is undermining democracy or the British values of tolerance and mutual respect," banning them from doing things like speaking in public or forming organizations.
The UK has always had a very different approach to speech than the US. Libel laws are perhaps the most famous illustration; in the US, truth is an affirmative defense to libel -- that is, if you can prove that what you said is true, then it's not libel. (Which is key to the operation of the press) Under UK law, libel isn't an offense of making false
statements which damage someone's reputation; it's about damaging someone's reputation, period, and so "the greater the truth, the greater the libel." This has led the UK to be such a site of "libel tourism" -- that is, of powerful people suing anyone who speaks against them -- that a few years ago, the US decided it would refuse to honor or assist in any UK libel prosecutions whatsoever.
Also relevantly, the UK has its (in)famous "anti-social behavior ordinances," the template for the new proposal, which permit courts to issue injunctions banning individuals or groups from any kind of behavior they consider to be detrimental to society, without a specific law banning it. (The non-uniform application of these laws as a function of things like race and class happens about exactly as you would anticipate)
These are far from the only examples, and what they illustrate is a fundamentally different approach to the rule of law: in European law, the power of the government to rule -- that is, to establish and enforce norms -- takes precedence over any individual rights, whereas in the US, the reverse is the case.
However, these are far from uncontroversial, even within Europe; as the article below shows, this particular law was stopped for years because the Conservative Party couldn't convince their largest coalition partner (the Lib Dems) that this was a good idea. It was last week's election that gave them the votes to do this without anyone else. The BBC reports that "there is likely to be some opposition in the new Parliament on the grounds that some of the plans could infringe people's right to free speech," but whether this opposition will actually amount to anything remains to be seen.
The main reason I'm highlighting this isn't the global significance of the law, so much as that it's important for understanding the British (and more generally, the European) approach to the law and to individuals. When we read about controversies of policy like the "right to be forgotten" between the two sides, it's worth understanding that in addition to our seeming similarities, there are extreme differences of culture and law at work, too.
Thanks to +Peter da Silva
and +Steven Flaeck
for the link.