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UK government bid to censor the internet faces growing resistance

A proposed set of new UK laws would appoint Ofcom as censor of all digital communications in the country. Not everyone thinks that’s such a great idea.

The Online Safety Bill is the product of the UK government’s ‘commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while defending free expression.’ Safety and freedom eh? Sounds like a win-win, doesn’t it? But a bunch of people who make it their business to defend free expression are unconvinced.

MP David Davis (one of the few principled politicians in the UK), Index on Censorship Chief Exec Ruth Smeeth, and Gavin Millar QC are among the founders of a campaign called ‘Legal to Say. Legal to Type’. As the name implies, they view this bill as a bid to effectively criminalise legal speech when it takes place in the digital sphere.

“The Online Safety Bill is a Censor’s Charter,” said Davis. “Lobby groups will be able to push social networks to take down content they view as not politically correct, even though the content is legal. The idea we should force Silicon Valley companies to police Briton’s speech online, seems out of Orwell’s 1984, and is not what our voters expect of us.”

“The government’s bill is catastrophic for freedom of speech,” said Smeeth. “Its plan to force tech platforms to delete ‘harmful’ content or face big fines will lead to many legal posts being deleted. At Index on Censorship we work with people across the globe who are being censored by oppressive regimes. It might not be the UK government’s intention but this bill sets a worrying international precedent. Dictators around the world will be taking notes.

“Also as someone who has experienced online abuse, I am dismayed that the bill would force platforms to delete offending comments. These comments are vital evidence for law enforcement and will make it harder for the authorities to catch people who actually break the law online.”

“The bill proposed by the government is likely to lead to perfectly legal speech being removed from the internet and it seems inevitable that this will be challenged in the courts,” said Millar. The scale of the task given to platforms, and the vagueness of wording in the legislation will force broad ‘technical’ solutions to content moderation – such as overly restrictive algorithms which will make decisions without context, nuance and an understanding of our laws and culture. This could lead to large quantities of content being blocked wrongly.

“Judgments that should be reserved for UK prosecutors and the courts will be outsourced to global tech companies. As someone who has undertaken many free speech missions for international organisations to countries with repressive free speech regimes such as China, Turkey, Azerbaijan there is a real risk that this legislation, if passed, will be used to justify repressive measures aimed at closing down free speech on the internet in these countries.”

Central to the campaign’s legal critique is the imposition of ‘duty of care’ onto anyone who does anything online. This is a clear attempt to make safety, not freedom, the emphasis of Ofcom’s new powers, for the implementation of which it recently appointed a chief digital censor. Index on Censorship has published a deep dive into the matter and also recommends a paper from the Centre for Policy Studies that proposes a less censorious way to protect people from genuine online harm.

Given how zealously (albeit selectively so) internet platforms already censor their users, it speaks volumes that the UK government still thinks they don’t go far enough. As ever with matters of censorship, legality should be the threshold. It’s already illegal to do much of the stuff this bill has supposedly been created to prevent, so it’s hard to see it as anything other than yet another state power grab at a time when public sentiment is understandably concerned with safety.


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