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UK government ties itself in knots over social media censorship

The UK government wants to protect us from online horridness but seems confused about how best to go about it while also protecting freedom of speech.

A parliamentary committee has published a report in to government digital censorship proposals contained in the draft Online Safety Bill. The report is titled ‘Free for all? Freedom of expression in the digital age’ and seems to be positioned as opposition to parts of the Bill. It contains a few mild statements of concern about censorship not always being an unconditionally good thing, while conceding that horridness is bad and must therefore be stamped out with the full force of the law.

One rare substantial critique concerns ‘clause 11’, which apparently seeks to force internet platforms to stamp out online speech that, while not illegal, is still ‘harmful’. ‘We do not support the government’s proposed duties on platforms in clause 11 of the draft Online Safety Bill relating to content which is legal but may be harmful to adults,’ says the summary of the report.

We are not convinced that they are workable or could be implemented without unjustifiable and unprecedented interference in freedom of expression. If a type of content is seriously harmful, it should be defined and criminalised through primary legislation. It would be more effective—and more consistent with the value which has historically been attached to freedom of expression in the UK—to address content which is legal but some may find distressing through strong regulation of the design of platforms, digital citizenship education, and competition regulation.’

In terms of due process that statement is spot on but it still sidesteps the more fundamental issues surrounding censorship such as enforcement, subjectivity and even desirability. How do we determine whether a type of content is ‘seriously harmful’, especially since both terms are largely subjective? Are there degrees of harm or just a simple threshold and what is an appropriate and useful punishment for people who cross it. What about context, satire, parody, etc? Even the ‘strong regulation of the design of platforms’ seems impossible to specify, let alone enforce.

“If the government believes that a type of content is sufficiently harmful, it should be criminalised,” said Lord Gilbert, Chair of the committee. “We would expect this to include, for example, any of the vile racist abuse directed at members of the England football team which isn’t already illegal. It has no place in our society and the full force of the law must be brought down on the perpetrators urgently.”

But it already has, m’lud, with the five UK citizens they were able to identify as responsible for such stuff arrested within days. Civil society is united in condemnation of such abuse, such that ‘vile’ has now become the obligatory adjective for it, but surely such vileness is not restricted to the culmination of major football tournaments. What about all the other abuse, racist or otherwise, sent to people, footballers or otherwise, constantly on the internet. Should every such case result in an arrest?

Gilbert, sadly, seems to have fallen prey to exactly the kind of policy-by-Twitter that afflicts the government. There was a moral panic following what turned out to be a small number of trolls (yes, even those are too many), most of whom weren’t even UK based, such that for several days being seen to respond robustly became the overriding priority of this administration. Meanwhile other, seemingly more malicious, forms of online abuse apparently continue to escape its attention.

“The right to speak your mind is the hallmark of a free society and a right long treasured in Britain but it isn’t an unfettered right,” said Gilbert. “The rights and preferences of individuals must be at the heart of a new, joined-up regulatory approach, bringing together competition policy, data, design, law enforcement and the protection of children. Britain can be a world leader, setting standards to which other countries can aspire. We must get this right.”

Not horrid individuals who say vile things though, eh? Their rights should be fettered and preferences denounced. The report laments the lack of choice in the online platform market and makes vague calls for the internet giants to hand over some money to the police ‘on the basis that polluters should pay.’ But if the platforms, rather than the individuals that use them, are the polluters, shouldn’t it instead be them that become criminalised?

It’s all a complete mess. The report’s criticisms of the Online Safety Bill are sound, but its proposed remedies are incoherent, insubstantial and inconclusive. Of course there has to be some legal upper limit for speech but that already exists. Lowering that limit in a bid to prevent people saying unpleasant things is not only futile, it would almost certainly cause more harm, via the prevention of free speech and criminalisation of much of the population, than it would prevent.


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