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Tweaked Online Safety Bill may please nobody

The UK government has once more tweaked its controversial Online Safety Bill in a bid to strike the right balance between safety and free speech.

As the name implies, the stated aim of this piece of legislation is to protect people from harmful online content. The problem, of course, is that the definition of ‘harmful’ is very subjective and ill-defined law is bad law. The most contentious bit of the bill obliged internet platforms to take down ‘legal but harmful’ content, on pain of severe punishment, which has rightly been described as a censor’s charter.

A press release issued by the Department for Digital, Culture. Media and Sport said “Legal but harmful provisions to be replaced with new duties to boost free speech and increase accountability of tech firms.” The announcement goes to great lengths to stress that protections for children have been strengthened, but not at the expense of free speech.

I will bring a strengthened Online Safety Bill back to Parliament which will allow parents to see and act on the dangers sites pose to young people,” said Digital Secretary Michelle Donelan. “It is also freed from any threat that tech firms or future governments could use the laws as a licence to censor legitimate views.

“Young people will be safeguarded, criminality stamped out and adults given control over what they see and engage with online. We now have a binary choice: to get these measures into law and improve things or squabble in the status quo and leave more young lives at risk.”

Donelan’s attempt to balance the interests of child safety and adult free speech take the form of a ‘triple shield’. “Social media firms will be legally required to remove illegal content, take down material in breach of their own terms of service, and provide adults with greater choice over the content they see and engage with,” says the announcement.

You would have thought the first stipulation was redundant and it’s hard to argue with the third. The introduction of legal compulsion for platforms to enforce their own terms of service, however, still feels like the outsourcing of censorship in this context. In fact, it feels a lot like ‘legal but harmful’ by other means.

“The Government’s revival of plans to give state backing for social media companies’ terms and conditions in the Online Safety Bill is utterly retrograde, brushes aside months of expert scrutiny, and poses a major threat to freedom of speech in the UK,” said Mark Johnson, Legal and Policy Officer at Big Brother Watch.

“The Big Tech giants’ policies frequently change according to corporate and political interests, undermine users’ privacy, and restrict free expression far more than UK laws. For the Government to require the enforcement of foreign companies’ low standards online is to fail in its obligations to protect free expression and privacy, let alone safety, in the UK.

“The Government promised a revised Online Safety Bill that would protect free speech. We welcome the Secretary of State’s willingness to make changes to the legislation but the reheating of a junked policy that merges the censorship powers of the state and Silicon Valley is neither good for civil liberties nor safety online.”

To be fair to the government it is in a tricky spot over online safety. High profile tragedies linked to online content create legitimate pressure to increase protections. But there is no freedom without risk and adults, surely, need to mostly be left to navigate the online minefield for themselves, without state intervention. As ever, if the government wants to censor it should do so transparently, through legal due process, not surreptitiously via proxies.

 

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