Free Speech Concerns Raised Over UK Anti-Terrorism Legislation

The UK is currently considering anti-terrorism legislation. Provisions in the legislation is raising concerns for online free speech.

One interesting aspect about the Brexit vote is the fact that when Europe began proposing widely criticized laws, some UK citizens felt the need to point out that (general paraphrasing) “Brexit doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?”

Those comments came in reaction to the article 11 and article 13 debate. That legislation would create a link tax and bring forth the censorship machines.

Of course, that is not to say that the UK wouldn’t have legislation that people are raising concerns about. Recently, some anti-terrorism legislation is causing free speech advocates to sound the alarm over the implications it could have on Internet speech.

Digital rights advocates are pointing to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill which is expected to become law in a few months. Supposedly, the bill aims to fill in loopholes and gaps in anti-terrorism operations. Unfortunately, it seems that the bill reaches well beyond this scope and into the online realm. So, what are digital rights advocates worried about? EDRI points out the following:

For example, the bill would make it a crime to view online content that is likely to be useful for terrorism, even if you have no terrorist intent (and even if you are watching over someone else’s shoulder). The crime would carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years. It would make the work of investigative journalists and academic researchers difficult and risky – as mistakenly landing on an offending page could have major consequences. The first version of this clause required a person to access the wrong content three times, but the government has amended this to become a “one-click rule” rather than the original “three-click rule”.

The bill would criminalise publishing (for example, posting on social media) a picture or video clip of clothes or a flag in a way that raises “reasonable suspicion” that the person doing it is a member or supporter of a terrorist organisation. Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended that this clause be withdrawn or amended because it “risks a huge swathe of publications being caught, including historical images and journalistic articles” and because of its potentially very wide reach and interference with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The government has not taken this recommendation into account.

United Nations special rapporteur Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin has expressed concerns that the proposed clause “runs the risk of criminalizing a broad range of legitimate behaviour, including reporting by journalists, civil society organizations or human rights activists as well as academic and other research activity”. She has expressed concerns about several parts of the bill and emphasised that it should be brought in line with the UK’s obligations under international human rights law.

EDRi member Index on Censorship believes that the bill is not fit for purpose and should go back to the drawing board. It would significantly impact freedom of expression online, damage journalism and academic research, and signal the wrong direction for future online regulation in the UK.

So, while some UK residents think that Brexit might somehow save them from the turmoil of Article 11 and Article 13 enveloping Europe right now, it seems that this latest piece of legislation in the UK is spoiling that mood. What will be interesting to see is how things will move forward with that legislation in the context of other pieces of legislation currently under consideration in the European Union.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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