UK Online Safety Bill Raises Concerns About Freedom of Expression

The UK is proposing a so-called “Online Safety Bill” aimed at tackling harmful content. This has many worried about free speech.

Canada has been pushing for a so-called “Online Harms” bill ever since the last session of government. Anything considered “harmful” could theoretically be subject to 24 hour take-downs and mandatory secret referrals to the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) or CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service). After the government solicited feedback that many know full well the government doesn’t intend on taking, the Canadian government garnered considerable pushback from individuals, experts, digital rights, civil rights, anti-racism groups, women’s rights groups, tech organizations, and a whole lot more.

While Canadian’s might be fiercely trying to resist the governments push to regulate speech online, Canada isn’t the only country considering such a law. Across the pond, the UK is also considering similar laws to regulate online speech. In this instance, the legislation in question is known as the Online Safety Bill. British observers have noted that such legislation has been floating around for some time, but these days, there is renewed interest in light of a number of different events. This includes the stabbing death of Jo Cox by a far right extremist individual as well as high profile cases of Internet abuses against sports journalists to name a few.

The renewed push has resulted in a renewed call to stop state sponsored censorship. One organization pushing against this is the Open Rights Group (ORG) which has a long and rich history of fighting for digital rights in the country. They call the bill bloated and say that it’s difficult to figure out where to begin on why this legislation is so bad. From Open Rights Group:

For starters, the appointment of a state speech regulator – appointed and directed by government – will create a sprawling bureaucracy of speech police. The Home Office and the DCMS will direct what speech must be removed, filtered and monitored.

For another thing, the Bill’s provisions to block websites, apps, or services which refuse to cooperate with the speech regulator’s orders could put household names like Wikipedia, Reddit and Tumblr in the crosshairs.

Meanwhile, tech giants with the resources to surveil all user content would grow ever stronger. And perhaps the most shocking power, the Bill could force private messaging apps to monitor all user communications, including your private conversations with family and friends, on the assumption that we are all engaging in criminal conduct.

Feel safer yet?

By contrast, Open Rights Group (ORG) favours a rights-based approach to making the Internet safer. We’re part of a coalition of free expression organisations meeting with the Government to find a way to address online harms without sacrificing our digital rights.

One news source notes that the bill also carries a 2 year prison sentence for trolls who cause “psychological harm”. From WIONews:

As the British government examines new legislation to tackle online abuse, internet “trolls” might face two years in prison for words or material that cause “psychological injury.”

Following a series of high-profile internet abuse cases involving sports journalists and Premier League sportsmen, the Department for Culture, Media and Sports has adopted suggestions from the Law Commission to base offences on “probable psychological injury.”

Under the watchful eye of Ofcom, the Online Safety Bill aims to hold digital companies more responsible for user-generated dangerous information housed on their platforms, ranging from child sex exploitation to terrorism.

However, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is contemplating accepting the Law Commission’s proposal that offences be based on “probable psychological injury.”

It will move the attention away from texts with “indecent” or “grossly offensive” content and toward the message’s “harmful effect.”

to highlight just how heavy such a penalty is, we decided to peruse thelawpages to find out what other crimes carry similar or less severe prison sentences. Here’s some of the highlights:

  • Racially-aggravated common assault (2 years)
  • Racially-aggravated criminal damage (2 years)
  • Administering drugs to obtain intercourse (2 years)
  • Keeping a brothel (6 months)
  • Assault with intent to resist arrest (2 years)
  • unlawful marketing of knives as suitable for combat, or in ways likely to stimulate or encourage violent behaviour (2 years)

You kind of have to do a double-take on some of those highlights, really.

Twitter has spoken out about this bill and they aren’t exactly happy with this legislation. From the BBC:

Katy Minshall said the draft Online Safety Bill failed to answer key questions such as how to define legal but harmful material.

Instead of simply targeting those who post offensive content, the bill would put more responsibility on platforms.

The culture secretary said the bill would make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Nadine Dorries said “online hate has poisoned public life, it’s intolerable, it’s often unbearable and it has to end”.

“Enough is enough. Social media companies have no excuses. And once this bill passes through Parliament, they will have no choice.”

But Twitter is concerned the bill gives too much influence to the culture secretary over Ofcom.

The current draft bill would allow Ms Dorries to change the Ofcom code of practice that would be used to regulate the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

Computer Weekly offers some detail of this aspect of the bill:

The forthcoming Online Safety Bill is a proposal by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to reduce harmful content found online. This can be anything from illegal content (such as sexual abuse) to anything considered harmful (such as cyber bullying). It focuses on online platforms that are accessible from the UK and will mark a major paradigm shift for the future of online platforms.

More people than ever are accessing the internet, with 92% of UK adults regularly accessing it last year. However, just over half of 12-15 year olds have had some form of negative online experience.

There is also a concern about online content that is considered harmful, but still legal, such as online bullying and disinformation. Although this behaviour is generally not criminal, the government believes it can have a damaging effect on society.

Once the Online Safety Bill is implemented, platform providers will be subject to these new responsibilities:

  • Illegal content risk assessment and illegal content duties.
  • Rights to freedom of expression and privacy duties.
  • Duties about reporting and redress.
  • Record-keeping and review duties. Children’s risk assessment and duties to protect children’s online safety.
  • Adults’ risk assessment duties and duties to protect adults’ online safety.
  • Protecting content of journalistic and/or democratic importance.

Certain types of services, which are associated with a low risk of harm, are exempt. These include internal business services, such as intranets, and certain services provided by public bodies.

There are also certain types of content that are exempt. These include emails, text messages, live aural communications, paid-for advertisements, comments/reviews and content from recognised news publishers.

Perhaps what is striking in all of this is how both Canada and the UK are having such similar debates. Both countries have governments actively pushing legislation that is trying to create a new category of “harmful” content online which goes further than what is already illegal in the real world. Both are also pushing for tighter laws surrounding social media which threatens to also solidify the largest players positions in the process. On the bright side, at least experts in both countries can trade ideas back and forth in their efforts to fight this. After all, the threats to digital rights are similar in both cases.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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