UK Online Safety Bill Rolls Canada’s Online Harms and Australia’s Anti-Encryption into One Disaster

In the global competition of which country can come up with the worst bill, the UK’s Online Safety Bill is certainly a contender.

We’ve discussed many disastrous internet bills over the years. Many bills are either in the works, actively pushed, or, in the worst case scenario, actually passed legislation. Truth be told, there’s a number of bills being proposed in many different countries that represents a major threat to online freedoms. We just don’t always have the resources to cover it all.

In the last year, we focused largely on Canadian bills simply because it came down to a question of which would be in our best interest. If you had a choice between talking about a bill in another country that threatens the rights of the entire population of that country, and a bill that is happening right in your own back yard that threatens utterly destroy your career, promises to permanently bankrupt you, stamps out any possibility of others filling in that void, and threatens the rights of your fellow country people, which would you choose? It would be nice to cover both, but you could only cover one. The choice is kind of obvious at that point.

Still, we are happy that we now have the resources to talk about one of the other threats facing internet freedom. In the UK, there is legislation known as the Online Safety Bill. This has truly been a bill that has popped in and out of the headlines for a while now. Last December, we actually covered this story thanks to Lord Lipsey calling Open Rights Group “extreme libertarians” for defending basic civil rights in the online environment. It was an asinine comment, but the vitriol spewed by anti-internet extremists has become something of a common theme in the last couple of years.

In November, Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, promised that the next version of the Online Safety Bill would be even tougher. At the time, the legislation already represented a serious threat to freedom of expression. This was thanks in part to provisions that would carry a two year prison sentence for anyone saying mean things on the internet.

From personal experience, I’ve had my share of mean comments directed at me. This ranged from being called an idiot and someone who doesn’t understand basic English to personal threats to end my career, legal threats, to even, at one point, a death threat. I’ve had my share of hate directed towards me. Still, I knew that when I stepped in on the roll of being a journalist, that this would be an unfortunate side effect to speaking the truth all the time. Not all truth is well received and it is going to result in a lot of raw negative emotions directed towards me, the messenger. In fact, being on the receiving end of such anger can be a sign you are actually doing your job well because you are holding people accountable for their actions.

Even having experienced all of that and more, even I say that a two year prison sentence for saying something “mean” is disproportionate. Censoring whole websites because of a flippant comment that was posted on it is also disproportionate and a threat to freedom of expression. Such powers opens up a massive can of worms that should never be opened. You have risk of government censorship, crackdowns on civil rights movements, the human rights consequences on the International stage, and so many other consequences such a bill creates. All of this is basic common sense, not rocket science here.

Of course, we see the consequences such a bill has. Arguably, it has inspired Canada’s still forthcoming online harms bill. As a result of that potential legislation, Canadian’s find themselves having a very similar debate as their UK counterparts. This includes whether it is right to censor the internet through whole domains being blocked by ISPs. It’s actually a safe bet to say that digital rights advocates on both sides of the pond are very much on the same page with these types of issues.

The thing is, what we don’t necessarily see in the Online Harms debate in Canada is the war on encryption. It might get an odd mention here and there, but not necessarily in the context of this particular bill. However, it is arguable that the ban on effective encryption might have been inspired by Australia’s efforts to ban encryption – which had some rather scary results back in 2019.

On the international stage, the UK Online Safety Bill is one of a huge number of examples of bad internet policy inspiring bad internet policy. When one country pushes a terrible bill, other nations have a tendency to push similarly bad bills regardless of the consequences.

Just like what happened in Canada on a number of occasions, it seems that politics has influenced the trajectory of this legislation – and the governing party is, once again, to blame for the latest stumble. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently published a piece on the legislation, calling it a risk to basic internet freedoms:

The UK government has had more than a year to revise its Online Safety Bill into a proposal that wouldn’t harm users’ basic rights. It has failed to do so, and the bill should be scrapped. The current bill is a threat to free expression, and it undermines the encryption that we all rely on for security and privacy online.

The government intended to advance and vote on the Online Safety Bill last month, but the scheduled vote was postponed until a new Prime Minister of the UK can be chosen. Members of Parliament should take this opportunity to insist that the bill be tossed out entirely.

Subjective Standards for Censorship

If the Online Safety Bill passes, the UK government will be able to directly silence user speech, and even imprison those who publish messages that it doesn’t like. The bill empowers the UK’s Office of Communications (OFCOM) to levy heavy fines or even block access to sites that offend people. We said last year that those powers raise serious concerns about freedom of expression. Since then, the bill has been amended, and it’s gotten worse.

Another Attack on Encryption

The bill also empowers OFCOM to order online services to “use accredited technology”—in other words, government-approved software—to find child abuse images (Section 104). Those orders can be issued against online services that use end-to-end encryption, meaning they currently don’t have any technical way to inspect user messages. This part of the bill is a clear push by the bill’s sponsors to get companies to either abandon or compromise their encryption systems.

These types of systems create more vulnerabilities that endanger the rights of all users, including children. Security experts and NGOs have spoken clearly about this issue, and asked for the anti-encryption sections of this bill to be withdrawn, but the bill’s sponsors have unfortunately not listened.

If it passes, the censorious, anti-encryption Online Safety Bill won’t just affect the UK—it will be a blueprint for repression around the world. The next UK Prime Minister should abandon the bill in its entirety. If they won’t, Parliament should vote to reject it.

The EFF is bang on when they say that if this bill passes, it would inspire other countries to crack down. Arguably, the anti-encryption aspect is actually a bi-product of Australia’s terrible anti-encryption bills. However, the online harms aspect has already inspired Canada to push a similar disastrous bill. Not only is this a risk, but it is already happening on the international stage.

Really, the debate at this point is a question of isolating the damage these ideas are having to their countries of origin. That has arguably been unsuccessful to a degree with link taxes and the (mercifully) now dead three strikes laws. The last thing the world needs is other terrible ideas that would further crack down on the internet. It’s tough to isolate the damage, but this is where we are at at this point. Some really bad ideas have taken root in a couple of countries and now it is trying to spread around the world like COVID-19.

Hopefully, those in the UK can continue to fight against this bill and keep it at bay. Luckily, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson now on the way out, it looks like UK residents have, at least, bought some time. As someone who has followed the Canadian Bill C-11 debate thoroughly, I know first hand how welcome a reprieve like that is – even if it is temporary. Still, another digital rights fight is going to be on the horizon, though. All the rest of the world can do is root for UK residents fighting this legislation.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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