The UK government has introduced a draft “Online Safety Bill” which would force websites to clamp down on legal speech, and even block them if they don’t comply.
The Online Safety Bill, which was confirmed to be part of the UK government’s legislative agenda in this week’s Queen’s Speech, was released in draft form on Wednesday. Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, said that the bill would “protect children on the internet, crack down on racist abuse on social media and through new measures to safeguard our liberties, create a truly democratic digital age.”
While the words of government ministers claimed that the bill would protect free speech and liberties, while only ensuring a saver internet for all, free speech campaigners have raised alarm bells that this couldn’t be further from the case. The bill creates a “duty of care” on websites to ensure that explicitly legal speech which has an “adverse psychological impact” is clamped down upon. This means that if the bill is passed, not only would there be a greater standard of what speech is acceptable online and offline, but the government themselves would pass the buck to that decision down initially to the Big Tech companies.
The regulatory powers for the bill have been granted to Ofcom, the body that handles broadcast media and other communications in the UK. If a website is deemed by Ofcom to have not clamped down on legal speech, including “misinformation” as the bill requests, then they could be fined up to £18 million, or even have access blocked to them entirely.
The bill does add some protections for online speech, but only for “journalists.” The government has claimed that “citizen journalists” would also be given the same protections as big media outlets, but unlike for the media organisations, there is no language in the bill to determine who gets to be classified as a journalist or not. Regardless, the Free Speech Union said that this was merely creating a protected class under the law, and was completely unacceptable.
Agog to find out if I will qualify as a citizen journalist. Is a blog and an over-active Twitter account enough, I wonder?
— Graham Smith (@cyberleagle) May 12, 2021
Matthew Lesh of the Adam Smith Institute said that the bill was an “incoherent train wreck” that represents “a frightening and historic attack” on free speech. “The Bill needs a serious rethink,” Lesh added. “There needs to be a mandate on Ofcom that prevents the issuing of guidance that infringes on legal speech, open to arbitrary interpretation under the current proposals. There also needs to be a much greater focus on the perpetrators of unlawful behaviour.”
“The Online Safety Bill introduces state-backed censorship and monitoring on a scale never seen before in a liberal democracy,” said Mark Johnson, the Legal and Policy Officer at Big Brother Watch. “This Bill is disastrous for privacy rights and free expression online,” he added. “The Government is clamping down on vague categories of lawful speech. This could easily result in the silencing of marginalised voices and unpopular views. Parliament should remove lawful content from the scope of this Bill altogether and refocus on real policing rather than speech-policing.”
This legislation, which would force social media companies to censor *lawful* content, sets a terrible example to governments all over the world.
We are absolutely clear – provisions that restrict lawful speech should be removed entirely from the Bill.
— Big Brother Watch (@BigBrotherWatch) May 12, 2021
All websites around the world, no matter where they’re hosted, would be affected by the legislation if British citizens can access them. Andrew Torba, the CEO of pro-free speech platform Gab said that the bill would “destroy free speech online” in the UK, and that he would refuse to pay any fine that the British government would issue him.
“I’m not paying anything and they can’t make us,” Torba said. “If they block access to Gab so be it, that will be massive free press and we’ll teach millions of UK citizens how to use a VPN just like the dissidents in China do.”