Another free speech watchdog has denounced the UK government’s proposed law for tackling online abuse, warning that it would effectively ban run-of-the-mill conversations online that would remain legal on the street.
A report by Big Brother Watch published on Sept. 5 (pdf) states that free speech online is already shrinking in the name of preventing harm and that the proposed Online Safety Bill would worsen the problem.
The draft bill aims to protect adults and children from both legal and illegal “harms” online and has been described by both critics and supporters as the most ambitious attempt to regulate the internet in the free world.
The measure would empower broadcast regulator Ofcom to fine and even block tech companies for violating the rules.
“We’ve exposed how, over recent years, social media companies have adopted increasingly censorious speech standards,” Mark Johnson, legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch, said in a statement regarding the publication of the report. “The Online Safety Bill will only make this worse and poses a greater threat to freedom of speech in the UK than any other law in living memory.
“The bill does absolutely nothing to help police deal with real crime online, but rather focuses the lens on ordinary people’s conversations. These new rules will leave us with two tiers of speech, where speech that’s permitted on the street is not allowed online.”
The government has insisted that the new laws have sufficient free speech safeguards and wouldn’t police legal content posted by adults.
‘No Apology for Wanting to Protect Children’
“We make no apologies for wanting to protect children online and tackling criminal content, including protecting young people from sexual abuse and content that encourages self-harm and suicide,” a spokesperson for the Department of Media Culture and Sport told The Epoch Times.
“It is completely untrue to claim this threatens freedom of speech—in fact, our new laws beef up protections for free speech and journalistic content to stop tech firms removing legal content arbitrarily. Ministers have been clear they will not allow this to be a tool of censorship.”
Despite such assurances, however, many free speech organisations have concerns about the category of legal but “harmful” content.
Victoria Hewson of the free-market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs wrote a report about the legislation in May. She said the definition of “harmful content” would be fleshed out by ministers and Ofcom.
“This is where we’re expecting to see things like misinformation and disinformation being called harmful,” she previously told NTD.
This is likely to apply to what is deemed as public health information, she said. “So you can claim a harm there, even though as we have experienced in the past year or so, oftentimes things that are claimed to be disinformation turn out to be a fair comment or useful challenges to prevailing wisdom.”
The report by Big Brother Watch also criticised the government’s current Counter Disinformation Cell, which is part of the National Cyber Security Centre’s operations to tackle online misinformation.
According to Big Brother Watch, the task force scours social media platforms and flags concerns with the platforms.
“This backroom relationship between the Government and the platforms is just a flavour of what we can expect to see in the future,” Johnson said in a separate statement. “The Government’s proposed Online Safety Bill will be the final culmination of this power convergence, where corporate terms & conditions and domestic law will be synonymous, and the platforms’ power will be consolidated by state legitimacy.”