UK Online Safety Bill Could ‘Drive More People Into the Dark Web’

By Chris Summers
Chris Summers
Chris Summers
Chris Summers is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in crime, policing and the law.
April 29, 2022 Updated: May 4, 2022

Critics of Britain’s new Online Safety Bill say they fear it will erode freedom of speech and could push more people into seeking alternatives on the dark web.

The Bill—which was last week given an unopposed second reading by British MPs—would force Google, Twitter, Meta (formerly Facebook), and others, to abide by a code of conduct, overseen by Ofcom, and remove “legal, but harmful” content.

Pornography websites would have to use age verification technology to stop under-18s accessing their sites and social media platforms would be obliged not to allow misleading adverts.

Google would be expected to block non-compliant websites.

Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries, speaking on April 28, said: “We’re entering a new chapter where tech companies are held fully accountable for the content on their platforms. That they uphold their own promises to their users to protect people from toxic, racist, and misogynistic abuse and protect children from cyberbullying and other harmful behaviour. That we make sure the internet is a place where people’s rights to participate in society and engage in robust debate are protected.”

She was speaking at the launch of the Declaration for the Future of the Internet, alongside representatives from the United States government and more than 50 other countries.

nadine dorries
Nadine Dorries speaks in the House of Commons, in London, on April 3, 2019, in this screen grab taken from video. (Reuters TV via Reuters)

Will Geddes, security expert and co-author of “Parent Alert: How to Keep Your Kids Safe Online,” said while the Online Safety Bill was well-intentioned, there was a danger it would have unintended consequences.

He said some people, not willing to comply with a highly regulated internet, will move to using Tor and other similar software to access the dark web.

Geddes told The Epoch Times: “That is leading people down an even more dangerous path. Because the dark web, or the grey web, is not controlled by anyone. If they want to get Britney’s new album they might find a site there where they can download it for free but they could end up with their computer infected by a Trojan or ransomware or other malware.”

The dark web is a part of the world wide web that requires special browsers to access. The most popular browser is Tor (from the acronym of its original name The Onion Router) but other search engines include Freenet, I2P, Not Evil, and Haystack.

Dark Web ‘Bypasses Censorship’

Cybersecurity and intelligence expert and CEO of Cybhorus, Pierluigi Paganini, told The Epoch Times: “There is a wrong perception of the dark web. It is crowded with cybercrime organisations due to the pseudo-anonymity, but darknets are essential ecosystems to bypass censorship and ensure free speech. Consider that most illegal activities today also leverage instant messaging platforms like Telegram, but people are not aware of this and ignore the importance of such kinds of apps for the cybercrime ecosystem.”

Geddes said there was a danger the legislation would also make Google toothless as a search engine.

He said: “Journalists and security experts will look at terrorist content on the internet for legitimate reasons but a 15-year-old boy or girl might look at it out of curiosity. Children will seek out this content. You’re actually more likely to find it on an app rather than on the big social media platforms.”

“At the end of the day it’s a parenting issue, rather than bringing in Draconian rules that can’t be enforced,” Geddes added.

Red carpet for the Axel Springer award, in Berlin
Tesla CEO Elon Musk—who is buying Twitter for $44 billion—grimaces after arriving on the red carpet for the Axel Springer award in Berlin, Germany, on Dec. 1, 2020. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

Elon Musk, who announced the $44 billion takeover of Twitter this week, said: “I am against censorship that goes beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”

Conservative MP Damian Collins, chairman of the joint committee on the draft Online Safety Bill, urged Musk to “clean up” Twitter and said if he wanted to make it a “digital town square” he needed to remove the “co-ordinated armies of bot accounts spreading disinformation and division.”

Geddes said Twitter had become a “toxic environment” but he predicted Elon Musk would find a way to remove the trolls and bots without impinging on free speech.

He added: “What Elon Musk does next with Twitter is going to be really interesting. Where does free speech end and abuse begin?”

MP Says Free Speech Faces ‘Slow Death’

On April 19 Conservative MP Steve Baker, in an opinion piece in The Times of London, coauthored with professor Paul Dolan from the London School of Economics, criticised the Online Safety Bill for the chilling effect they thought it would have on free speech.

They wrote: “When social media platforms become required by law to remove content, they will almost certainly start to remove increasing amounts and types of content. Under the threat of penalties, social media companies won’t risk allowing content that could come close to ‘legal but harmful’ to remain on its platform. Free speech and free discussion on the internet will die a slow and painful death.”

Paganini said: “Despite the Online Safety Bill aims to curb illegal and harmful online content through a new regulatory framework, it could have dramatic consequences on freedom of speech and privacy online.”

“The removal of legal but potentially harmful speech from social media platforms requests an extraordinary effort from IT giants. The concept of ‘harmful’ is questionable and leaves ample room for interpretation by the moderator. The companies operating social media platforms will be under pressure and will be obliged to adopt automated systems to scan the content in real-time and block potentially ‘harmful’ ones,” said Paganini.

He said the big tech companies would be tempted to use algorithms to block content that may fall foul of the new law and he said: “The spectre of strict censorship could materialise.”

Chris Summers is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in crime, policing and the law.