Defenders of free speech in the UK expressed concern about new powers the Online Safety Bill would provide to Ofcom the UK’s regulator of communications services.
“Basically Ofcom is being given a very, very free hand indeed,” said Professor Andrew Tettenborn, common-law and continental jurisdictions scholar and advisor to the Free Speech Union, to The Epoch Times. The Free Speech Union (FSU) is an organisation that was set up by the British journalist Toby Young in 2020.
To help it do so, the government announced that it was granting Ofcom new responsibilities and powers, with a wide range of compliance tools, fines, and sanctions, to become the regulator for online harm. It already has experience in tackling this through its role in overseeing telecommunications and broadcasting (TV, radio programs, and video on demand).
OfcomUnder the Bill, the biggest social media platforms must carry out risk assessments on the types of harms that could appear on their services and how they plan to address them, setting out how they will do this in their terms of service. When and if the Bill comes into force, Ofcom will have the power to fine companies failing to comply with the laws up to 10 percent of their annual global turnover.
“If this legislative regime comes into force, there will be very many more restrictions on Internet use,” wrote Index on Censorship’s top lawyer Gavin Millar QC.
Tettenborn said there are a lot of “fairly worrying” features in the upcoming Bill and in regards to the scope of Ofcom’s new role.
“There is a proposal for super complaints by so-called concerned bodies in Section 140 in the Bill,” he said.
“What it means is that they get in a sense privileged access to Ofcom if they want to complain about what appears on a particular site,” he said, adding that this leaves the regulator open to pressure groups who can then lobby and get active with complaints.
Such content includes “anything that might infringe section 5 of the Public Order Act, anything abusive which may cause people distress,” he said.
“Now that’s very much a subjective idea,” said Tettenborn. He added that if someone theoretically were to criticise Islam, a Muslim pressure group could complain that this caused distress to a number of its members. The site where it was published would then remove the piece to avoid any headaches and/or fine.
Fact-checkersAnother member of the Free Speech Union, Dr. Frederick Attenborough wrote (pdf) a report on the Online Safety Bill and said that “Ofcom’s door always seems to be open to Full Fact, an organisation funded by digital media companies and online service providers.”
“They do a fairly good job, I am all for Full Fact, but what I object to is the idea of Full Fact, directly or indirectly, being able to dictate to me what I can see or read online,” said Tettenborn.
“Open expression is the lifeblood of the internet. Free speech is the beating heart of our democracy, values, and modern society,” said Bakhurst adding that Ofcom “would act sensibly and proportionately, focusing on the most serious and widespread harm, especially to children—not hounding small businesses or seeking to curtail the editorial freedom of news sites.”
Ofcom cannot comment on the Bill before it is implemented. A spokesperson told The Epoch Times there was no conflict of interest in having Full Fact on its advisory panel.
“One of our existing duties, given to us by Parliament, is to promote media literacy. Our advisory panel brings together a diverse range of experts to support and inform our work in this area, but doesn’t make any policy decisions. It includes representatives from across industry, academia, and charities providing a range of viewpoints,” he said.
‘More Harm Than Good’Last year, Victoria Hewson, Head of Regulatory Affairs and Research Associate at the free-market think tank Institute of Economic Affairs explored the subject and the risks of unintended consequences of the Bill in a report called “More Harm Than Good.”
Hewson told The Epoch Times that if you ever see a politician talking about how the online world is “a wild west” then you know that person “doesn’t know what they are talking about.”
“The online world is not a wild west. The law of the land applies equally online as it does offline, if not more so,” she said.
Hewson added that as “you can imagine if there is going to be any conflict or doubt, the platforms are going to protect themselves primarily from being liable fined or even having their sites blocked and their business completely disrupted which Ofcom will have the power to do. They are obviously going to err on the side of caution.”
Tettenborn also shared the sentiment.
“You had vaccination and lockdown skepticism and essentially Ofcom came down on them like a tonne of bricks saying it’s your job to support the WHO and the government view, despite the fact that lockdown skepticism seems to be, at least, partly justified,” he said.
“We advised broadcasters to take care when airing unverified claims about the virus—including statements that sought to undermine the advice of public health bodies or trust in accurate sources of information,” it wrote.