UK’s online censorship bill is causing more harm than it prevents
As Britain’s Conservative Party prepares to decide who will inherit the mess left by Boris Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister, that country’s machinery of government will soon return to the important business of interfering in the lives of people.
At the top of the to-do list is the Online Safety Bill which, as has become traditional for legislation, does nothing as its title suggests. In fact, those who offend the government with their online speech or efforts to protect privacy may soon be many less sure.
“If the Online Safety Bill is passed, the UK government will be able to directly silence users and even jail those who post messages they don’t like,” warned Joe Mullin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (EFF) last week. “The bill empowers the UK’s Office of Communications (OFCOM) to impose heavy fines or even block access to sites that offend people. We said last year that these powers raised serious free speech concerns. Since then the bill has been amended, and it has gotten worse.”
The Online Safety Bill is being sold as a move to protect children from predators and pornography, society from terrorists, and the public from all sorts of vaguely defined “harmful” content that might offend sensibilities, but he takes on this enormous task in an inevitably broad context. way. Mullin is far from the first civil liberties campaigner to warn of the dangers inherent in allowing the UK government’s Office of Communication, commonly known as Ofcom, to extend its powers over people’s internet use. .
“There are many reasons to be concerned about #OnlineSafetyBill, the latest protest of which has just been launched, to a mixture of fanfare and fury,” law school senior lecturer Paul Bernal warned in March. from the University of East Anglia. “Massive attacks on privacy (including a dire requirement for general surveillance) and freedom of expression (most directly through the highly controversial ‘legal but harmful’ concept) are just the start. likely use of the “duty of care” required of online service providers to limit or even prohibit both encryption and anonymity, making us all less safe and less free, and especially children, is one another. an almost certain inability of Ofcom to perform the gargantuan tasks demanded of it – and that doesn’t even start with the heavy and costly bureaucratic burdens imposed on people who operate online services.”
That’s a lot of worries in a nutshell. But that’s because the Online Safety Bill takes on a broad challenge in trying to make the internet “safe” against a wide range of real, potential and imagined dangers. Bernal attributes the overbreadth to lawmakers’ obsessive preoccupation with the flaws of the online world. He compares it to a fixation with warts on a human face “and a desire to eradicate them with the strongest of caustic drugs, regardless of the damage to the face itself”.
Bernal is perhaps being overly charitable in attributing this massive bill to an honest misunderstanding of the online world. In June, Jacob Mchangama, founder of Danish think tank Justitia, noted that the online safety bill was part of a wave of legislation around the world aimed at controlling the internet, including the Services Act. recently adopted by the European Union.
“These regulatory efforts follow in the footsteps of Germany’s 2017 Network Enforcement Act and require online platforms to remove illegal content, including categories such as hate speech and the glorification of terrorism, or face penalties. ‘huge fines,'” Mchangama wrote. “However, in liberal democracies committed to both equality and freedom of expression, this approach raises a number of questions and dilemmas. … Moreover, current hate speech laws have already caused “collateral damage to political discourse and protests in Europe. Further restrictions risk significantly stifling pluralism and open debate – the vital flow of oxygen without which democracies cannot thrive.”
Notably, the UK isn’t exactly running out of censorship powers before it even passes the Online Safety Bill. Earlier this year, RaisonScott Shackford of Glasgow highlighted the case of Joseph Kelly of Glasgow, who was criminally convicted for mocking the death of 100-year-old Captain Sir Tom Moore, a military veteran and high profile fundraiser for the National Health Service. In the United States, under the protections of the First Amendment, such behavior would have earned criticism. In Britain, that drunken tweet resulted in prosecution and community service instead of jail time.
Yet UK lawmakers think they don’t have enough power to punish internet users.
Like Germany’s Network Law Enforcement Act (widely known as NetzDG), the proposed online security law would shift much of the enforcement burden onto companies from social media and online services. Under this approach, government bureaucrats impose heavy fines on private companies if they fail to intervene to the government’s satisfaction. EFF’s Mullin points out that the bill grants exceptions to “recognized news publishers” and other established media; Small operators therefore run the greatest risk of scrutiny and punishment if they misjudge the views of officials about content that promotes terrorism, child abuse, or “mental harm.” This creates an incentive to muzzle more rather than less.
“The Network Enforcement Act and its imitators create big incentives for social media companies to over-regulate online speech and risk pushing extremists to even harder-to-monitor platforms,” Justitia’s Mchangama observed in 2020.
“When governments around the world pressure websites to quickly remove content they deem ‘terrorist’, it leads to censorship,” Mullin adds. “The first victims of this type of censorship are usually human rights groups seeking to document abuses and war.”
At least for now, the First Amendment protects Americans from similar attempts to police online activity. But North America as a whole is not entirely immune. When the Online Safety Bill was first introduced last year, Canada’s ruling Liberals proposed a similar measure. He died when the government called a general election, which the ruling party (barely) won. The government has threatened to reintroduce the legislation, but that plan has been delayed by the failure of experts to agree on what should be regulated and how. Some panelists seem concerned about interference with freedom, while others want private communications to be monitored, not just public publications.
“The advisory group tasked with making recommendations on Canada’s pending online safety legislation failed to agree on the definition of online harm and whether harmful content should be completely removed from the internet,” said the Toronto Star reported July 9.
But a failure to define harmful speech and legitimate regulatory limits hasn’t stopped German and European lawmakers, and it’s not really slowing down British lawmakers. Canadians are well advised to look to Britain and Europe to see where their country is likely to go in terms of online government intrusion. The UK Parliament is expected to resume consideration of the Online Safety Bill this autumn. If the measure becomes law, as seems likely, Britons online will be a little less safe.