The Online Safety Bill has terrifying implications

The Bill will not just regulate public social media – it also covers private communications like WhatsApp messages and even search engines

VICTORIA HEWSON 27 June 2022

The Government’s Online Safety Bill continues to rumble its way through Parliament, despite criticism from free speech groups, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.

Today, my Institute of Economic Affairs colleague Matthew Lesh and I have published our explanation of why the Bill threatens free speech, privacy and innovation. There are many reasons to be concerned about what it will mean for internet users, and all who value a free society.

The Bill will not just regulate public social media. It also covers private communications such as WhatsApp messages and obliges providers to remove illegal content from them. The Bill creates a new criminal offence of intentionally sharing content “likely to cause psychological harm”.  

The Bill even covers search engines, meaning that your Google results will have to be risk-assessed and Google expected to remove content it believes to be unlawful.

Supporters of the Bill are clearly concerned about child safety, and adults doubtless need to do more to protect young people when they are using the internet. But the Bill will effectively require age-gating of the most commonly used services. To differentiate between the sanitised version of a platform that has been made suitable for children, and the slightly less sanitised version that will still be available for adults, platforms will have to verify your age. If you thought the cookies pop-ups under privacy regulations were annoying, wait till you have to verify your age to search the internet.

The Bill mandates all kinds of new things to be included in terms of service, which will probably lead to many more pop-ups and boxes to tick. The mild reforms to the GDPR and privacy regulation that the Government has announced will pale into insignificance when all the risk assessments, disclosures and empowerment duties have come into effect.

This will not just affect global giants like Facebook. The Government has estimated that 25,000 search and user-to-user platforms will fall under the scope of the legislation. This will include specialist sites like Mumsnet, football fan message boards and trade union discussion forums.

At the same time, the promised free speech protections are very weak – journalistic and democratically important content obligations only apply to Category 1 platforms (the largest services like Facebook). Even then the duties are only to “have regard to” the importance of such speech and provide fast track complaints processes. How workable will such “dedicated and expedited” complaints processes be, when citizen journalists and those who share their content can all claim the benefit of them? This could run to many hundreds of thousands of users and cover everyone from Lionel Barber to Tommy Robinson, and everyone who retweets them or uploads their blogs and articles.

There are stronger protections for ‘official news publisher’ content, while material published by ‘recognised news publishers’ is exempt outright from the most significant duties. But this could be deceptive – platforms will not be obliged to apply their censorship systems to such content – but in the interest of simplicity, certainty, and consistency in user experience, it seems likely that at least some will do it anyway. 

From a free speech perspective this approach is objectionable – it privileges the expression of selected publishers and regulates the press by the back door: only news outlets that meet the Bill’s conditions will qualify for the exemption. Given that the criteria include having a UK business address, overseas publishers may be deprived of the protection, which could limit UK readers’ and viewers’ access to foreign news reporting.

But maybe all this would be worth it, if we could be confident that it would materially reduce the amount of child abuse, terrorism and harassment online? Unfortunately, the Government has not made a strong case for the benefits of this legislation. It failed to consider the likely uptake of VPNs (virtual private networks) to circumvent restrictions applied to UK users. There was no meaningful attempt to balance any gains in safety against the costs to freedom of expression and association – costs which, despite ministers’ assurances, are clearly embedded in the words of the Bill.

The Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries recently boasted that the Online Safety Bill would make Britain “the safest place in the world to go online”. But the legislation she champions looks far more likely to destroy online freedom, while making few, if any, of the promised safety gains. 

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/06/27/online-safety-bill-has-terrifying-implications/

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