Britain’s online censorship bill

The government’s Online Safety Bill will make us more like the autocracies that propagate disinformation

In the Queen’s Speech next month, the government plans to put its “Online Safety Bill” before Parliament. Ministers want to make the UK “the safest place in the world to go online”, but despite their intentions the bill will restrict free speech online to a degree almost unprecedented in a democracy. Our Free Speech Union paper this week explains why the Bill will censor speech that is perfectly legal offline. 

The government is planning to impose something called a “duty of care” on internet companies, giving them responsibility “for the safety of their users”, an unprecedented proposal that would effectively make them responsible for how the public treat each other. The duty will oblige internet companies to remove “harmful content” that risks “significant adverse… psychological impact”. This could mean almost anything. Fines of up to £18m will force social media companies to pre-emptively censor. 

The regime will be policed by Ofcom, the broadcast regulator and more recently hatefinder-general which demands programmes avoid eighteen kinds of “hate speech” (“all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred based on intolerance on the grounds of disability, ethnicity, social origin, sex, gender, gender reassignment, nationality, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, colour, genetic features, language, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth or age”).

The Catholic church thought Galileo was propagating misinformation when he said the earth orbited the Sun

The plan is that these codes will deal with so-called “disinformation and misinformation”. This is perhaps the most troubling area. The government’s latest consultation response defines misinformation as “inadvertently spreading false information”, which really just means accidentally stating something that isn’t true. It is often impossible to know in advance what is true and false: we have free speech to debate controversies. When Copernicus and Galileo proposed that the earth orbited the sun, the Catholic church thought they were propagating misinformation. Companies’ fear of potentially catastrophic fines will see them censoring contrarian opinion out of caution.  

The examples used to justify these plans actually achieve the opposite. Covid, they say, “has brought these dangers into sharp focus”. In the first week of lockdown, “nearly 50% of respondents reported seeing information they thought to be false or misleading about the pandemic”. But this demonstrates the opposite of what the bill’s authors think — people can already decide for themselves. Attempts to turn the internet into a safe space will be self defeating anyway: if we believe information has been vetted, we are more likely to turn off our critical faculties that keep us vigilant against disinformation.

The plans target “anti-vaccination content” in particular. There are plenty of false claims made about vaccines. Which will be censored? French and German politicians have made dubious claims about the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine. Will Ofcom expect social media companies to censor President Macron’s Twitter feed? It is not in the public interest even for the false claims of foreign governments to be censored — people allowed only a sanitised version of the world are denied an informed picture of reality — but should we expect different de facto censorship rules for the powerful and the powerless?

In the spirit of suppressing misinformation, the government links approvingly to YouTube’s policy of censoring content that “contradicts the World Health Organization”. In January, ministers condemned YouTube’s censorship of talkRADIO, but this followed the policy the bill now calls best practice. And why shouldn’t we contradict the WHO, whose Director General praised China’s “transparency” and called Xi Jinping a “visionary”?

Whatever their intentions, lockdown has immersed the writers of this bill in a new and troubling set of values

Linking to Mark Zuckerberg, we are told that “Facebook has expanded its work with fact-checkers”. One of its fact-checkers is the “Centre For Combatting Digital Hate”, which calls the idea that Covid originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology a “conspiracy theory” – also Beijing’s view, as it happens, but a theory since called plausible by the US State Department. Boris is reportedly worried about the capacities of “a bunch of woke Californians” to impose their speech rules on the UK. He is right to be. But this makes the coalescing of the opinions of the British state and increasingly censorious American corporations even more perplexing. 

Yet there is something more unnerving here than cut-and-paste Silicon Valley speech codes. A previous document described the Bill’s inspiration in Germany’s 2017 NetzDG internet law, the template for the “internet safety” regimes of Venezuela, Belarus and Russia. But elements of the plans also have a similar flavour to China’s policies. Beijing suppresses “rumours” that might cause “social harms”; our government promises that “harmful disinformation” will be made harder to find. Whatever their intentions, lockdown has immersed the writers of this bill in a new and troubling set of values.

Ministers inherited the bill from Theresa May’s government. It seems they have tried to moderate it, but these projects take on lives of their own. In the name of “the invaluable role of a free media”, the government will now grant some immunity from censorship to journalists. At first glance this seems wise, but the idea undermines equality before the law, making journalists and the public two classes of citizen online. Reports also suggest that these protections will apply to “legitimate publications”. Does this mean a list of state-approved, Pravda-style newspapers?

The plans also support the 2019 Cairncross Review (“A sustainable future for journalism”), which said taxpayers should be made to fund “a dedicated body, working in partnership” with Ofcom and the BBC, channelling money to “parts of the industry it deemed most worthy of support”. That means rewards for disseminating Ofcom’s worldview.

One of the biggest online harms is in fact China (and Russia), or more exactly their undeclared cyber-war against the United Kingdom and its allies. 

In our paper, we propose an alternative approach that would resource law enforcement and leave free speech alone. Distributing terrorist material, for instance, is already illegal and rightly severely punishable, but in such cases the bill re-legislates instead of giving law enforcement agencies the resources they need. 

Censorship itself is now one of the greatest online harms. We will not defend democracy from disinformation by becoming more like the autocracies that propagate it.

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