(Photo – Luis Molina)
The UK Government has ditched the proposal of forcing British internet providers to eliminate legal but harmful content online after criticism from members of the tech industry and free speech activists.
The proposal has been part of the new Online Safety Bill, which would mean tougher rules in the UK for internet users and providers to reduce violent content from social media and other online platforms.
The Bill raised concerns online about how it might impact TI industries and social platforms in eventual cases of censorship.
IEA’s Head of Public Policy, Matthew Lesh, said: “It’s a matter for the platforms to decide how they handle legal material – and it is for them to figure out, in the best interest of their users, what should and should not be allowed on their platforms”.
Lesh explained it is up to the platforms to decide if some speech is ‘harmful’ but contributes to debate, or should be allowed for some other purpose.
“They may conversely decide that their platforms would be better off by banning certain speech, even if it is otherwise legal, and build systems to moderate that speech”, he said.
2. The govt will require ‘user empowerment’ options that include hiding from certain content.
This risks shielding people from challenging ideas. It’s also not clear that Ofcom or ministers should be dictating how companies design their platforms for legal speech.
— Matthew Lesh (@matthewlesh) November 29, 2022
Earlier this year, the UK Home Office pushed for broader powers to require internet service providers to monitor legal but harmful content made by users, which would also mean that the UK would leave international rules that supervise tech companies.
Samaritans, a Non-Governmental and Non-Profit Organisation that offers free online consultation to tackle suicide, said that the UK Government is not forcing sites to take accountability.
“The Government will be asking for sites to give users more control of the content they see, shifting responsibility onto them. This is a cop-out.”
“People of all ages must be protected from harmful suicide and self-harm content online. This content’s damaging impact does not end on your 18th birthday”, they said on Twitter.
Instead of doing the right thing by forcing sites to take accountability for legal but harmful suicide and self-harm content by law, Government will be asking for sites to give users more control of the content they see, shifting responsibility onto them. This is a cop-out. 2/3
— Samaritans (@samaritans) November 29, 2022
In contrast, Lesh added: “It was an outrageous affront to free speech principles for the state to put pressure onto private platforms to remove legal speech”.
“The replacement, however, continues to raise concerns”, he said.
Part of the criticism online related to how the Government and internet providers would stop children and vulnerable adults from seeing harmful and violent contents. Others consider that these ideas are signals of censorship.
Barrister Jonathan Price does not consider children to be victims of the decision.
“There are already legal mechanisms available to deal with content that is harmful to children”, he said.
He added that there are technical measures parents can take to protect their children from harm online which should be promoted as a less intrusive and prescriptive means of reaching the same outcome.
Price outlined the Bill would no longer criminalise speech online or offline, which causes psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress. “This is welcome,” he said.
Matthew Lesh insisted that there is a risk of preventing people from challenging ideas online and that it is not clear how the Government would act in the case of encrypted platforms, like WhatsApp.
“It’s also not clear that Ofcom or ministers should be dictating how companies design their platforms for legal speech.”
He said, “The Bill is also increasingly complex and messy, imposing large red tape burdens on businesses of all sizes. It still risks seriously undermining start-ups and innovation in the digital space.”
“If anything, this Bill risks creating a false sense of security”.
Jonathan Price said: “The Bill will now contain an obligation on platforms to make clear what ‘tools’ are available to users to counter harmful speech”.
“This is the so-called user empowerment model”, he said.
The Online Safety Bill was returned on Monday, November 5, 2022, for discussion at the House of Commons and some figures are reportedly hopeful that it would become law by spring 2023.
If passed, it would be one of the most restrictive laws in the world in terms of regulation, as it gives media regulator Ofcom the ability to impose fines on internet service providers and companies that fail to fulfill their duty.