Online Safety Bill will restrict the expression of perfectly legal but controversial opinion online in a way that is unprecedented in the history of Britain’s democracy.
This year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is finally putting its long-planned Online Safety Bill before Parliament.
Inherited from Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, the Bill was intended to make the UK “the safest place in the world to go online”, and will indeed attempt to address some genuine online harms, like distributing indecent images of children or instructions on how to make suicide bombs.
But most of the Bill is not about these crimes—which are rightly already illegal. Instead, as our recent paper at the Free Speech Union described, the Bill will restrict the expression of perfectly legal but controversial opinion online in a way that is unprecedented in the history of Britain’s democracy.
Rooted in the disturbing new belief that offensive speech can somehow be “harmful” to adults, the Bill is a harbinger of the authoritarian ideas that now threaten all democracies. One of the justifications for this Bill is the online disinformation that emanates from China and Russia in particular: but instead of protecting us from these autocracies, the Bill’s attempts to address this problem will inadvertently make Britain more like them.
Why the risk? The Free Speech Union has been drawing attention to the dangers for free speech in these plans since we founded the organisation last year. Yet despite some improvements, the government still plans a “duty of care” for internet companies, making them “take responsibility” for users’ safety and prevent harm resulting from other people’s conduct. To fulfil this “duty of care”, internet firms will need to deal with “harmful content” that risks “significant adverse…psychological impact” on adults. But that could mean almost anything.
This attempt to make companies responsible for how members of the public treat each other also erodes individual responsibility: is a pub responsible for how its customers behave when they leave? Companies that allow people to be “harmed” by users’ speech risk being fined millions of pounds, so they are bound to censor just to avoid trouble.
The censorious broadcast regulator Ofcom is also being rewarded with a new reign over the internet. It will advise government on how to suppress “disinformation” and “misinformation”, which the government has defined as “inadvertently spreading false information”, a dangerously broad definition which could simply mean accidentally saying something that is untrue, an inevitable part of any debate. The government wants to prevent disinformation from autocracies like Russia and China, but it is trying to solve the problem by giving the British state a degree of power over debate online that will make it more like these very autocracies. In any democracy, the solution to disinformation should be more debate, not less.
Last year, the civil service admitted that these proposals are inspired by Germany’s 2017 “NetzDG” internet law, the model for the repressive online laws of Belarus, Russia and Venezuela. Anyone who has lived a few years in China, for instance, knows that government censors the powerless in the interests of the powerful. So when our government promises that the so-called duty of care will apply to “disinformation… such as anti-vaccination content”, we must ask who will be censored and who won’t.
Free debate always includes many ideas that are untrue—so too on the internet, with many false claims against vaccines. This year, some politicians have made claims about the vaccines manufactured in Britain and India, possibly for political reasons and without scientific evidence. The British government has defined disinformation as “deliberate creation and dissemination of false and/or manipulated information… for political… gain”, but will it really censor the Twitter accounts of leading foreign politicians, or will it just censor the man on the street? A genuinely liberal belief in the marketplace of ideas would allow the public the same freedom of speech online as any politician, because open debate is how we uncover the truth. There cannot be different rules for the powerful and the powerless.
Earlier this year, the government also suggested that it approved of YouTube’s policy of censoring content which “contradicts the World Health Organization”. But corporations’ attempts to deprive people of the chance to decide for themselves are nothing to cheer. Why should we not contradict the WHO? After all, it has changed its mind about many aspects of the Covid crisis, and its Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has called China’s leader Xi Jinping a “visionary”.
As they stand, the plans pose a serious danger to free speech. Britain has long been a leader in freedom of expression, but the government’s plans to make the internet a “safer” place now risk making Britain more like the autocratic countries whose misinformation it wants to defend us against.
Dr Radomir Tylecote is Director of Research, Free Speech Union.