Civil Rights Groups Say That UK ‘Online Safety Bill’ Threatens Freedom of Speech

In the United Kingdom, a law proposal which was introduced in parliament last month, and is making its way through parliament, aims to censor offensive speech on the internet.

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The bill is known as the Online Safety Bill - and it is causing concern for many civil rights organizations. They believe that the bill, if passed, can be used to censor opinions on key political and social issues such as gender and sexuality.

The introduction of the Online Safety Bill was announced by the U.K.’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and Secretary Nadine Dorries last month.

The announcement states that “Today the government is announcing that executives whose companies fail to cooperate with Ofcom’s information requests could face prosecution or jail time within two months of the Bill becoming law, instead of two years, as it was previously drafted.”

The law proposal would “protect children from harmful content such as pornography and limit people’s exposure to illegal content, while protecting freedom of speech,” according to the announcement.

“It will require social media platforms, search engines and other apps and websites allowing people to post their own content to protect children, tackle illegal activity and uphold their stated terms and conditions,” the announcement stated.

The law proposal seeks to ban social media web pages from curtailing the free speech rights of users; however, it will also force sites to “tackle ‘legal but harmful’ content, such as exposure to self-harm, harassment and eating disorders, set by the government and approved by Parliament.”

Ofcom, which is the U.K.’s Office of Communications, would be given more powers by the bill to regulate telecommunications and punish non-compliant companies.

Dories stated that: “The internet has transformed our lives for the better. It’s connected us and empowered us. But on the other side, tech firms haven’t been held to account when harm, abuse and criminal behavior have run riot on their platforms.”

“We don’t give it a second’s thought when we buckle our seat belts to protect ourselves when driving. Given all the risks online, it’s only sensible we ensure similar basic protections for the digital age.”

Big Brother Watch’s Director Silkie Carlo, wrote a column for The Telegraph in which she expressed concerns over the use of “Americanized terms of service over domestic speech laws.”

Carlo wrote: “Tech companies’ rules have seen thousands of people censored, suspended and banned for their views on sex and gender, politics, pandemic policies, and for making anodyne jokes.”

“Public outrage at excessive speech interventionism has been, up to now, directed solely at Big Tech, but under these new laws the British Government will be held squarely to blame too.”

Carlo claimed that the law proposal “reeks of safetyism” and is a threat to “liberal free speech values” as it lowers the bar for what is considered as acceptable online speech.

“Indeed, the Bill creates new communications offenses for speech that may cause ‘psychological harm.’ There is no clinical definition here, and I have a feeling that in the Twittersphere this threshold will be interpreted very liberally,” Carlo then went on to say.

The law proposal has concerned organizations such as the Free Speech Union; in a statement released by its general Secretary Toby Young, fears that if the law passes political activists could abuse it and try to silence views that are not in line with their worldview.

Young said that “We are particularly concerned that the government has said it will force social media platforms to remove ‘legal but harmful’ content, including ‘harassment.’”

“That will enable political activists and interest [groups] claiming to speak on behalf of disadvantaged groups to silence their opponents by branding any views they disagree with as ‘harassment.’”

While the law proposal “includes some free speech protections,” Young said that it will still create “a chilling effect” on internet free speech as “the penalty for ignoring” free speech “will not be nearly as great as the penalties for failing to comply with the new safety duties.”