The U.K.’s Online Safety Bill Threatens Free Speech and Undermines Encryption

If the Online Safety Bill passes, the U.K. government will be able to take down any profile it doesn't like; it can also impose heavy fines and even jail people who publish messages that contradict what it's supporters believe in. Since the bill was first proposed, it has been amended - and not for the better.

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If the Online Safety Bill is passed, it would be a blueprint for censorship. The Bill is on hold until a new prime minister is elected in the fall after Boris Johnson resigned as Conservative Party leader.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has denied that its stopping the proposed legislation altogether, but it will of course have to be up to the new Prime Minister what happens next.

Unfortunately, the United Kingdom does not have as strong constitutional protections for Free Speech or Freedom of the Press as the United States with the First Amendment. The Communication Act of 2003 can already be used to prosecute U.K. residents if their online statements are found to be "grossly offensive."

If the Online Safety Bill passes, it would expand the potential scope of such cases. It would also significantly deviate from the new E.U. internet bill, the Digital Services Act, which avoids transforming social networks and other services into censorship tools.

Section 10 of the revised bill allows punishments up to two years in jail for messages on social media that could cause psychological distress; the message does not even have to cause harm.

If the authorities believe that you intended to cause harm and were reasonably certain that your action would have caused harm, then they may charge you. There's also a separate offense of transmitting "false communications" which can be punished by fines or imprisonment.

Ruth Smeeth, who is the managing director of Index on Censorship said that: “The next prime minister needs a total rethink. It would give tech executives like Nick Clegg and Mark Zuckerberg massive amounts of control over what we all can say online, would make the U.K. the first democracy in the world to break encrypted messaging apps, and it would make people who have experienced abuse online less safe by forcing platforms to delete vital evidence.”

According to a recent survey, the vast majority of U.K. IT professionals do not think that the UK Online Safety Bill is fit for purpose. The survey found that only 14% of 1,300 IT professionals think the Bill presented to Parliament is ‘fit for purpose’. This Bill is designed to provide protection to UK citizens from being harmed online. When it comes to the Bill, 74% of respondents say it will not stop the spread of disinformation and fake news.

The Chief Executive of BCS, Rob Deri, suggested that: “A new Prime Minister should take the opportunity to fundamentally review the Online Safety Bill in its current form.”

Deri feared the law proposal “could affect freedom of speech and privacy in ways that are unacceptable in a democratic society”.

The new law provides strong incentives for social media companies to restrict 'legal but harmful' content to adults and gives Government ministers the power to decide which content this includes.