Online safety bill will be 'catastrophic for freedom of speech'

The government threat to YOUR free speech: Misguided Online Safety Bill will be ‘catastrophic’ for ordinary people’s social media, says MP David Davis – with tech giants able to ban posts for being ‘harmful’ that are perfectly legal

  • Says forcing social networks to take down content ‘seems out of Orwell’s 1984’
  • He criticises idea they could take down posts they say are not politically correct
  • Mr Davis’s claims are echoed by Index on Censorship and a top media barrister
  • Launching ‘Legal to Say. Legal to Type’ to push back against Online Safety Bill

The Government’s new Online Safety Bill will be ‘catastrophic’ for ordinary people’s freedom of speech, former minister David Davis warned today.

The Conservative MP said forcing social networks to take down content in Britain they deem unacceptable ‘seems out of Orwell’s 1984’.

Mr Davis, 72, slammed the idea Silicon Valley firms could take down posts they think are ‘not politically correct – even though it is legal’.

The backbencher’s calls were echoed by the Index on Censorship magazine and a top media barrister.

They have launched the ‘Legal to Say. Legal to Type’ campaign to scrutinise and push back against the bill.

Tory MP David Davis, pictured on June 8 in the House of Commons, said forcing social networks to take down content in Britain they deem unacceptable ‘seems out of Orwell’s 1984’ 

Mr Davis said: ‘The Online Safety Bill is a Censor’s Charter. Lobby groups will be able to push social networks to take down content they view as not politically correct, even though the content is legal.

‘The idea we should force Silicon Valley companies to police Briton’s speech online, seems out of Orwell’s 1984, and is not what our voters expect of us.’

The proposed Online Safety Bill is intended to make tech giants accountable for ‘harmful’ content on their platforms.

It hands more power to Ofcom, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and social media platforms to regulate what news users see on social media.

It says platforms have a duty to protect journalistic content but can still take down or block content if it generates complaints. 

Ofcom will be in charge of regulating social media firms, with the power to issue fines up to £18million and block access for repeat offences.

The aim is to make Britain one of the safest places to be online in the world – especially for children.

But its implications for the press have prompted a backlash from free-speech campaigners, civil liberties groups and media organisations.

The proposed Online Safety Bill gives more power to Ofcom, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden (pictured in May) and social media platforms to regulate what news users see on social media

The coalition of Mr Davis, Index on Censorship and Gavin Millar QC is trying to push back against it.

They say the bill will create two tiers of free speech online – free speech for journalists and politicians and censorship for ordinary citizens.

A report by Index On Censorship warned the ‘Duty of Care model’ in the bill is overly simplistic.

It says the new rule would force tech platforms to delete posts that are legal under laws passed by Parliament but considered ‘harmful’.

The group say the bill does not define what is and is not ‘harmful’ which will see legal posts being banned online.

They also warned the proposals would outsource internet policy from the law, courts and Parliament to Silicon Valley.

Mr Millar QC said the Duty of Care framework will see free speech online deleted and suggests it will likely be challenged in the courts.

He said: ‘The bill proposed by the government is likely to lead to perfectly legal speech being removed from the internet and it seems inevitable that this will be challenged in the courts.

Top media barrister Gavin Millar QC (file picture) said the Duty of Care framework will see free speech online deleted and suggests it will likely be challenged in the courts

‘The scale of the task given to platforms, and the vagueness of wording in the legislation will force broad ”technical” solutions to content moderation – such as overly restrictive algorithms which will make decisions without context, nuance and an understanding of our laws and culture.

‘This could lead to large quantities of content being blocked wrongly. Judgments that should be reserved for UK prosecutors and the courts will be outsourced to global tech companies.

‘As someone who has undertaken many free speech missions for international organisations to countries with repressive free speech regimes such as China, Turkey, Azerbaijan there is a real risk that this legislation, if passed, will be used to justify repressive measures aimed at closing down free speech on the internet in these countries.’

The coalition also slammed the government’s bill for making it harder for police to properly hold online abusers accountable.

The bill forces platforms to delete evidence before the victims of harassment or threats to kill can see the criminal content and ensure it is reported to the police.

The group say the bill in its current form protects trolls and allows them to abuse online because the platforms are the ones punished instead.

They are calling for the government to prosecute people who break the law – rather than just force social media platforms to delete their posts. 

The Index on Censorship report also slammed the role of Ofcom as the final adjudicator as ‘highly problematic’.

Ruth Smeeth, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: ‘The Government’s bill is catastrophic for freedom of speech’

It said it could lead to the over-censorship of free speech by the Silicon Valley giants as they attempt to avoid huge fines.

By turning Ofcom into a ‘super regulator’ of free speech, the government is imposing a state regulator over the written word for the first time in over 300 years, it says.

The fines it will be able to levy will be eye-watering, with the potential to take 10 per cent of turnover.

Index on Censorship said it would create a commercial incentive to over-censor and to remove acceptable content to starve off any financial risk.

The coalition also argued there could be implications for black and ethnic minority Britons.

It said they could be censored by artificial intelligence which does not understand human language, such as irony.

It cites an example of a 2019 Washington University study that used tweets from African-American users.

They were two times more likely to be labelled as offensive than tweets from other users.

Ruth Smeeth, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: ‘The Government’s bill is catastrophic for freedom of speech.

‘Its plan to force tech platforms to delete ‘harmful’ content or face big fines will lead to many legal posts being deleted.

‘At Index on Censorship we work with people across the globe who are being censored by oppressive regimes.

‘It might not be the UK Government’s intention but this bill sets a worrying international precedent.

‘Dictators around the world will be taking notes. Also as someone who has experienced online abuse, I am dismayed that the bill would force platforms to delete offending comments.

‘These comments are vital evidence for law enforcement and will make it harder for the authorities to catch people who actually break the law online.’

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