Online Safety Bill ‘catastrophic for free speech’

Spread the love

The draft Online Safety Bill harms free speech and hands policing the internet to Silicon Valley, a new campaign claims.

The “Legal to Say. Legal to Type” campaign says if it becomes law, US tech firms would gain too much power.

The draft bill places new duties on social media firms to remove harmful or illegal content.

These would include effective routes for people who have had their content removed to appeal against any decision.

The new campaign includes Ruth Smeeth, of Index on Censorship, Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group, Gavin Millar QC and MP David Davis.

While the group supports the bill’s aim of ensuring online platforms remove images of child sexual abuse, terrorist material and content which incites racial hatred and violence, it fears other provisions will adversely affect free speech.

The new bill could see legal online posts from ordinary people blocked and would turn Ofcom into a free speech “super regulator”, it claims.

Legal harms

Published in May 2021 the Draft Online Safety Bill imposes a “duty of care” on social media companies, and some other platforms that allow users to share and post material, to remove “harmful content”.

This can include content that is legal but still judged to be harmful, such as abuse that doesn’t reach the threshold of criminality, and posts that encourage self-harm and misinformation.

Under the bill, Ofcom will be given the power to block access to sites and fine companies which do not protect users from harmful content up to £18m, or 10% of annual global turnover, whichever is the greater.

Campaigners claim this gives tech firms an incentive to “over-censor”, and “effectively outsources internet policing from the police, courts and Parliament to Silicon Valley”.


Campaigners are particularly concerned about content that is legal, but deemed to be harmful.

Mr Davis described the bill as a “censor’s charter”. He added: “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 bill includes some protections for political speech and journalism, but in a report published simultaneously with the launch of the new campaign, Index on Censorship argued they did not go far enough.

“For instance, while news published on the Telegraph’s website would be subject to the journalistic exemptions in the bill, the article disseminated on Facebook would be subject to the algorithmic removal of ‘legal but harmful’ content’,” the report said.

Campaigners are also concerned that technology companies may use artificial intelligence to identify harmful content.

That, they say, may introduce racial biases and will wrongly censor language, “especially when it comes to irony-loving Brits”.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has been approached for comment.

Spread the love