UK’s ‘Online Safety Bill’ Brings Censorship of ‘Harmful’ Content Into Law

The draft of the UK’s ‘Online Safety Bill’ published on 12th May, lays out new legislation that seeks to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”, by imposing a “duty of care” on “certain internet services” to protect users from “harmful content”.

Citing a desire to tackle, racial abuse, bullying, fraud, pornography and terrorist material online, the bill also makes significant room for addressing content which is “lawful but still harmful”. The legislation is set to apply most stringently to “category 1” internet services, including social media platforms and search engines, with the regulatory reins to be granted to the government-approved regulatory and competition authority for broadcasting and telecommunications, ‘Ofcom’.

Under the legislation, ‘Ofcom’ will ensure that organisations online fulfill their duty of care to protect internet users from harmful content, with failures to adhere potentially resulting in internet services being blocked, legal action being taken against senior managers, and fines amounting up to 10% of an organisations annual turnover.

However, also included in the bills commitment to protection via censorship, is a declaration to protect freedom of expression, ensuring internet users in the UK “can express themselves freely online and participate in pluralistic and robust debate”.

Initially launched as a UK Home Office white paper entitled ‘online harms’ in April 2019, the proposals have since been debated in parliamentary committee meetings, with ministers calling for a range of draconian measures, including an end to online anonymity and encryption.

Seeking to provide some clarification to a largely nondescript idea of harm, the proposal defined online harms as: “online content or activity that harms individual users, particularly children, or threatens our way of life in the UK, either by undermining national security, or by reducing trust and undermining our shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities to foster integration”

Since the bills initial proposal, there has been much pressure from ministers and peers to expedite the bill’s passing into law. A House of Lords committee on democracy and digital technologies, chaired by Labour peer David Puttnam last year, sought the bills immediate passing in light of a proliferation of ‘disinformation’ online, that challenged the government’s narrative on coronavirus.

Puttnam’s apparent concern is that ‘misinformation’ is “encouraging people to damage their own health and endanger those around them”, and is utilising “the same networks that spread lies during elections and undermine the public’s faith in democracy.”

Puttnam’s assertion that alternative perspectives endanger health and undermine faith in democracy, above the lies and failed assurances of political and scientific officialdom, reveal the real danger of the bill’s undefined notion of “lawful but still harmful.”

Many commentators have raised alarm that the bill essentially allows the government free rein in deciding what constitutes harmful content, allowing the legislation great potential to creep into all corners of discourse, inevitably disqualifying challengers, whilst championing the narratives that favour political authority

Official portrait of Lord Puttnam, by C. McAndrew (CC BY 3.0)

Such a concern is also compounded by the drafts proposal to impose duties on category 1 services “to protect content of democratic importance”. What constitutes content of democratic importance is again not made clear, but some inference is given in clauses on journalistic content.

The draft states that articles by “recognised news publishers” shared on internet services within scope of the legislation, will be exempt, with companies also having a “duty to safeguard UK users’ access to journalistic content on their platforms”.

What constitutes a ‘recognised’ news publisher is once again left unspecified, yet the bill’s ambiguous wording in light of increasing political demand for censorship, characterise it as one that seeks censor information and opinion that contravenes the governments view, whilst protecting and bolstering the visibility of politically spun narratives emanating from major news outlets.

The dangers of illegal activity online such as paedophilic content and the advocacy of terrorism, have long been known to the British government, who’s online safety bill attempts to cynically associate healthy dissent with content of moral abhorrence.

With legislation also applicable to services used in the UK but hosted abroad, concerns have been raised that such a bill could not only represent a digital firewall that prohibits dissent domestically, but also provide a prototype to be incorporated by states internationally.

As G7 nations increasingly seek to establish common narratives on critical issues through the rapid response mechanism agreed in 2018, the UK’s ‘online safety bill’ presents a prized asset. Amidst ongoing rhetoric of an ‘information war’, making censorship law on governmental whims, depicts a battlefield in which free exchange of information online is inevitably the next casualty, and anyone with an opinion, a potential enemy combatant.

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