The Online Safety Bill won’t solve online abuse
The Online Safety Bill contains threats to freedom of expression, privacy, and commerce which will do nothing to solve online abuse, deal with social media platforms, or make the web a better place to be.
As government’s Online Safety Bill approaches the pre-legislative scrutiny phase, it has been packaged in a lot of - dare we say it - disinformation. After all, if you were to believe what you see on chat shows, much less hear discussed at the despatch box, the Bill is the “one weird trick” that will solve online abuse, bring social media tech giants to heel, and make Britain the safest place in the world to be online.
Yet the devil is in the detail, and as advocates for digital and human rights, we know that the Bill contains threats to freedom of expression, privacy, and commerce which will do nothing to solve online abuse, deal with social media platforms, or make the web a better place to be.
Here is what the Bill, as it has been drafted, does mean for our rights.
For one thing, the Secretary of State for DCMS will have the unilateral power to alter the content moderation guidelines, known as the Codes of Practice, over our free, legal, and subjective speech, and to direct Ofcom, as the speech regulator, to enforce those guidelines.
Voices may simply disappear, having been deemed too subjectively harmful for public consumption
Incredibly, he will be authorised to use those powers for political purposes. Is your opinion too controversial, too incendiary, or perhaps too critical of goverment? Social media platforms may be required to take it down. What of the needs of the vulnerable, of the marginalised, of minorities and victims of abuse and whistleblowers and young people and those who speak truth to power? Their voices may simply disappear, having been deemed too subjectively harmful for public consumption.
For another thing, our private conversations will be monitored and scanned on the presumption of the presence of criminal content, such as child abuse and incitement to terrorism. These include the WhatsApp chats which Parliament relies on. Service providers which insist on defending their users’ privacy by refusing to intercept and scan private messages, whether that is a family chat or a Parliamentary backchannel, face service restrictions, being blocked from the UK, and being deleted from UK-accessible app stores.
As for the Bill’s scope, the social media platforms it has been drafted to target will have an enhanced set of requirements and obligations. The rest of the Bill’s requirements will sweep up any online business of any size or aspiration, including British start-ups.
At a time when online business are central to our pandemic recovery, businesses will find themselves facing compliance obligations which, from the very start, presume their complicity in online abuse. And that’s to say nothing about the compliance costs, including the mandatory registration fee with the forthcoming speech regulator.
We could go on, but it should be clear by now that far from being a means of addressing online abuse on social media platforms, this Bill lays the scaffolding for government interception, control, and deletion of our free, legal, and subjective speech, wherever it takes place.
There’s no doubt that online abuse is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and that social media platforms are central to both the problem and the solution. So, if we want to return to the good faith conversation we should be having about online abuse, social media platforms, and making the web a better place to be, that dialogue cannot take place in the bad faith context of government’s Online Safety Bill.
As the Bill begins pre-legislative scrutiny, Parliament must see the Bill for what it is, not for the “one weird trick” they might wish it to be.
Heather Burns is the Policy Manager for Open Rights Group.
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