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June 4, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 7:52am

Proposed online safety laws pose threat to freedom of expression in UK, campaign group claims

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Government’s proposed new online safety laws pose a threat to freedom of expression in the UK, a campaign group has claimed.

Index on Censorship said the risk from the Online Harms White Paper could also extend abroad if other countries follow in the UK’s footsteps.

The proposed regulatory framework, published in April and now out for consultation, will impose a statutory “duty of care” on companies that “allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online”.

This covers social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, but also extends to search engines, messaging services, online forums and file hosting sites.

Firms must take reasonable steps to keep their users safe online and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their platforms or face heavy fines and even personal criminal liability for senior management.

In a briefing published yesterday, Index on Censorship, which has filed an official alert with the Council of Europe over threats to media freedom in the White Paper, said the proposed sanctions would “create a strong incentive for companies to remove content”.

It also criticised the “harms” laid out in the White Paper – some of which are legal activities or material – for not being clearly defined.

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Joy Hyvarinen, Index’s head of advocacy, warned: “The proposals in the government’s online harms white paper risk damaging freedom of expression in the UK, and abroad if other countries follow the UK’s example.”

The White Paper suggests either an independent regulator could be set up or new powers could be given to an existing regulator, such as Ofcom, to cover online material.

Sarah Connolly, director of security and online harms at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, told the Westminster Media Forum last month that the White Paper is still out for public consultation and the remit of an independent regulator has not yet been decided.

But, in response to a question about whether any freedom of expression safeguards will be put in, she added: “It has always been and will always be our intention to bake in freedom of expression.

“This is not about taking down swathes of things, it’s just not about incentivising companies to take down more than they leave up. What it is, is targeted as much as possible on harmful content.”

Illegal content, such as terrorist and child abuse material, would need to come down “quite quickly” but there is a “set of things in the middle where risk and proportion matter an awful lot” that will be down to the discretion of the regulator, Connolly said.

A transcript of the Westminster Media Forum, which may contain inaccuracies, was published yesterday following the event on 7 May.

Hyvarinen, who also attended the forum, told it that the proposed sanctions in the White Paper were not “very compatible with a vibrant marketplace of ideas”.

She compared it to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act which was given Royal Assent earlier this year after some journalistic safeguards were added in response to lobbying from press campaigners.

“There’s the background of this very draconian anti-terror legislation,” Hyvarinen said.

“And now the proposals in the Online Harms White Paper, we see that as restricting the space for ideas online more and more… and for debate.

“I was glad to hear Sarah [Connolly] emphasising freedom of expression as being very embedded in the White Paper proposals, but that’s not something that’s very clear when you read the White Paper.

“The White Paper is clear that… the regulator will have a legal duty to have regard to innovation, but when the White Paper speaks about freedom of expression, it’s expressed as a general duty.

“The word legal is not there… it’s a general duty… to respect users’ rights such as rights to privacy and freedom of expression. So it’s not at the same level of priority, or at least not presented [as such].”

She went on: “Index is concerned about the Online Harms White Paper, we certainly think that the proposals in that create or risk creating a very strong incentive for online platforms to remove and restrict content because the duty of care is combined with substantial fines and possibly even criminal, personal criminal liability for senior managers and that is going to create an incentive to when in doubt, err on the side of caution, take away information, restrict information.”

Picture: Lisa Fotios/ Pexels

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