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UK ‘Online Safety Bill’ threatens free speech, civil liberties groups warn

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Getty Images/Oscar Wong

Civil liberties groups in the United Kingdom have expressed concern about a bill in Parliament aimed at censoring harmful speech online, believing that it could be used to censor unpopular opinions on hot-button political issues like sexuality and gender.

Introduced last month and making its way through the House of Commons, the Online Safety Bill has garnered concerns from groups like the Free Speech Union.

FSU General Secretary Toby Young released a statement expressing concern that the proposed legislation, if passed, could be abused by political activists to silence dissenting views. 

“We are particularly concerned that the government has said it will force social media platforms to remove ‘legal but harmful’ content, including ‘harassment,’” stated Young.

“That will enable political activists and interest [groups] claiming to speak on behalf of disadvantaged groups to silence their opponents by branding any views they disagree with as ‘harassment.’”

Young stated that while the bill “includes some free speech protections,” it will still have “a chilling effect” on online speech because “the penalty for ignoring” free speech “will not be nearly as great as the penalties for failing to comply with the new safety duties.”

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, wrote a column published by The Telegraph in which she warned against using “Americanized terms of service over domestic speech laws.”

“Tech companies’ rules have seen thousands of people censored, suspended and banned for their views on sex and gender, politics, pandemic policies, and for making anodyne jokes,” wrote Carlo.  

“Public outrage at excessive speech interventionism has been, up to now, directed solely at Big Tech, but under these new laws the British Government will be held squarely to blame too.”

Carlo argued that the legislation “reeks of safetyism” and threatens “liberal free speech values” by broadening what constitutes unacceptable online speech.

“Indeed, the Bill creates new communications offenses for speech that may cause ‘psychological harm.’ There is no clinical definition here, and I have a feeling that in the Twittersphere this threshold will be interpreted very liberally,” Carlo continued.

Laws in other countries have been used by Twitter to censor views deemed to be violations of hate speech policy. 

Last month, Twitter took action against The Christian Post in response to a tweet that labeled Rachel Levine, a biologically male trans-identified Biden administration official, a man.

As part of its justification, Twitter sent CP a notification explaining that the account had been flagged for possibly violating France’s LCEN law on internet content and warned that such action could lead to civil and criminal penalties.

Last month, the U.K. Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and Secretary Nadine Dorries announced the introduction of the Online Safety Bill. 

“Today the government is announcing that executives whose companies fail to cooperate with Ofcom’s information requests could face prosecution or jail time within two months of the Bill becoming law, instead of two years, as it was previously drafted,” the announcement reads. 

According to the announcement, the proposed legislation would “protect children from harmful content such as pornography and limit people’s exposure to illegal content, while protecting freedom of speech.”

“It will require social media platforms, search engines and other apps and websites allowing people to post their own content to protect children, tackle illegal activity and uphold their stated terms and conditions,” the announcement continued. 

The legislation promises to prohibit social media sites from restricting the free speech rights of users, but it will also require sites to “tackle ‘legal but harmful’ content, such as exposure to self-harm, harassment and eating disorders, set by the government and approved by Parliament.”  

The legislation would give the U.K. Office of Communications, commonly called Ofcom, expanded powers to regulate telecommunications and punish companies that fail to comply.

“The internet has transformed our lives for the better. It’s connected us and empowered us. But on the other side, tech firms haven’t been held to account when harm, abuse and criminal behavior have run riot on their platforms,” stated Dorries.

“We don’t give it a second’s thought when we buckle our seat belts to protect ourselves when driving. Given all the risks online, it’s only sensible we ensure similar basic protections for the digital age.”

Ofcom Chief Executive Dame Melanie Dawes also expressed support for the bill, labeling it an “important step towards creating a safer life online for the UK’s children and adults.”

“Our research shows the need for rules that protect users from serious harm — but which also recognize the great things about being online, and protect freedom of expression. We’re looking forward to starting the job,” she stated.  

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