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OnlineSafetyBill

The Online Safety Bill is a draft Bill to be tabled in the British Parliament on Thursday 17 March 2022. It has been in gestation since 2014, when the government proposed introducing a mandatory parental control system. At that time, discussions between lobbyists for the various interests involved, including children's charities and vendors of Internet filtering systems, were in deep discussions with Ministers. There was an Online Safety Bill in 2015, that was not adopted. It targeted broadband providers with filtering measures. This draft Bill targets social media platforms, and potentially anything else that enables users to communicate with each other. Any app with a share button could be in the frame.

As I write this in February 2022, the Bill is in draft form. The draft was released in May 2021. The date for the revised Bill has yet to be announced.

This section of my website is exclusively dedicated to the Online Safety Bill. I will be posting analysis and commentary. I've been through the Bill section by section, and issue by issue. I have a created chart of clauses. I look for the policy issues, and how the text of the law links up to support the measures provided for. I look for the actors - who is behind this law, who is lobbying the hardest, are there different factions, for example. I ask difficult questions about what the measures would mean in practice, what does the opaque legal text really mean? My analysis builds on my track record of research into online enforcement measures and the 'copyright wars' since 2008.

This research is written up in my books - feel free to check them out! A Copyright Masquerade: How Corporate Lobbying Threatens Online Freedoms and The Copyright Enforcement Enigma - Internet Politics and the 'Telecoms Package'.

Online Safety Bill debate in the House of Commons  - Westminster Parliament

Image: an empty House of Commons debating the Online Safety Bill on 12 September 2023.

TL:DR On the same day as the UK Parliament approved the Online Safety Bill (soon to be Online Safety Act), a US court  blocked a law to protect children when they access the Internet on grounds that it violates the First Amendment of the US Constitution which protects free speech.

When you run the Online Safety Bill  through the mirror of this US court ruling, you get a remarkable set of findings. Whilst US free speech law operates differently from UK law, it is very likely that the Online Safety Bill will also be in breach of freedom of expression under the Human Rights Act which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights. This article takes a comparative look.

Read more: Online Safety Bill passes as US court blocks age-checks law

The Online Safety Bill has had a difficult relationship with freedom of expression as its main premise to to remove content. For that reason it was a pleasant surprise to see the House of Lords amend the Bill with explicit support for free speech as a right under the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). 

Until now, this support has been missing from the Bill.  This is therefore a positive outcome from the House of Lords which will  redress the balance between content removal and free speech. 

Read more: Online Safety Bill: ray of hope for free speech

Tweet from UK  Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on agreement with social media platforms on small boats content

TL;DR: The government is to establish an £11 million Online Capability Centre to seek and identify small boats content from people smugglers. The centre will be run by the National Crime Agency in co-operation with social media platforms.

In order to protect freedom of expression, the government must precisely identify the specific content to be removed. The examples published by the government on Twitter / X give some clues. It is not a technological silver bullet to solve the question of people arriving on UK shores in small boats.

And it is concerning for British democracy to have law enforcement working so closely alongside the companies who run our public conversational spaces, with the power to restrain publication, and no independent oversight.

TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE, CLICK HERE:

Read more: National Crime Agency to run new small boats social media centre

Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State, 4 November 2021, screenshot from Parliamentlive.tv

Tl;DR The Online Safety Bill is a major piece of legislation intended to tackle the very difficult and troubling issues around social media. However, in its desire to remove the bad stuff, the Bill is setting up a legal and technical framework that mandates and enforces the automated suppression of online content and social media posts. The lack of a precise aim has enabled it to be moulded in a way that raises a number of concerns. Government Ministers will have unprecedented powers to define the content to be removed. They will be able to evade Parliamentary scrutiny through the use of Secondary Legislation. Social media platforms will have a wide discretion to interpret the rules and to determine whether content stays up or goes down. These factors, combined with the overall lack of precision in the drafting and the weak safeguards for users, means that the Bill is unlikely to meet human rights standards for protecting freedom of expression online.

UPDATED to reflect the Bill as Introduced to the House of Commons on 17 March 2022.

Read more: What's the point of the Online Safety Bill?

TL;DR They say they do, but the Bill is not clear. The government has been quite shifty in its use of language to obscure a requirement for encrypted messaging services to monitor users' communications. If they do comply with this requirement, they will have to break the encryption that protects users' privacy, and users risk being less safe online. However, they will also be conflicted in their legal duties to protect users' privacy, as will the regulator Ofcom. Private messaging services are important to millions of UK users. Their obligation under the Online Safety Bill needs clarification and amendment.

***UPDATE 24 May 2022 Quietly behind the scenes, there is confirmation that this is exactly what the government wants to do.***

Read more: Online Safety Bill: does government want to snoop on your WhatsApps?

TL;DR The UK government's Online Safety Bill creates a double standard for freedom of expression that protects large media empires and leaves ordinary citizens exposed. It grants special treatment to the large news publishers and broadcasters, who get a carve out from the measures in the Bill so that headlines like the notorious "Enemies of the People" get special protection from the automated content moderation systems. They even get a VIP lane to complain. Foreign disinformation channels would also benefit from this carve-out, including Russia Today. Content posted by ordinary British people could be arbitrarily taken down.

Read more: Online Safety Bill: One rule for them and another for us

Draft Online Safety Bill committee 4November2021

TL;DR Key decisions will be taken behind Whitehall facades, with no checks and balances. The entire framework of the Bill is loosely defined and propped up by Henry VIII clauses that allow the Secretary of State (DCMS and Home Office) to implement the law using Statutory Instruments. This means that Ministerial decisions will get little or no scrutiny by Parliament. This will include crucial decisions about content to be suppressed and compliance functions required of Internet services. Standards for automated detection of illegal content will be determined by the Home Secretary. The concern is whether these powers could ever be used to block lawful but inconvenient speech.

Read more: Online Safety Bill: Ministers to get unprecedented powers over speech

TL;DR Social media companies will be required by the government to police users' posts by removing the content or suspending the account. Instead of a blue-uniformed policeman, it will be a cold coded algorithm putting its virtual hand on the shoulder of the user. The imprecise wording offers them huge discretion. They have a conflicted role - interfere with freedom of expression and simultaneously to protect it. Revision is needed to protect the rights of those who are speaking lawfully, and doing no harm, but whose speech is restricted in error.

Read more: Online Safety Bill - Freedom to interfere?

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About Iptegrity

Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I am an  independent policy advisor, with expertise in online safety, technology and human rights. I am a published author, and post-doctoral scholar. I hold a PhD from the University of Westminster, and a DipM from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I cover the UK and EU. I'm a former tech journalist, and an experienced panelist and Chair. My media credits include the BBC, iNews, Times, Guardian and Politico.

Iptegrity.com is made available free of charge for non-commercial use. Please link back and attribute Dr Monica Horten.  Contact me to use any of my content for commercial purposes.