Parliament needs to stop creating piecemeal laws to address content online – or which make new forms of speech illegal.
Index is very concerned about the plethora of law-making initiatives related to online communications, the most recent being MP Lucy Powell’s online forums regulation bill, which targets hate crime and “secret” Facebook groups.
Powell’s bill purports to “tackle online hate, fake news and radicalisation” by making social media companies liable for what is published in large, closed online forms – and is the latest in a series of poorly drafted attempts by parliamentarians to address communications online.
If only Powell’s proposal were the worst piece of legislation parliament will consider this autumn. Yesterday, MPs debated the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which would make it a crime to view information online that is “likely to be useful” to a terrorist. No terrorist intent would be required – but you would risk up to 15 years in prison if found guilty. This would make the work of journalists and academics very difficult or impossible.
Attempts to tackle online content are coming from all corners with little coordination – although a factor common to all these proposals is that they utterly fail to safeguard freedom of expression.
Over the summer, the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport issued a preliminary report on tackling fake news and the government launched a consultation on a possible new law to prevent “intimidation” of those standing for elections.
In addition, the government is expected to publish later this year a white paper on internet safety aimed “to make sure the UK is the safest place in the world to be online.” The Law Commission, already tasked with publishing a report on offensive online communications, was last week asked to review whether misogyny should be considered a hate crime.
Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index, said “We’re having to play whack-a-mole at the moment to prevent poorly drawn laws inadvertently stifling freedom of expression, especially online. The scattergun approach is no way to deal with concerns about online communications. Instead of paying lip service to freedom of expression as a British value, it needs to be front and centre when developing policies”.
“We already have laws to deal with harassment, incitement to violence, and even incitement to hatred. International experience shows us that even well-intentioned laws meant to tackle hateful views online often end up hurting the minority groups they are meant to protect, stifle public debate, and limit the public’s ability to hold the powerful to account.”