STATEMENT
UK online harms proposals could gravely impact free speech

Index has significant concerns about the UK government’s proposals for online harms and the consequences on free speech

15 Dec 2020
BY INDEX ON CENSORSHIP

Today, Tuesday, the British government has finally responded to its own consultation on Online Harms.  Our role at Index on Censorship is to defend free expression and free speech for all citizens wherever they live. This includes in the UK.

Index has significant concerns about the government’s proposals and their unintended consequences on our collective right to free speech. We are concerned about the global impact of these proposals and the message that is being sent by the British government – by instituting restrictive policies for social media companies – to repressive regimes who relentlessly seek to undermine the rights of their citizens.

While acknowledging that there are problems with regulation of online platforms, Index will be engaging with policy makers to try and make this legislation better in protecting our right to free expression.

Our key concerns are:

  1. Legal but harmful

The British government is proposing a new classification of speech. Legal but harmful content, such as abuse, would be deemed illegal online but would be perfectly acceptable offline. A lack of consistency in our legal framework for speech is ludicrous and would have significant unintended consequences.

  1. Emphasis on the platforms not the perpetrators

The penalties outlined in these proposals focus on the role of the platforms to regulate their online spaces – not their customers who seemingly have limited personal responsibility. It also fails to acknowledge that this is a cultural problem and therefore needs a carrot as well as a stick.

  1. No one is going to be fined for deleting too much content

The proposals will fine social media companies for not complying with the new regulatory framework.  Although ministers have issued warm words about protecting freedom of speech it seems highly unlikely that a platform would be sanctioned for deleting too much content, leaving social media companies to always err of the side of caution and delete challenging content even if it isn’t contravening the legislation.

  1. Digital evidence locker

These proposals seemingly advocate the permanent removal of significant amounts of content, thus curtailing a victim’s ability to prosecute, as once deleted by a platform there is no way to retrieve the content even by law enforcement. This includes evidence of terrorism atrocities; 23% of the Syrian War Crime Archive has already been deleted by the platforms. The lack of legal protections in place for the platforms to store this content (out of sight) for access by law enforcement, journalists and academics results in a lack of prosecution and analysis. Index believes a compromise would be the creation of a legal framework to allow social media platforms to create Digital Evidence Lockers.

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