RUTH'S BLOG
A new chance to protect freedom of expression online

The government has hit pause on the Online Safety Bill. We need to go back to the drawing board

14 Jul 2022
BY RUTH SMEETH
Photo: Victoria Heath/Unsplash

“Unintended consequences”, “ideologically incoherent”, “won’t change culture or make us safer”.

I have written all these words and many more about the British Government’s Online Safety Bill.  Index on Censorship has spent the last eighteen months campaigning against the worst excesses of the Online Safety Bill and how it would undermine freedom of expression online.

Our lines have been clear:

1. What is legal to say offline should be legal online.

2. End to end encryption should not be undermined.

3. Online anonymity needs to be protected.

The current proposals that were progressing through the British Parliament undermined each of these principles and were going to set a new standard of speech online which would have led to speech codes, heavily censored platforms, no secure online messaging and a threat to online anonymity which would have undermined dissidents living in repressive regimes.

So honestly, I am relieved that the government has, at almost the last minute, paused the legislation.

I am not opposed to regulation, I do not for a second believe that the internet is a nice place to spend time and nor would I advocate that there shouldn’t be many more protections for children and those who are vulnerable online.  We do need regulation to limit children’s exposure to illegal and inappropriate content but we need to do it in such a way that protects all of our rights.

This legislation, in its current iteration, failed to do that, it was a disaster for freedom of expression online.  The proposed “Legal but Harmful’ category of speech would have led to over deletion by online platforms on a scale never seen before.  Algorithms aren’t people and frankly they will struggle to identify nuance, context or satire or even regional colloquialisms.  With fines and the threat of prison sentences, platforms will obviously err on the side of caution and the unintended consequence would be mass deletion.

So today, we welcome the fact that the legislation has been paused and we call on the new prime minister and the next secretary of state to think again in the autumn about what we are actually trying to achieve when we regulate online platforms.  Because honestly, we won’t be able to make the internet nicer by waving a magic wand and removing everything unpleasant – we need to be more imaginative in our approach and consider the wider cultural and educational impact.

So, as I have said in the media overnight, this is a fundamentally broken bill – the next prime minister needs a total rethink.  It would give tech executives like Nick Clegg and Mark Zuckerberg massive amounts of control over what we all can say online, would make the UK the first democracy in the world to break encrypted messaging apps, and it would make people who have experienced abuse online less safe by forcing platforms to delete vital evidence.

Let’s start again.

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