The Online Safety Bill must be completely overhauled
Index calls on the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure legislation does not damage rights to freedom of expression and privacy
23 Sep 22

Online photo: Robinraj Premchand/Pixabay

Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP
Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
100 Parliament Street
22 September 2022

Dear Secretary of State,

Congratulations on your new role.

We are a coalition of independent organisations committed to protecting freedom of expression. We are writing to you following your appointment as the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to request a meeting to discuss the Online Safety Bill. We  believe that, in order to prevent serious damage being done to our rights and freedoms, the Online Safety Bill must be completely overhauled.

In particular, we would like to set out concerns we have about provisions in the Bill which we believe would be damaging to the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. We believe that the following areas must be addressed as a minimum:

The law should be upheld online as it is offline, but as currently drafted, the Bill would impose a two-tier system for freedom of expression, with extra restrictions for categories of lawful speech, simply because they appear online. During the Conservative leadership contest, the new Prime Minister Liz Truss committed to protecting freedom of speech in the Bill. She also said that her “fundamental principle is the rules should be the same online as they are in real life”. In its current form, the Bill does not live up to this principle,as it specifically seeks to regulate and restrict categories of free expression which the state labels as “harmful”.

We believe that Clause 13 of the Bill regarding so called “legal but harmful” speech must be dropped.

It has been widely observed that the Bill gives the Secretary of State excessive executive powers to define categories of lawful speech to be regulated and influence the limitations of our online expression. We believe that these powers would be vulnerable to politicisation by a future government.

We believe that executive powers granted to the Secretary of State, including those which would give the post-holder undue influence over communications regulator, Ofcom, must be dropped.

The Bill also poses serious threats to the right to privacy in the UK by creating a new power to compel online intermediaries to use “accredited technologies” to conduct mass scanning and surveillance of all citizens on private messaging channels. These measures also put at risk the underlying encryption that protects private messages against being compromised by bad actors. The right to privacy is deeply entwined with the right to freedom of expression and these proposals risk eroding both, with particularly detrimental effects for journalists, LGBTQ+ people, and other communities.

The Bill must not compel online intermediaries to scan the content of our private messages.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss these points with you in more detail and would be happy to meet with you virtually or in person at a time of your choosing.

We look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours sincerely,

Mark Johnson – Big Brother Watch
Barbora Bukovská – ARTICLE 19
Daniel Gorman – English PEN
Sam Grant – Liberty
Dr Monica Horten – Open Rights Group
Jacqueline Rowe – Global Partners Digital
Ruth Smeeth – Index on Censorship