New legal opinion on the Online Safety Bill
Index on Censorship has commissioned a legal opinion by Matthew Ryder KC and finds that the powers conceived would not be lawful under our common law and the existing human rights legal framework
29 Nov 22

Online photo: Robinraj Premchand/Pixabay

There has been significant commentary on the flaws of the Online Safety Bill, particularly the harmful impact on freedom of expression from the concept of the ‘duty of care’ over adult internet users and the problematic ‘legal but harmful’ category for online speech. Index on Censorship has identified another area of the Bill, far less examined, that now deserves our attention. The provisions in the Online Safety Bill that would enable state-backed surveillance of private communications contain some of the broadest and powerful surveillance powers ever proposed in any Western democracy. It is our opinion that the powers conceived in the Bill would not be lawful under our common law and existing human rights legal framework.

Index on Censorship has commissioned a legal opinion by Matthew Ryder KC, an expert on information law, crime and human rights, and barrister, Aidan Wills of Matrix Chambers. This report (a) summarises the main legal arguments and analysis; (b) provides a more detailed explanation of the powers contained in Section 104 notices; and (c) lays out the legal opinion in full.

The legal opinion shows how the powers conceived go beyond even the controversial powers contained within the Investigatory Powers Act (2016) but critically, without the safeguards that Parliament inserted into the Act in order to ensure it protected the privacy and the  fundamental rights of UK citizens. The powers in the Online Safety Bill have no such safeguards as of yet.

The Bill as currently drafted gives Ofcom the powers to impose Section 104 notices on the operators of private messaging apps and other online services. These notices give Ofcom the power to impose specific technologies (e.g. algorithmic content detection) that provide for the surveillance of the private correspondence of UK citizens. The powers allow the technology to be imposed with limited legal safeguards. It means the UK would be one of the first democracies to place a de facto ban on end-to-end encryption for private messaging apps. No  communications in the UK – whether between MPs, between whistleblowers and journalists, or between a victim and a victims support charity – would be secure or private. In an era where Russia and China continue to work to undermine UK cybersecurity, we believe this could pose a critical threat to UK national security.

The King’s Counsel’s legal opinion includes that:

● Section 104 notices amount to state-mandated surveillance because they install the right to impose technologies that would intercept and scan private communications on a mass scale. The principle that the state can mandate the surveillance of millions of lawful users of private messaging apps should require a much higher threshold of legal justification which has not been established to date. Currently this level of state surveillance would only be possible under the Investigatory Powers Act if there is a threat to national security.

● Ofcom will have a wider remit on mass surveillance powers of UK citizens than the UK’s spy agencies, such as GCHQ (under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016). Ofcom could impose surveillance on all private messaging users with a notice, underpinned by significant financial penalties, with less legal process or protections than GCHQ would need for a far more limited power.

● Questionable legality: The proposed interferences with the rights of UK citizens arising from surveillance under the Bill are unlikely to be in accordance with the law and are open to legal challenge.

● Failure to protect journalists: if enacted, journalists will not be properly protected from state surveillance risking source confidentiality and endangering human rights defenders and vulnerable communities.

The disproportionate interference with people’s privacy identified by the legal analysis paints an altogether different picture of the Online Safety Bill. Far from being a law to establish accountability for online crime, the legislation, as drafted, opens the door for sweeping new powers of surveillance with little public debate over their purpose and proportionality. Unless the government reconsiders or parliament pushes back, these powers are set on a collision course with independent media and journalism as well as marginalised groups.

Download this new legal opinion on the Online Safety Bill here