Government’s Online Safety Bill will be “catastrophic for ordinary people’s freedom of speech” says David Davis MP


  • Leading experts brand government’s Online Safety Bill “catastrophic” at press conference today
  • Members including David Davis MP, Ruth Smeeth and Gavin Millar QC launch the ‘Legal to Say. Legal to Type.’ campaign to scrutinise and push back against the proposed bill 
  • The proposed bill as it stands will “likely be challenged in the courts” for breaching right to freedom of speech
  • New report warns that the “Duty of Care” model outlined in the Bill will see perfectly legal posts from ordinary people blocked online and turns Ofcom into a free speech “super regulator”
  • Anger as the new law does NOT punish the abusers who post harmful content online but instead outsources internet policing to Silicon Valley 

London, UK – A coalition of experts including David Davis MP, Index on Censorship chief executive Ruth Smeeth, and Gavin Millar QC savaged the government’s proposed Online Safety Bill today, branding it “catastrophic” for freedom of speech as they launched the ‘Legal to Say. Legal to Type.’ campaign to scrutinise and push back against the bill. 

The emergency session was called by the group of leading experts to warn the public that the bill will create two tiers of free speech online: free speech for journalists and politicians, and censorship for ordinary citizens. 

A new report from Index On Censorship launched at the conference warns that the bill’s introduction of the “Duty of Care model” which comes from Health and Safety legislation is overly simplistic. The new rule would force tech platforms to delete posts that are legal under laws passed by Parliament but considered “harmful”. The bill does not define what is and is not “harmful”, the group says this will result in many perfectly legal posts from ordinary people being banned online. The bill effectively outsources internet policing from the police, courts and Parliament to Silicon Valley.

Legal expert Gavin Millar QC deems the Duty of Care framework will enable vast amounts of speech online to be deleted – and suggests it will likely be challenged in the courts. 

While the bill’s aim of ensuring platforms remove illegal images of child sexual abuse, terrorist material and content which incites racial hatred and violence from screens is welcomed by the group, its members today criticised the government’s bill for actually making it harder for law enforcement to properly hold online abusers accountable. The bill forces platforms to delete valuable evidence before the victims of targeted harassment or threats to kill can see the criminal content and ensure it is reported to the police. 

In its current form, the legislation protects trolls, making them feel safer to abuse online because the platforms are punished for hosting the harmful content as opposed to the people who create it. Members of the coalition are demanding the government puts criminals behind bars rather than simply deleting their posts. The group also raises concerns about the bill potentially resulting in an increase in popularity of the ‘dark web’, which the Online Safety Bill does not cover.

The Index on Censorship report criticises the role of Ofcom as the final adjudicator as highly problematic and could lead to the over-censorship of free speech by the Silicon Valley giants as they attempt to avoid huge fines. As the report notes, since the abolition of press licensing in 1695, people in England have been free to publish ideas without direct government interference. By turning Ofcom into a “super regulator” of free speech, the government is imposing a state regulator over the written word for the first time in over 300 years. In place of a formal court process to deal with potentially illegal publication, instead Ofcom will be given new powers in the Online Safety Bill to fine technology companies for allowing content to be posted that is perfectly legal, but thought to be “harmful” by Ofcom. The definition of “harmful” is open to interpretation and the group is concerned this could be used to regulate ideas that people in the UK should be free to express. The fines that Ofcom will be able to levy will be eye-watering, with the potential fines as high as 10% of turnover. The report by Index on Censorship notes there will be a commercial incentive to over-censor, to remove content once deemed as perfectly acceptable, as to defend free speech online could cause significant financial risk.

The group have expressed fears that black and ethnic minority Britons will be censored by Artificial Intelligence that doesn’t understand the nuances of human language – especially when it comes to irony loving Brits. For example a 2019 study by Washington University found that tweets from African-American users were two times more likely to be labeled as offensive than tweets from other users.  

Ruth Smeeth, Chief Executive at Index on Censorship states:

“The Government’s bill is catastrophic for freedom of speech. It’s plan to force tech platforms to delete “harmful” content or face big fines will lead to many legal posts being deleted. At Index on Censorship we work with people across the globe who are being censored by oppressive regimes. It might not be the UK Government’s intention but this bill sets a worrying international precedent. Dictators around the world will be taking notes. Also as someone who has experienced online abuse, I am dismayed that the bill would force platforms to delete offending comments. These comments are vital evidence for law enforcement and will make it harder for the authorities to catch people who actually break the law online.”

Rt Hon David Davis MP states:

“The Online Safety Bill is a Censor’s Charter. Lobby groups will be able to push social networks to take down content they view as not politically correct, even though the content is legal. The idea we should force Silicon Valley companies to police Briton’s speech online, seems out of Orwell’s 1984, and is not what our voters expect of us.”

Gavin Millar QC states: 

“The bill proposed by the government is likely to lead to perfectly legal speech being removed from the internet and it seems inevitable that this will be challenged in the courts. 

The scale of the task given to platforms, and the vagueness of wording in the legislation will force broad “technical” solutions to content moderation – such as overly restrictive algorithms which will make decisions without context, nuance and an understanding of our laws and culture. This could lead to large quantities of content being blocked wrongly. 

Judgments that should be reserved for UK prosecutors and the courts will be outsourced to global tech companies. 

As someone who has undertaken many free speech missions for international organisations to countries with repressive free speech regimes such as China, Turkey, Azerbaijan there is a real risk that this legislation, if passed, will be used to justify repressive measures aimed at closing down free speech on the internet in these countries.”

Jim Killock, Chief Executive at Open Rights Group states: 

“Outsourcing decision making around free speech to Silicon Valley and taking away this responsibility from the UK’s Parliament and Courts would be a huge mistake. The threat of colossal fines or even jail time for Directors will cause tech platforms to overreact, prompting them to remove content that is perfectly legal. Worse still, politicians and journalists are opted out of the law, creating an unhealthy two-tier system online.”



Notes to Editors

For more information please contact:
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Or [email protected] / 07596 177849 


About ‘Legal to Say. Legal to Type.’

The ‘Legal to Say. Legal to Type.’ campaign is calling on the government to table amendments and ensure the internet is kept “free, open and secure”. The assembly consists of notable experts including:

  • Ruth Smeeth, Chief Executive at Index on Censorship
  • Jim Killock, Chief Executive at Open Rights Group
  • David Davis MP, Member of Parliament for Haltemprice and Howden
  • Gavin Millar QC, Barrister at Matrix Chambers 
  • Graham Smith, Of Counsel, Bird & Bird LLP
  • Penelope Gibbs, Founder and Chief Executive, Transform Justice


New ‘online harm’ legislation is a threat to free speech (Independent)

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship CEO Ruth Smeeth has voiced her concerns regarding the proposed Online Harms Bill. Smeeth wrote in The Independent that the legislation, though well intentioned, would risk campaigning for ‘cultural change’ and thus have a further impact on freedom of expression online.

“If that’s the case, then as a former politician I worry about the concept of legislating for cultural change,” Smeeth said, herself a victim of online abuse. “There is absolutely a problem online and it is causing real harm, but banning language rather than engaging in education programmes screams as a political fix rather than an actual solution.”

Read the full article here.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Heavy fines on social networks for not tackling online abuse may have unintended consequences

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”114965″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Heavy fines for social media companies who fail to act on online abuse and hate speech will have a negative effect on online expression, according to Index on Censorship CEO Ruth Smeeth.

Smeeth was taking part in a discussion on the proposed Online Harms Bill with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a group that acts as a forum for members of the country’s Jewish community, along with shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds and Tottenham MP David Lammy (see top).

“Self-regulation has not really been effective,” said Smeeth. “[But] if we fine heavily they will be so conservative with what they allow on the platform.”

The discussion was called after rising incidence of anti-Semitism in the UK. Between January and June, 789 separate incidents of anti-Semitism were logged, up 4% on the previous year.

The proposed Online Harms Bill – still in its white paper stage – aims to force social media companies to regulate their sites in order to clamp down on abuse and harmful speech. The legislation is in line with a similar ruling in Germany introduced in 2017, where social media companies can face fines of up to €50 million.

Smeeth, herself a victim of online abuse, expressed her support for the bill as a way of tackling illegal hate speech, but suggested that alterations need to be made so that overly heavy fines do not cause social media companies to over-regulate.

“There are young people who have not been able to access counselling services having self-harmed,” she said. “They are using online forums to talk about their pain sometimes in very explicit language to support groups.”

“They would not be able to do so under this legislation.”

Clause 3.5 of the white paper draft will ensure that not just illegal hate speech can be shut down, but also what the legislation deems ‘legal but harmful’.

“The idea that we have something that is legal on the street but illegal on social media makes very little sense to me,” she said.

In 2019, Index made a submission to the white paper consultation, stating: “The focus on the catch-all term of ‘harms’ tends to oversimplify the issues. Not all harms need a legislative response.”

The law in Germany has since been criticised by Human Rights Watch and said it sets a precedent that will turn private companies into ‘overzealous censors’.

Shadow home secretary Thomas-Symonds is keen to have an independent regulator and feels the time for self-regulation has ‘long passed’.

He said: “We need a statutory duty of care and an independent regulator that has teeth. It has to have that power to levy particular penalties when social media companies are simply not doing what they should be.”

Lammy added that the key to curbing online hate speech towards minorities and anti-Semitism was the Online Harms Bill.

“You are not a civilised democracy if you do not protect minorities,” he said. “Until we have dealt with this issue nationally, we will not have fully dealt with it.”

In June, Lord Puttnam – Chair of the Lords Democracy and Digital Committee – warned that the bill may not come into effect until late 2023 or early 2024.

The full Index issued response to the white paper can be read here.

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