Government’s online harms white paper risk damaging freedom of expression in the UK

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link=””][vc_column_text]The proposals in the  online harms white paper risk damaging freedom of expression in the UK, and abroad if other countries follow the UK’s example, Index on Censorship said in its response to the government’s consultation.

“Under pressure to be seen to be doing something, the UK government has rushed out the proposals in the online harms white paper without thinking through the consequences,” Joy Hyvarinen, head of advocacy at Index, said.

In its written response to the consultation, Index pointed out that the wide range of different harms that the government is seeking to tackle in this policy process require different, tailored responses. 

Any proposed regulationmust be underpinned by clear and unambiguous evidence, both of the likely scale of the “harm” and the measures’ likely effectiveness. 

Index remains concerned at the government’s proposed duty of care as a regulatory approach, because it could lead to legal expression being censored as a “harm”. 

The government’s white paper failed to accurately define “harmful” content, which risks sweeping up legal speech, including political expression, expressions of religious views, expressions of sexuality and gender, and expression advocating on behalf of minority groups that are fundamental to effective democratic functions. 

Proposals that combine platform liability with sanctions for third party content contain serious risks, such as requiring or incentivising wide-sweeping removal of lawful and innocuous content. The proposed regulator should not outlaw content beyond that which is already illegal.

Index recommends that any potential regulation include explicit protections for freedom of expression and that the government consult with all relevant stakeholders, including civil society experts on digital rights and freedom of expression.


The duty of care would cover companies of all sizes, social media companies, public discussion forums, retailers that allow users to review products online, non-profit organisations (for example, Index on Censorship), file sharing sites and cloud hosting providers. This is too wide and would be very challenging to implement in practice.

Index believes that private communications should not be in scope. Private channels are essential means for freedom of expression, including enabling campaigners and activists to make their voices heard. [/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-file-pdf-o” color=”black” background_style=”rounded-less” size=”xl” align=”right” link=”|||”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]

Index on Censorship response to the UK government’s online harms white paper consultation

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1562332058485-23648e0d-51fb-1″ taxonomies=”33056, 32807″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Duty of care does not translate well from the offline to online context

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The Rt Hon Jeremy Wright QC MP
Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
100 Parliament Street

1 July 2019

Re: Online Harms White Paper

Dear Secretary of State,

We write as a group of organisations keenly interested in the government’s proposals for Internet regulation. We recently convened a day-long multi-stakeholder workshop to discuss the implications of the 2019 Online Harms White Paper and write to share the conclusions and findings from that event.

Organisations represented at the workshop included human rights NGOs, social media platforms, telecoms and media companies, news media, industry associations, parenting and child rights organisations, academia, think tanks, government departments and independent regulators. The aim was to bring together representatives from all relevant sectors, discuss differences of opinion and find areas of consensus.

One unanimous finding from the day was that “there is a need for a systematic approach to dealing with problematic content online, but the group did not support the adoption of a ‘duty of care’ approach”. Many participants noted that the concept of duty of care does not translate well from the offline to the online context, and as such it provides little clarity as to what duties can and should be expected of companies within scope of the OHWP.

Another key finding of the workshop was that all parties involved felt that whilst government departments had conducted outreach through this process, no exercise conducted by government had brought together all of the key groups in this process (including civil society organisations, childrens’ charities, media companies, global tech giants, British startups, and UK media/press) in a coherent way.

We believe that this risks resulting in a process dominated by some stakeholders and where policy is developed without a full overview of where stakeholders’ concerns and consensus really lie. We urge that after the formal consultation period closes, you consider acting to convene a comprehensive meeting with all relevant stakeholders formally to discuss key elements of the proposals and map a way forward for the proposals.

We welcome this opportunity to continue to engage with the government and look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Oxford Internet Institute
Open Rights Group
Global Partners Digital
Index on Censorship
The Coalition for a Digital Economy

Cc Secretary of State for the Home Department, The Right Hon. Sajid Javid MP[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1561990413053-0b824c89-2f78-8″ taxonomies=”4883″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Online harms and media freedom: UK response to Council of Europe lacks concrete details


The UK has responded to an official alert to the Council of Europe’s platform to protect journalism, which was filed by Index on Censorship and co-submitted by the Association of European Journalists on 25 April 2019. The alert highlights the risks to media freedom in proposals in the government’s recently released online harms white paper.

The UK response is a copy of a letter from Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright to Ian Murray of the Society of Editors, who had raised concerns that the proposals, designed to combat support for terrorism, child abuse and other harms on the internet, would also impinge on press freedom.

The letter from Jeremy Wright states that journalistic or editorial content will not be affected by the proposed regulatory framework. However, it is very difficult to see how this could be avoided.

The proposals in the white paper cover companies of all sizes (including non-profit organisations). For example, a blog and comments would be included under the remit of a proposed online content regulator.

The letter futher states that the future “ …regulator will not be responsible for policing truth and accuracy online”. However, a new legal duty of care would cover a very broad range of “harms”, for example disinformation and violent content. In combination with substantial fines and potentially even personal criminal liability for senior managers it would create a very strong incentive for platforms to remove content proactively – including news stories that might be deemed ‘harmful’ by the regulator although their contents is not illegal.

Other proposals in the white paper may also have damaging impacts on media freedom, such as potential ISP blocking (making a platform inaccessible in or from the UK). The draft provisions for ensuring protection of users’ rights online, particularly freedom of expression, rights to privacy and the public interest are now sketchy and inadequate, but they need to be robust, detailed and provided for in law.

Index and AEJ look forward to a more comprehensive UK state reply to the Council of Europe, which explains unequivocally and in concrete detail how proposals in the white paper will be made compatible with the UK’s obligations to safeguard journalism and media freedom.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1560957147075-368b52fb-c52c-5″ taxonomies=”32807″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Stifling free speech online in the war on fake news

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”97329″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”right”][vc_column_text]“Fake news”. The phrase emerged only a matter of years ago to become familiar to everybody. The moral panic around fake news has grown so rapidly that it became a common talking point. In its short life it has been dubbed the Collins Dictionary’s word of 2017 and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists say it was one of the driving factors that made them set their symbolic Doomsday Clock to two minutes from midnight in 2019. It is a talking point on the lips of academics, media pundits and politicians.

For many, it is feared that “fake news” could lead to the end of democratic society, clouding our ability to think critically about important issues. Yet the febrile atmosphere surrounding it has led to legislation around the world which could potentially harm free expression far more than the conspiracy theories being peddled.

In Russia and Singapore politicians have taken steps to legislate against the risk of “fake news” online. A report published in April 2019 by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport could lead to stronger restrictions on free expression on the internet in the UK.

The Online Harms White Paper proposes ways in which the government can combat what are deemed to be harmful online activities. However, while some the harmful activities specified — such as terrorism and child abuse — fall within the government’s scope, the paper also declares various unclearly defined practices such as “disinformation” as under scrutiny.

Internet regulation would be enforced by a new independent regulatory body, similar to Ofcom, which currently regulates broadcasts on UK television and radio. Websites would be expected to conform to the regulations set by the body.

According to Jeremy Wright, the UK’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the intention is that this body will have “sufficient teeth to hold companies to account when they are judged to have breached their statutory duty of care”.

“This will include the power to issue remedial notices and substantial fines,” he says, “and we will consult on even more stringent sanctions, including senior management liability and the blocking of websites.​”

According to Sharon White, the chief executive of the UK’s media regulatory body Ofcom, the term “fake news” is problematic because it “is bandied around with no clear idea of what it means, or agreed definition. The term has taken on a variety of meanings, including a description of any statement that is not liked or agreed with by the reader.”  The UK government prefers to use the term “disinformation”, which it defines as “information which is created or disseminated with the deliberate intent to mislead; this could be to cause harm, or for personal, political or financial gain”.

However, the difficulty of proving that false information was published with an intention to cause harm could potentially affect websites which publish honestly held opinions or satirical content.

As a concept, “fake news” is frequently prone to bleeding beyond the boundaries of any attempt to define it. Indeed, for many politicians, that is not only the nature of the phrase but the entire point of it.

“Fake news” has become a tool for politicians to discredit voices which oppose them. Although the phrase may have been popularised by US President Donald Trump to attack his critics, the idea of “fake news” has since become adopted by authoritarian regimes worldwide as a justification to deliberately silence opposition.

As late US Senator John McCain wrote in a piece for The Washington Post: “the phrase ‘fake news’ — granted legitimacy by an American president — is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens.

“This assault on journalism and free speech proceeds apace in places such as Russia, Turkey, China, Egypt, Venezuela and many others. Yet even more troubling is the growing number of attacks on press freedom in traditionally free and open societies, where censorship in the name of national security is becoming more common.”

In Singapore — a country ranked by Reporters Without Borders as 151 out of 180 nations for press freedom in 2019 — a bill was introduced to parliament ostensibly intended to combat fake news.

Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill would permit government ministers to order the correction or removal of online content which is deemed to be false. It is justified under very broad, tautological definitions which state amongst other things that “a falsehood is a statement of fact that is false or misleading”. On this basis, members of the Singaporean government could easily use this law to censor any articles, memes, videos, photographs or advertising that offends them personally, or is seen to impair the government’s authority.

In addition to more conventional definitions of public interest, the term is defined in the bill as including anything which “could be prejudicial to the friendly relations of Singapore with other countries.” The end result is that Singaporeans could potentially be charged not only for criticising their own government, but Singapore’s allies as well.

Marte Hellema, communications and media programme manager for the human rights organisation FORUM-ASIA explains her organisation’s concerns: “We are seriously concerned that the bill is primarily intended to repress freedom of expression and silence dissent in Singapore.”

Hellema pointed out that the law would be in clear violation of international human rights standards and criticised its use of vague terms and lack of definitions.

“Combined with intrusive measures such as the power to impose heavy penalties for violations and order internet services to disable content, authorities will have the ability to curtail the human rights and fundamental freedoms of anyone who criticises the government, particularly human rights defenders and media,” Hellema says.

In Russia, some of the most repressive legislation to come out of the wave of talk about “fake news” was signed into law earlier this year.

In March 2019, the Russian parliament passed two amendments to existing data legislation to combat fake news on the internet.

The laws censor online content which is deemed to be “fake news” according to the government, or which “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of the Russian Federation”.

Online news outlets and users which repeatedly run afoul of the laws will face fines of up to 1.5 million roubles (£17,803) for being seen to have published “unreliable” information.

Additionally, individuals who have been accused of specifically criticising the state, the law or the symbols which represent them risk further fines of 300,000 roubles (£3,560) or even prison sentences.

The move has been criticised by public figures and activists, who see the new laws as an attempt to stifle public criticism of the government and increase control over the internet. The policy is regarded as a continuation of previous legislation in Russia designed to suppress online anonymity and blacklist undesirable websites.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]