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2017 Queen’s Speech Hints at Strict New UK Internet Censorship Policy

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017 (11:52 am) - Score 2,004

The annual State Opening of Parliament, in which the Government enlists the Queen to promote their policy plans for the forthcoming year, has today revealed that the “new” minority Conservative administration intend to push forward with tough new rules for controlling Internet content.

The Queen’s Speech is historically more of a ceremonial affair, which often only serves to feed the media with a tiny sliver of new information on forthcoming Government policy and precious little in the way of detail. On the other hand you do sometimes get a few surprises and as usual we keep an eye out for anything to do with broadband connectivity, internet and telecoms.

In that respect last year’s event was all about the 2016-17 Digital Economy Bill (10Mbps broadband USO, automatic compensation etc.) and the Investigatory Powers Bill (e.g. Internet snooping), both of which have since become law (Acts of Parliament) and as such do not feature in today’s event.

This year the digital connectivity side seems to be all about imposing tough new regulations on Internet content, as well as anything linked to Brexit. We should also point out that this year’s speech also covers the next two years of government, which could be down to Brexit negotiations or political tactics (possibly a bit of both), depending upon your perspective.

The Queen said:

“A new law will ensure that the united Kingdom retains its world-class regime protecting personal data, and proposals for a new digital charter will be brought forward to ensure that the United Kingdom is the safest place to be online.

A commission for countering extremism will be established to support the government in stamping out extremist ideology in all its forms, both across society and on the internet, so it is denied a safe space to spread.”

The 2017 Conservative Party Manifesto has already hinted at controversial new measures to tackle things like online bullying and “horrific” or “extremist” internet content, which always sounds fair on the surface but often ends up overlooking the realities of how the internet and ISPs actually work, not to mention human behaviour. The definition of “extreme” is also tricky to pin down and differs depending on context.

Furthermore it’s been suggested that, using this approach, Internet firms that “fail to remove unacceptable content” could be held legally liable for what their users post, which could create a lot of complicated problems (commercial firms are terrible at policing such things) unless it’s strictly targeted; queue chilling impact on freedom of speech and more automated filtering (i.e. broad censorship without considering context). We’ve recently explored this dilemma in more detail (here).

Some background notes on today’s speech have also been published, although they don’t offer a lot of extra detail but do say this: “We strongly support a free and open internet. But, as in the offline world, freedoms online must be balanced with protections to ensure citizens are protected from the potential harms of the digital world. We will not shy away from tackling harmful behaviours and harmful content online – be that extremist, abusive or harmful to children. And we will make sure that technology companies do more to protect their users and improve safety online.”

As usual the language used is very generalised and we’ll need to see some more detail before being able to judge the policy. Meanwhile there are questions about how much time can even be allocated to any major new policy changes, not least because Brexit is expected to dominate the next two years worth of proceedings.

Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, said:

“To push on with these extreme proposals for Internet clampdowns would appear to be a distraction from the current political situation and from effective measures against terror.

The Government already has extensive surveillance powers. Conservative proposals for automated censorship of the Internet would see decisions about what British citizens can see online being placed in the hands of computer algorithms, with judgements ultimately made by private companies rather than courts. Home Office plans to force companies to weaken the security of their communications products could put all of us at a greater risk of crime.

Both of these proposals could result in terrorists and extremists switching to platforms and services that are more difficult for our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to monitor.

Given that the priority for all MPs is how the UK will negotiate Brexit, it will be especially hard to give the time and thought necessary to scrutinise these proposals.

It could be tempting to push ahead in order to restore some of Theresa May’s image as a tough leader. This should be resisted. With such a fragile majority, greater consensus will be needed to pass new laws.

We hope that this will mean our parliamentarians will reject reactionary policy-making and look for long-term, effective solutions that directly address the complex causes of terrorism.”

MPs are now expected to spend the next week debating the proposals before putting them to a vote on the 28th and 29th June 2017, although this is usually more of a ceremonial process, not least because the full details and related debates on each bill often don’t begin until a later date.

However on this occasion the Conservative government, which has so far failed to sign a deal with the DUP to command a majority, is effectively presiding over a hung parliament where no party has a proper majority. In that situation it might just be possible for the opposition and rebellious Conservative MPs to unite and vote down the speech, which would make Theresa May’s position as Prime Minister almost untenable.

In reality we’d expect the Government to survive this first test, albeit only by an uncomfortably narrow margin and that will make passing future laws very difficult without lots of horse trading.

Leave a Comment
3 Responses
  1. Avatar dragoneast says:

    We seem to have a Minister of the Interior and (perhaps) a Finance Minister. We just lack a Prime Minister. Not, perhaps, much change there, then.

  2. Avatar Bob2002 says:

    “…be that extremist, ***abusive***” or harmful to children…”

    That particular word is an absolute can of worms, the police already spend far too much time policing things like Twitter. It just opens the door to authoritarian social justice warrior pressure groups(who are absolutely toxic), and their political and media allies – to get their grubby hands on the levers of power and decide how or what we discuss.

  3. Avatar timeless says:

    the way lve always seen these plans, its not about terror, its about control of information, after all information is power.

    with this she has essentially said to the so called terrorist community that they should find harder methods to track.. if she wants us to feel safer which l doubt she should stop cutting the emergency services, high ranking police officials have said it themselves, they dont want more laws they want more resources to use the laws we already have, as it is with all the cuts to police staff its come to the point where we have to investigate crimes ourselves.. a friend of mine lost his bike and he knew who nicked it yet the police wouldnt do anything about it except tell him to sort it out himself.

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