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Lords Committee Warn Online Safety Bill Threatens Free Speech

Thursday, Jul 22nd, 2021 (1:19 pm) - Score 720
Censorship image of hands bound by rope

The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee has today published the outcome of its recent inquiry into freedom of expression, which warns that the UK Government’s new Online Safety Bill (Online Harms) is a “threat to free speech” due to its clampdown on “legal but harmful” content and “would be ineffective.”

The Government’s bill aims to have Ofcom clampdown on “harmful” online content (e.g. hate speech, bullying, terrorism, conspiracy theories etc.), not least by imposing new rules and restrictions via internet content (websites and social media etc.) and / or access providers (broadband and mobile).

Some of this is definitely needed, as the current self-regulatory approach hasn’t worked as well as it perhaps could. Indeed, a lot of social media today seems to have become worryingly tolerant of hate speech (e.g. racism) and dangerous conspiracy theories (e.g. anti-vaxxers), which can do real harm. In some cases, politicians and celebrities have even helped to amplify such things.


But at the same time trying to regulate the common public expression of negative human thought, while also balancing that against complex issues of context (e.g. people joking about blowing up a city in a video game vs actual terrorists), satire, the right to cause offence, political speech and the risk from overzealous automated filtering systems is a nightmare (manually moderating all content on major platforms would be economically impossible).

Equally, it doesn’t help that the Government seem intent upon shopping the definition of what is “harmful” out to commercial companies to decide. Suffice to say that many people in the industry are concerned that, in practice, parts of the new bill may be unworkable in the real-world, at least not without causing significant problems (e.g. too many legitimate pieces of content being removed).

The Government have always been keen to stress that they want to keep people safe online (especially children) and that any changes must be made in a proportionate way, ensuring that freedom of expression is upheld and promoted online, and that the value of a free and independent press is preserved. In reality, achieving such balance is, again, incredibly difficult.

The Lords Inquiry

The committee does welcome the Online Safety Bill proposals to oblige digital platforms to remove illegal content and protect children from harm, but it also warns that the draft legislation is “flawed” in relation to keeping children off porn sites and says that platforms must ensure they do not over-remove content.


Instead, its report suggests that existing laws should be enforced properly and any serious harms not already illegal should be criminalised. Meanwhile, content which is legal but objectionable to some people should be addressed by regulating the design of platforms, digital citizenship education and competition regulation. The report says this would be more effective and better at protecting freedom of expression.

On top of that it says that platforms should “contribute to more resources” for the police to enforce the law effectively, including online harassment, death threats, incitement, stirring up hatred and extreme pornography on the basis that polluters should pay. It’s nice to see a report that recognises the need to go after the people who post such content, rather than just the websites hosting it.

Lord Gilbert of Panteg, Chair of the Committee, said:

“If the government believes that a type of content is sufficiently harmful, it should be criminalised.

We would expect this to include, for example, any of the vile racist abuse directed at members of the England football team which isn’t already illegal. It has no place in our society and the full force of the law must be brought down on the perpetrators urgently.

The right to speak your mind is the hallmark of a free society and a right long treasured in Britain but it isn’t an unfettered right.

The rights and preferences of individuals must be at the heart of a new, joined-up regulatory approach, bringing together competition policy, data, design, law enforcement and the protection of children.

Britain can be a world leader, setting standards to which other countries can aspire. We must get this right.

The benefits of freedom of expression online mustn’t be curtailed by companies such as Facebook and Google, too often guided by their commercial and political interests than the rights and wellbeing of their users.

People have little choice but to use these platforms because of the lack of competition. Tougher regulation is long overdue and the government must urgently give the Digital Markets Unit the powers it needs to end these companies’ stranglehold.”

The full report includes a mass of recommendations, many of which exhibit a useful degree of common sense. On the other hand, there are some areas, such as those that once again propose to force Google and Facebook to pay some publishers for some of the use of their content (i.e. protectionism for old newspapers), which still seems to go against the way the online world has always worked (this approach also hasn’t worked very well in other countries where it was tried via similar EU rules).

All of this comes on the same day as the new legislative process for the Draft Online Safety Bill begins. Members of both houses (parliament) have now been appointed to consider the bill, kicking off the important pre-legislative scrutiny process. They’ll definitely have their work cut out.


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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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9 Responses
  1. Avatar photo MrLiukang says:

    good thing it only exists in countries like UK usa. All other countries don’t have this problem.

  2. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

    So.. do you have any constructive input on the recommendations in the report?

  3. Avatar photo a-counter-point says:

    Ironically it seems the views of the “Idiots” in Lords have much higher regards for the rights and freedoms over the people than their “Right Honourable” colleagues from the other house!

  4. Avatar photo JmJohnson says:

    Unfortunately the Wuhan Lab leak theory that is now considered plausible is jumping to mind despite originally being considered a conspiracy theory.
    The issue is who regulates the criteria… if it wasn’t for the conspiracy theorists applying pressure then officials wouldn’t have investigated further or worse, ignored it.
    Don’t get me wrong. Most conspiracy theorists are crazy but the way to deal with them is to provide counter evidence and education. Censoring them only makes them worse.

  5. Avatar photo timeless says:

    l hate conspiracy theorists as much as the next person but the real issue here is the ulterior motives.. such hate on social media isnt anything new.

    the real problem is the motives that have lead up to this, we have long known that the government has been slowly trying to legislate the internet and open back doors to allow themselves unfettered access to our communications, the biggest issue l have is what we will loose, not to mention the people making the laws.. after all take the recent appointee to the ethics committee, the recently appointed head is none other that fellow bullingdon club friend Ewen Fergusson, then there is the independent racism inquiry, some named as contributing claimed they didnt and that the report was rewritten to make things more palatable, and the most recent set of bills are set to curtail the press from reporting bad things about the government..

    the point lm trying to make is while there are good points made, the real issue is much of this can be done already but the resources arent there at the moment, this to me feels more like legislating the ability to shut up criticism especially when its so easy to point out… case and point Dawn Butler (MP) was kicked out of parliament for calling Boris a liar, which is actually a true statement (hell he was fired from his previous job outside of politics for doing just that)

  6. Avatar photo Bob2002 says:

    Anything that references the contrived media moral panic about England players and racism should be considered dubious.

    “To put the scale of the racist abuse the England players receive on Twitter into context, the Guardian analysed more than 585,000 tweets aimed at the players during the group stages and found 44 explicitly racist messages, <0.0075% of the total."

    Also …

    "The Centre for Identifying Digital Hate identified 105 instagram accounts that directed racial abuse against Rashford, Saka, and Sancho.

    BBC Newsnight analysed the location of these accounts. Of those they could identify 59 outside the UK, and just 5 within the UK."

    And let's not forget the graffiti that was sprayed on Marcus Rashford's mural was not a racist message, even though the media pretended it was by refusing to actually report it.

    There is not a lot of genuine racism in the UK and anyone pushing that line is lying – this is also supported by stats showing that numerous non-white ethnic groups outperform white British, with white working-class boys being the worst performing ethnic group(it's been this way for a long time).

    1. Avatar photo Phil says:

      “There is not a lot of genuine racism in the UK”
      I take it you’ve never had a look at the UK section of stormfront.org then?

    2. Avatar photo Bob2002 says:

      No, oddly enough I don’t read “Stormfront” and neither does any other normal person … but I do actually read reports and look at population statistics for different ethnic groups.

      Your reply is so outrageously idiotic it’s hard to know where to start …

    3. Avatar photo Phil says:

      So you wish to ignore what many racists spout on a ‘White Nationalist’ forum?

      Truth hurts eh?

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