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Internet Censorship Beckons as UK Online Safety Bill Hits Parliament

Wednesday, Mar 16th, 2022 (10:30 pm) - Score 2,752
Censorship image of hands bound by rope

The UK Government’s controversial Online Safety Bill, which will task Ofcom with clamping down on “harmful” online content (hate speech, bullying, terrorism, conspiracy theories etc.) by threatening such providers with web-blocks, fines and possibly even jail – if they don’t enforce the rules, has today been introduced to parliament.

At present much of the internet content that you see is governed by a self-regulatory approach, which has struggled to keep pace with rapid online changes. Various examples exist for “harmful” content, such as the rise of the ISIS terrorist group, child abuse, as well as state sponsored propaganda from hostile countries, online bullying, racism and the spread of COVID-19 conspiracy theories etc. Some of this is already illegal, but others will now fall into the opaque “legal but still harmful” category.

The big social media firms (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit etc.) are often slow to tackle these issues, while other websites seem to exist solely to promote the worst of humanity. The OSB, which is targetted at everything from big social media firms to small blogs – albeit with softer rules for the latter, aims to tackle this by imposing a new legal duty on internet content providers to act.

Ofcom will gain the power to fine companies that fail to comply with the laws (up to 10% of their annual global turnover), force them to improve their practices or block non-compliant sites at the broadband ISP and mobile operator level (easy to circumvent). In addition, executives whose companies fail to cooperate with Ofcom’s information requests could now face prosecution or jail time within 2 months of the Bill becoming law.

NOTE: A raft of other new offences have been added to the Bill to make in-scope companies’ senior managers criminally liable for destroying evidence, failing to attend or providing false information in interviews with Ofcom, and for obstructing the regulator when it enters company offices.

In addition, the Government will have another go at introducing an internet Age Verification system, which will target “all websites” that contain pornographic content (here). This is despite concerns over user-privacy and the difficulty of actually being able to create and effectively enforce a workable solution. Most of the main UK ISPs and mobile providers already enable network-level Parental Controls by default, which can optionally be disabled (it is trivial to circumvent web blocks).

Finally, the OSB will also crackdown on the anonymous online abuse that occurs on the largest social networks, albeit with various caveats and without outright banning anonymous comments as that could be counter-productive (here).

A Nightmare to Regulate and Enforce

Naturally, trying to strike the right balance between Freedom of Speech and outright Censorship is difficult, which is what happens when you attempt to police the common and highly subjective public displays of negative human expression and thought. Balancing this against complex issues of context (e.g. people joking about blowing up a city in a video game vs actual terrorists), parody, the application of such rules to non-UK sites and political speech is a monumentally difficult task.

Faced with such a heavy risk of liability, most sites are likely to become overzealous when filtering user-generated content or may prevent people from speaking at all. The result could be an increase in automated filtering systems (these are terrible at understanding complex issues of context), since manually moderating all content on major platforms would be economically impossible (i.e. sites run off a shoestring budget by a handful of people can be read by millions).

However, today’s announcement confirms that social media platforms will now only be required to tackle “legal but harmful” content, such as exposure to self-harm, harassment and eating disorders, as set by the government and approved by Parliament. Previously, they would have had to consider whether additional content on their sites met the definition of legal but harmful material. The Government claims this will remove the “incentives or pressure for platforms to over-remove legal content or controversial comments,” but we aren’t at all convinced that it completely removes such pressures.

Suffice to say that many people in the industry are concerned that, in practice, big 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 and Ofcom being swamped with requests – without enough resources to cope).

Digital Secretary, Nadine Dorries MP, said:

“The internet has transformed our lives for the better. It’s connected us and empowered us. But on the other side, tech firms haven’t been held to account when harm, abuse and criminal behaviour have run riot on their platforms. Instead they have been left to mark their own homework.

We don’t give it a second’s thought when we buckle our seat belts to protect ourselves when driving. Given all the risks online, it’s only sensible we ensure similar basic protections for the digital age. If we fail to act, we risk sacrificing the wellbeing and innocence of countless generations of children to the power of unchecked algorithms.

Since taking on the job I have listened to people in politics, wider society and industry and strengthened the Bill, so that we can achieve our central aim: to make the UK the safest place to go online.”

At the time of writing, we haven’t yet seen the full technical detail for this bill, which tends to follow later (e.g. Ofcom’s related Codes of Practice). As such, it remains unclear how all the different categories will be defined and how long will such platforms be given to remove “harmful” content. But we do know that the strictest measures will only be applied to Category 1 companies (i.e. the largest online platforms with the widest reach)

Previously, there was a suggestion of needing to remove content within 1 hour of being notified, but that would be unworkable on smaller sites (i.e. humans need to sleep, travel, shop and take breaks) and, on bigger sites, it would encourage expensive and unreliable automated filtering systems – although the OSB does encourage platforms to adopt “tools for content moderation, user profiling and behaviour identification to protect their users” (Ofcom will not be able to recommend these tools are applied on private messaging).

The agreed categories of legal but harmful content will be set out in secondary legislation and subject to approval by both Houses of Parliament. Just a reminder – Social media platforms will only be required to act on the priority legal harms set out in that secondary legislation, meaning decisions on what types of content are harmful are not delegated to private companies or at the whim of internet executives.

Finally, we should add that news content will be “completely exempt from any regulation under the Bill.” The OSB will also put requirements on social media firms to protect journalism and democratic political debate on their platforms, which is easier said than done – one man’s fact is another man’s conspiracy theory or propaganda.

No doubt many people will see plenty of positives in the OSB, but at the same time its attempts to micromanage free speech, which seem to have more in common with the laws found in China and Russia than Western Europe, look set to make it harder to speak freely in the first place.

As it stands, the Government faces an incredibly difficult balancing act. On the one hand they need to do more to tackle harmful online content, but on the other they have to avoid the risk of creating a Draconian censorship regime and harming free speech, even though that might not be their intention.

NOTE: Existing laws allow people to hold opinions and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority, which in some cases may shock, disturb or offend the views of others. But there is already an offence for a person who uses “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress“.

UPDATE 17th March 2022 @ 7:35am

Some comments have come in.

Matthew Fell, CBI Chief Policy Director, said:

“This landmark legislation is important and necessary to keep people safe online – business wholeheartedly back this ambition. The goal should be to make the UK an international leader, not an outlier, in shaping the future of the internet.

However, the Bill in its current form raises some red flags, including extending the scope to legal but harmful content. Not only will this deter investment at a time when our country needs it most but will fail to deliver on the aims of this legislation.

This is an incredibly complex set of regulations and businesses will be combing through the detail over the coming days. Ensuring the Bill is feasible for companies to implement is essential – they will work with policymakers to make that happen as the Bill moves through Parliament.”

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

“The fact that the Bill keeps changing its content after four years of debate should tell everyone that it is a mess, and likely to be a bitter disappointment in practice.

Dropping powers to ban encryption would be a major step forward, if confirmed in the Bill. Ukrainians and Russian dissidents today are relying on encryption to protect themselves from real world harm.

We have repeatedly warned the Government that attacks on encryption would only help blackmailers, scammers and other criminals.

The Bill still contains powers for Ministers to decide what legal content platforms must try to remove. Parliamentary rubber stamps for Ministerial say-so’s will still compromise the independence of the regulator. It would mean state sanctioned censorship of legal content.

DCMS have not explained their position on age verification for Google Search and Reddit, nor on limiting anonymity, which is relied on by many vulnerable people to express themselves online, such as LGBTIQ+ people and victims of domestic abuse. Ministers were demanding these measures only a few weeks ago, but are now silent on these topics.

Powers to imprison social media executives should be compared with Putin’s similar threats a matter of weeks ago.

The Government should be ensuring that police investigate and criminals are prosecuted, rather than chasing takedown procedures and content moderation policies.”

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Mark-Jackson
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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Comments
29 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Ken Taurus says:

    Freedom of speech is a privilage, not a right. Things that are dangerous should be kerbed.

    I honestly don’t understand how anyone can be against these proposals.

    1. Avatar photo Anthony Goodman says:

      Because far left radicals class any opinion in dissent of their crazy beliefs as dangerous. They are claiming JK Rowling is a dangerous and harmful radical for simply saying there are two genders. This is why the right of Freedom of Speech needs to remain.

    2. Avatar photo Darren Reid says:

      The age restriction privacy concerns are massive. Much more concerning than a national identity card, that most kids can bypass if they want anyway with a VPN.

    3. Avatar photo Shaun Leonard says:

      Freedom of speech is a human right. Shutting people up, and banning them from expressing legitimate views on things serves no purpose and causes harm too. To counter opposing views use more free speech.

      Look at what is going on in Russia right now. People there are terrified of speaking out. They are told lies,and are heavily censored. Is that really what people want here?

    4. Avatar photo nathan@gautrey.com says:

      Some people find religious freedom dangerous, gender or sexual identity dangerous, trade unions dangerous, right wing political parties dangerous, Russians dangerous, should these all be kerbed? Who would set these rules, politicians aren’t exactly capable of doing a good job?

    5. Avatar photo GG says:

      Free speech is not a right? What, even the ‘privilege’ to make such a stupid statement?

    6. Avatar photo Ken Taurus says:

      Except it isn’t.

      Americans can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre, for example. People don’t have the right to spout abuse at other people, either.

    7. Avatar photo Mike says:

      Unfortunately, most people nowadays think freedom of speech only means having the freedom to say what they agree with.

    8. Avatar photo Anthony Goodman says:

      Do you honestly think these far lefty radicals trying to stop Freedom of Speech are thinking of people yelling fire in a crowded cinema when trying to get it banned? Or more likely they are trying to stop people from saying such things as there are two genders not the 100 universities are now trying to claim or islam maybe isn’t a religion of peace and things of that kind of ilk?

    9. Avatar photo timeless says:

      my take on “freedom of speech” is that people have the right to their opinions, voice them even.. but many dont understand that while free to voice ones selves and have an opinion that it isnt free from consequences, after all we all bring a different point of view to the table.. some acceptable others less so but all valid in their own right regardless but at the end of the day as l said they all hold their own consequence be it good or bad.

    10. Avatar photo Ken Taurus says:

      I’m afraid I don’t concur. If people can’t say things which are nice or have good intentions, they shouldn’t say anything at all.

  2. Avatar photo Billy says:

    The politicians that dream up and then try to implement these ideas are doing their best. But being politicians, they don’t really understand the size of the intars or the diameter of the tubes that are involved in such an undertaking. These are the same politicians that have being going to stop spam for the past 20 years, and look how successful that has been.

    1. Avatar photo timeless says:

      I dont entirely agree, yes a select few may have the best of intentions… but others have their own agendas, and l cant help but think when it comes to the Tories, they have ulterior motives, the power of censorship is a powerful tool to have and abuse.

  3. Avatar photo A Nony Mouse says:

    Stunning level of ignorance from the minister in charge. What hope do you have?

    Nadine Dorries has absolutely baffled people after she asked Microsoft to “get rid” of algorithms.

    Dorries became the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary last year and has since consistently demonstrated that she doesn’t fully understand the media landscape.

    In one interview, Dorries claimed we have had the internet for ten years. Meanwhile, she said she was “amazed” to learn that young people watch TV with YouTube.

    Now, her insistence that the multinational technology corporation Microsoft stop using algorithms has really blown people’s minds.

    1. Avatar photo timeless says:

      Sadly this is what happens when you put someone in charge who has no clue about technology, its all well and good having ideas.. but to be ignorant of the landscape and technology and its implications is something politics has never made an attempt to understand.

  4. Avatar photo Me says:

    This will all end in tears, just like the governments, indeed parliaments obsessed attitude towards net zero. The people will end up paying a heavy price for this, buy shares in VPN’s now I say.
    Crime should absolutely be cracked down on and the giant American tech companies made to pay when they lack interest in helping that, but not by a corrupt leftist clueless idiot government from the U.K with a person in charge of this bill who doesn’t seem to know how to use a smartphone even.

    1. Avatar photo timeless says:

      leftist? you do realize that the government currently pushing for this is the Conservatives right? a right wing party.

    2. Avatar photo John says:

      @timeless if you think radical netzero agenda, highest taxation since ww2, diversity push is right wing then you should replace time with clue

  5. Avatar photo Optimist says:

    How will the UK government be able to fine content provides based in other countries?

  6. Avatar photo Anonymous says:

    Pathetic legislation. Outside of the usual freedom of speech arguments, the state will cause an accessibility issue for the people which do not own identification documents.

    While not exactly the majority, there is still a considerable amount who can’t get them either due to the financial cost or administrative reasons i.e. they couldn’t legally get them.

    The latter harms the most vulnerable isolated people in society which truly have fallen below the civilisation safety net as they don’t necessarily know anybody who can countersign any application forms.

    Yes – they could lie and no doubt probably get somebody to stretch the truth but is that the standard we want to set.

  7. Avatar photo Dan says:

    I’m guessing the family friendly filters have been forgotten about , 8 years must be along time.

  8. Avatar photo Mike says:

    Even if they didn’t censor the Internet you still need a VPN because of the spying.

  9. Avatar photo Libertarian says:

    VPNs have never been more needed than in current days. Western countries like Canada have arrested people for hate speech for simply stating basic biology

    Hate speech is a horrible umbrella term that is not defined on purpose so that it can be a slippery slope from actual crimes that are already punishable by law, to arresting people who post mean comments, to making a post online critical of the government.

    First they came for the the russians and no one defended them, then they came for the Chinese and no one defended them, then they came for you and no one else to stand in the way

  10. Avatar photo Ted says:

    I wonder if they will censor ALL conspiracy theories, or only select ones?

    For example, will the conspiracy theory that Donald Trump was a Russian agent and that the 2016 election was rigged be censored or not?

    What about the “patriarchy” conspiracy theory believed by radical feminists wackos?

    Or that Brexit voters “didn’t know what they voted for.”

    Somehow, I very much doubt these are what the vile Tories have in mind.

  11. Avatar photo John says:

    I’m reading lot of “lefty” in the comments above, the thing is, we got a conservative majority government who’s bringing this law in, not the lib dems or green or some other left leaning party. Besides, i think there’s too much freedom online and you can easily find like minded people doing bad things, like selling human organs, pedos and the lot… about time they did something about it, atleast deal with 90% of those lot, rest of the 10% is a small amount and maybe deal with those using international crime prevention folks and coordinate with them, gchq, interpol and nsa working together, it’ll take time and resources but results will come in the end.

    But out laws have no back-bone or teeth, so even after wasting the time and money catching the most heinous criminals, you can’t even put them down or sleep, like a dog!

    And the Russians are looking to start WW3 where the world would be reset, billions killed, the world is gone mad… maybe some folks have had enough of live and looking to end it since their time is nearing. But then, who cares right?

  12. Avatar photo A Mosswood says:

    The UK government, in is current form are gradually introducing what amounts to a combination of the Chinese social credit system and the equivalent of the “great wall of china”. I am of the view that the “government” have a ready drafted and worked bill, ready for delivery once it has persuaded parliament and the public to accept its apparent necessity. the draft currently published is likely not the real bill that will eventually go before parliament but a subterfuge to give the false impression that “public opinion is being taking into account”

  13. Avatar photo Ken Taurus says:

    Considering this over the last few days, my only gripe with this bill now is that they haven’t made Tor traffic illegal.

    The only people who use Tor in first world countries like the UK or Australia are drug dealers, terrorists or child molesters. There is no reason for anybody here to be using it.

    ISPs can differentiate between Tor traffic and regular traffic, so it wouldn’t be that hard for them to block it.

    1. Avatar photo TOR says:

      No, you VPN then you TOR. Double layer. Banned tor means banning all vpns.

    2. Avatar photo LEGIT TOR USER says:

      I use TOR and I can assure you, I’m neither a drug dealer, a terrorist or a child molester! But I Am someone who values my privacy, uses a vpn and Tor to double protect my identity, my right to keep what I do private and not be profiled and my financial data safe and private. I also use Tutanota and Proton mail encrypted email systems just so they are completely private!

      Vpns and Tor browser are NOT bad tools, it’s got an unwarranted bad reputation because its INCORRECTLY associated with crime. Saying all users are criminals is just plain wrong and unfairly tars the reputations of upstanding citizens like me.

      And banning Tor alone wouldn’t stop people using something else. Even Firefox browser comes with a VPN. Are you going to start banning that as well? Or how about brave and epic browsers that allow users to set up permanent always on private browsing and no storage of any cookies?

      If your going to go that far then this country will end up just like China and Russia where everything is censored. And I hope I’m not alive when that day comes.

Comments are closed

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