UK: Online Safety Bill will fail to protect free expression

UK: Online Safety Bill will fail to protect free expression - Digital

As the UK Government plans to present the revised Online Safety Bill in Parliament today, ARTICLE 19 warns that it fails to provide protection to the right to freedom of expression. 

Commenting on the Government press release, announcing the revised Bill, Barbora Bukovská, Senior Director for Law and Policy at ARTICLE 19 said: 

“ARTICLE 19 recognises the shortcomings of the largest digital platforms and the need for their greater accountability. It is clear the current system doesn’t protect human rights, too often leads to silencing of marginalised groups and can have serious consequences offline. However, we believe that the Online Safety Bill will fail in addressing those challenges and, in fact, risk restricting freedom of expression online even further. 

“From the Government’s communication, it seems that the Bill will still be overly broad in scope, attempting to regulate the entirety of human communication and interaction online. By covering not only the largest social media platforms but also private messaging services, the Bill raises serious concerns related to weakening encryption and scanning people’s private communications. This not only hampers privacy but also undermines security of all communication online. 

“It’s disappointing that the Government is not planning to get rid of the ‘legal but harmful’ concept, despite strong criticism from ARTICLE 19 and other free speech campaigners. ‘Legal’ speech is protected speech. Companies, faced with huge fines or even criminal liability for non-compliance, will be incentivised to act in a censorious manner, err on the side of caution and be heavy handed when it comes to removing content. As a result, the Bill will give platforms more control over our speech and interactions online. Those who are most marginalised, minority groups and civil society activists, will be at the greatest risk of censorship.

“ARTICLE 19 has long argued that the legislation should primarily address exploitative business model of the tech companies. Disappointingly, there is no indication that the Government is going to tackle this in the revised Bill. It seems to focus only on content moderation at the expense of solutions that can curb the excessive market power of the very large companies and abuse of their dominant position.

“If free expression is not sufficiently protected in the Bill, it will make our online lives less secure. This matters not only in the United Kingdom – the Bill risks setting a dangerous precedent and providing a blueprint for excessive digital control in countries with authoritarian tendencies around the world.” 

ARTICLE 19 will study the revised Bill and issue further analysis once it is presented to the Parliament.