Government’s online security bill is another invisible power grab
For a government that is spending so much political capital to denounce attacks on free speech by the “awake”, a new law to drive a pin into the heart of free speech legislation seems a strange coup du comes out. Yet this is what the project Online Security Bill proposes to do so, while granting extraordinary powers to regulators and companies in Silicon Valley while he is at it. What is conceived as a new way to control hate online will instead overturn age-old norms of free speech legislation and redefine legal notions of “harmful” speech online.
Perhaps the reasons for the bill are welcome: there is a loophole in the law regarding the rules on incitement to self-harm, and instances of racial hatred or incitement to violence easily go unnoticed. But in trying to address these issues, the bill opened up a whole new concept to free speech, disguised as “duty of care”.
As the Index on Censorship organization has argued, it is a notion that it is better to leave in the fields of safety at work than the right to freedom of expression. Until now, removing online content and punishing it has been a matter for the courts, which have the power to decide what is both harmful and illegal, and to determine the crucial difference between the two. A person found guilty of producing illegal or dangerous content, such as incitement to violence, would be examined by the courts, but content found to be harmful to some should be judged solely on the basis of the law, not individual opinions. judges or juries.
What the new bill does is remove one of these conditions: the content will no longer have to be illegal to be censored, but simply considered “harmful”. And this time it is not the legal procedure that decides, but the regulator Ofcom. Rather than the impartiality of the justice system, the right to free speech is in the hands of a notoriously politicized quango. They are the ones who will decide the meaning of the vague term “harmful”.
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In practice, this means that something written online that is not illegal by law could still be deleted due to the alleged “harm” it causes.
Beyond physical damage, ideas about what psychological damage means are indefinite by their very nature. An accuser could use any of his opponents’ words to be deemed harmful, and it would only take Ofcom’s approval for the censor’s red pen to be used.
But it is not just the regulator who gains power; the threat of fines will encourage social media giants to make sure they are ahead of the game, removing “harmful” material before authorities take it over. This is where the definition of harm becomes even more sensitive to the whims of tech bosses rather than court judgments. It is the role of Parliament to decide on freedom of expression laws, and of the courts to enforce them. It is not the work of companies or quangos with interests to pursue and grudges to bear.
Despite attempts to further remove illegal and hateful content online, this bill only strengthens these perpetrators. By applying such a broad approach to what is deemed censurable or not, the government will allow those whom the bill intends to eradicate, to curl up under the cloak of the martyrdom of free speech, while leaving free. course at the same removal of content that does not break any current law. Those returned for any transgression are essentially treated the same as those who incite collective violence.
The law would provide an exemption, included in an effort to “protect journalism and democratic political debate”, which in fact only shows the absurdity of the whole project. Journalists and those who write about a “recognized news publisher” escape the purview of the bill, purely on the basis of the supposed merit of their platform. Imagine, then, that I write something dangerous in this article, and the law will protect me. If anyone dares to repeat it on social media, regulators or money makers will be there to silence them.
Freedom of speech has been enshrined in British law from the abolition of press control in the 1690s until the removal of Lord Chamberlain’s censor in the 1960s. From a government led by a self-proclaimed libertarian, Boris Johnson shows few signs of backing off on a measure that constitutes the most drastic breaches of those freedoms. The proposal drafted by his government met simply the outcry of dedicated activists rather than the wrath of the opposition or much of the media.
Only a much more concerted campaign will succeed in saving us from the ever-growing power of those for whom such rights mean too little.