Security or Censorship? The Online Safety Bill in the United Kingdom
By Rachel Fairley
In the United Kingdom, the Online Safety Bill aims to “make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”. Five years in the making, the bill includes issues ranging from online fraud to pornography and bullying. It aims to pacify numerous competing forces and create a safer online environment for both children and adults whilst also maintaining the level of freedom of expression expected from any liberal democracy. The bill, and its seemingly contradictory aims, have garnered significant opposition across the political spectrum. Viewed by some as "too little, too late," the bill has been described by others as equivalent to an “Orwellian censorship machine”. This article will explore the motivations for the Online Safety Bill before going on to assess the objections of its critics, andthe extent to which it represents a dangerous exercise in state regulation and censorship.
The Online Safety Bill received its first reading in the United Kingdom's Parliament on 17 March 2022. It aims to impose a "duty of care" on social media platforms to combat "legal but harmful" content and gives Ofcom the power to fine tech companies up to 10 percent of their profits for failing to comply with the legislation. The bill is emblematic of a wider trend toward greater accountability for "Big Tech" companies and increased pressure on tech giants to encroach upon freedom of expression in the name of combatting fake news and harmful content. The bill, in its nascent form, centred around the protection of children, a focus that has remained at the centre of discussion around the bill. Changes since the most recent bill have proposed that social media platforms should be required to report instances of child sexual exploitation to the National Crime Agency whilst protecting children from pornographic material and harmful content related, amongst other things, to bullying and self-harm. There is little controversy surrounding this aspect of the bill. A 2021 report commissioned by CARE found that 81 percent of UK adults agree that the government should implement age verification to protect children from all online pornography whilst children’s charity Barnardo’s has supported the measures and emphasised the dangers posed by exposure to pornography to the mental health of children.
The scope of the Online Safety Bill, however, extends beyond the protection of children and is also tailored to combat online fraud, cyber-flashing and abuse toward marginalised groups. A UK Finance Report found that in 2020, online impersonation scams in the UK doubled whilst the Report Harmful Content platform reported that online hate speech increased by 225 percent between 2020 and 2021. The growing issue of online fraud and harmful content has prompted criticism of the bill’s delays and the Labour Party has claimed that the bill’s slow progress has resulted in over £3 billion being lost to cyber-crime and 60,000 online child sexual abuse material and online grooming offences being committed.
The broad scope of the bill is another focus of its many critics. According to certain campaigners, depth has been sacrificed in favour of breadth and the proposed bill is “woefully inadequate”. For example, Samaritans have highlighted the bill’s failure to address the issue of suicide and self-harm content and the danger such content poses to adults as well as children. Other campaigners have criticised the bill’s limited focus on Big Tech firms since much of the proposed protective legislation would enable harmful content to continue unchecked on smaller platforms.
This suggestion – that the bill does not go far enough to tackle "legal but harmful" content – has been complemented by a contrasting criticism that the bill goes too far and intends to legitimise a trend towards draconian state censorship. The bill has been perceived by some politicians and campaigners as an attempt by the British government to “set the terms” for online censorship, and thus determine what constitutes legitimate, factual online content, and what does not. It has been suggested, too, that ambiguity of the term "legal but harmful" will prompt tech giants to put profit ahead of freedom of speech and adopt an overly cautious approach to censorship for fear of being fined. The proposed bill, therefore, risks freedom of speech by creating the conditions for the abuse of online censorship by the UK government. In attempting to hold Big Tech companies accountable, the bill may in fact result in an exaggerated regulation of online content, as tech companies prioritise their own prosperity over the personal liberties of the general population.
The Online Safety Bill received its second reading on 19 April 2022. The UK Government’s desire to “make the UK the safest place in the world to be online” is certainly admirable in theory. In practice, however, it risks making the UK a safe place only for certain views, politics and people.