Big tech accountability? Read how we got here in  The Closing of the Net 

OnlineSafetyBill

The Online Safety Bill is a draft Bill to be tabled in the British Parliament on Thursday 17 March 2022. It has been in gestation since 2014, when the government proposed introducing a mandatory parental control system. At that time, discussions between lobbyists for the various interests involved, including children's charities and vendors of Internet filtering systems, were in deep discussions with Ministers.  There was an Online Safety Bill in 2015, that was not adopted. It targeted broadband providers with filtering measures. This draft Bill targets social media platforms, and potentially anything else that enables users to communicate with each other. Any app with a share button could be in the frame. 

As I write this in February 2022, the Bill is in draft form. The draft was released in May 2021. The date for the revised Bill has yet to be announced. 

This section of my website is exclusively dedicated to the Online Safety Bill.  I will be posting analysis and commentary.   I've been through the Bill section by section, and issue by issue. I have a created chart of clauses. I look for the policy issues, and how the text of the law links up to support the measures provided for. I look for the actors - who is behind this law, who is lobbying the hardest, are there different factions, for example.  I ask difficult questions about what the measures would mean in practice, what does the opaque legal text really mean?  My analysis builds on my track record of research into online enforcement measures and the 'copyright wars'  since 2008.

This research is written up in my books - feel free to check them out!   A Copyright Masquerade: How Corporate Lobbying Threatens Online Freedoms and The Copyright Enforcement Enigma - Internet Politics and the ‘Telecoms Package’

Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State, 4 November 2021, screenshot from Parliamentlive.tv

Tl;DR  The Online Safety Bill is a major piece of legislation intended to tackle the very difficult and troubling issues around social media. However, in its desire to remove the bad stuff, the Bill is setting up a legal and technical  framework that mandates and enforces the automated suppression of online content and social media posts. The lack of a precise aim has enabled it to be moulded in  a way that raises a number of concerns.  Government Ministers will have unprecedented powers to define the content to be removed. They will be able to evade Parliamentary scrutiny through the use of Secondary Legislation. Social media platforms will have a wide discretion to interpret the rules and to determine whether content stays up or goes down. These factors, combined with the overall  lack of precision in the drafting and the weak safeguards for users, means that the Bill is unlikely to meet human rights standards for protecting freedom of expression online.

UPDATED  to reflect the Bill as Introduced to the House of Commons on 17 March 2022

Read more: What's the point of the Online Safety Bill?

TL;DR  They say they do, but the Bill is not clear.  The government has been quite shifty in its use of language to obscure a requirement for encrypted messaging services to monitor users' communications. If they do comply with this requirement, they will have to break the encryption that protects users' privacy, and users risk being less safe online. However, they will also be conflicted in their legal duties to protect users' privacy, as will the regulator Ofcom. Private messaging services are important to millions of UK users. Their obligation under the Online Safety Bill needs clarification and amendment.

Read more: Online Safety Bill: does government want to snoop on your WhatsApps?

 TL;DR The UK government's Online Safety Bill creates a double standard for freedom of expression that protects large media empires and leaves ordinary citizens exposed. It grants special treatment to the large news publishers and broadcasters, who get a carve out from the measures in the Bill so that headlines like the notorious "Enemies of the People" get special protection from the automated content moderation systems. They even get a VIP lane to complain. Foreign disinformation channels would also benefit from this carve-out, including Russia Today. Content posted by ordinary British people could be arbitrarily taken down.

Read more: Online Safety Bill: One rule for them and another for us

Draft Online Safety Bill committee 4November2021

TL;DR Key decisions will be taken behind Whitehall facades, with no checks and balances. The entire framework of the Bill is loosely defined and propped up by Henry VIII clauses that allow the Secretary of State (DCMS and Home Office) to implement the law using Statutory Instruments. This means that Ministerial decisions will get little or no scrutiny by Parliament. This will include crucial decisions about content to be suppressed and compliance functions required of Internet services. Standards for automated detection of illegal content will be determined by the Home Secretary. The concern is whether these powers could ever be used to block lawful but inconvenient speech.

 

Read more: Online Safety Bill: Ministers to get unprecedented powers over speech

 

TL;DR Social media companies will be required by the government to police users' posts by removing the content or suspending the account. Instead of a blue-uniformed policeman, it will be a cold coded algorithm putting its virtual hand on the shoulder of the user. The imprecise wording offers them huge discretion. They have a conflicted role - interfere with freedom of expression and simultaneously to protect it. Revision is needed to protect the rights of those who are speaking lawfully, and doing no harm, but whose speech is restricted in error.

Read more: Online Safety Bill - Freedom to interfere?

TL;DR A puzzling feature of the UK Online Safety Bill is the special protection it gives to 'content of democratic importance'. It asks the large online platforms to give special treatment to such content, in cases where they are taking a decision to remove the content or restrict the user who posted it. However, the term appears to have been coined by the government for the purpose of this Bill, and what it means is not clear. There is no statement of the policy issue that it is trying to address. That makes it very difficult for online platforms to code for this requirement.

Read more: What is content of democratic importance?

 

TL;DR   A website blocking order is a modern form of censorship. In the wrong hands, it is a dangerous weapon. Blocking orders provided for in Clauses 91-93 of the Online Safety Bill could be used in the most egregious cases to block overseas Internet services that refuse to comply with the Bill. They are not suitable for targeting 'big tech' social media platforms. Blocking orders have been used in the UK for copyright enforcement since 2011, and there is a body of caselaw to draw on. If these orders are used, they should be precise and specify the exact locations of the content, site or server to be blocked.

Read more: Copyright-style website blocking orders slipped into Online Safety Bill

TL;DR The government's Impact Assessment calculates that this Bill will cost British businesses over £2billion to implement. By its own admisssion, 97 per cent of the 24,000 businesses in scope, are a low risk of having illegal or harmful content on their systems. Only 7-800 are likely to be high risk, and the real target, the big global platforms, only number around half a dozen. It is hard to see how the draft Bill of May 2021 could be justified on this basis. The Bill should focus on the real aim of tackling the global mega-platforms, and the high risk issues like child sexual abuse. For 97 per cent of the 24,000 small British businesses, there is no evidence that they entail any risk and the cost and regulatory effort is disproportionate to the aims.

Read more: £2 billion cost to British businesses for Online Safety Bill

Iptegrity in brief

 

Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I’ve been analysing analysing digital policy since 2008. Way back then, I identified how issues around rights can influence Internet policy, and that has been a thread throughout all of my research. I hold a PhD in EU Communications Policy from the University of Westminster (2010), and a Post-graduate diploma in marketing. I am on the Advisory Council of the Open Rights Group.  I’ve served as an independent expert on the Council of Europe  Committee on Internet Freedoms, and was involved in a capacity building project in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. For more, see About Iptegrity

Iptegrity.com is made available free of charge for  non-commercial use, Please link-back & attribute Monica Horten. Thank you for respecting this.

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