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.

The  Bill [1] defines "content of democratic importance" [Clause 15(6) ] as 'content that is, or appears to be, specifically intended to contribute to democratic political debate in the UK or in any part or area of the UK.' The provision will apply only to the largest online platforms. They will be expected to implement special protections for this content in the event that they may identify it as illegal or harmful. In that regard, they are asked to take into account freedom of expression rights before taking it down or suspending the user's account.

Such a vague definition leaves itself wide open to interpretation and begs for precision. The official Explanatory Notes [5. Subsection (6) ] try to be helpful: " Examples of such content would be content promoting or opposing government policy and content promoting or opposing a political party." [2]

This does not provide a great deal more insight as to the content that intended to be addressed by this provision. It presents a childlike and naive way of looking at political discourse. Surely democratic debate in the UK is not limited to party political point-scoring? Indeed, there is a lively political debate on UK social media that attracts cross-party commentary with contributions from voters, MPs, experts and the media. That is arguably a good thing. The protection for freedom of expression should apply to all of these users.

A government press release from May 2021 [3] sheds some more light on the intended meaning: 'Companies will also be forbidden from discriminating against particular political viewpoints' . I beg to differ. The text of the Bill does not forbid the platforms doing anything. In fact, it gives them a wide discretion. All it asks is that they consider 'the importance of freedom of expression' when 'making decisions about' whether to restrict the content or the user's account.

The Bill calls on platforms to ensure diversity of opinion, but once again, the intention is missing. More pertinently, it does not state the problem that this is trying to solve. The implication is that the platforms are applying discriminatory techniques against certain political viewpoints, but does not indicate which viewpoints it believes are discriminated against.

Freedom of expression is a right under the European Convention on Human Rights that applies to all individuals. It applies online in the same way as offline and it applies to the means of communication as well as the speech itself [4]. It is implemented in the UK's Human rights Act. The State has a duty to protect it.

The Secretary of State for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries, when giving evidence to the Online Safety Bill Committee on 4 November 2021 [5] tried to answer the question. She said: 'If it is democratic debate and it is political debate, if is not harmful and if it is not abusive and therefore illegal, it is allowed. The Bill will not provide restrictions on what people can say politically, or in any other way that is legal and not harmful.'

In that case, why is special protection needed? This provision should be redundant.

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Iptegrity is made available free of charge under a Creative Commons licence. You may cite my work, with attribution. If you reference the material in this article, kindly cite the author as Dr Monica Horten, and link back to Iptegrity.com. You will also find my book for purchase via Amazon.

About me: I've been analysing analysing digital policy for over 14 years. Way back then, I identified the way that 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. For many years before began my academic research, I was a telecoms journalist and an early adopter of the Internet, writing for the Financial Times and Daily Telegraph, among others. 

Please get in touch if you'd like to know more about my current research.

If you liked this article, you may also like my book The Closing of the Net which discusses the backstory to the Online Safety Bill. It introduces the notion of structural power in the context of Internet communications. Available in Kindle and Paperback from only £15.99!

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[1]  Online Safety Bill as introduced to the House of Commons on 17 March 2022   

[2] Draft Online Safety Bill Explanatory Notes CP405-EN May 2021 

[3] Online safety law to be strengthened to stamp out illegal content. Media release 4 February 2022 

[4] Ahmet Yildirim v Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights, Application no 3111/10 Final Judgment 18th March 2013, paragraph 50 

[5] Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee) Oral Evidence transcript 4 November 2021 Q282 

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