Five ways Nadine Dorries’ Online Safety Bill threatens our rights

By Mark Johnson

The Government is due to publish its long-awaited Online Safety Bill later this week. The legislation follows a long line of deeply authoritarian Bills drafted by the Johnson Government and threatens to do serious damage to our rights to freedom of expression and privacy.

So far, opposition to the Bill has largely been consigned to a number of prominent backbench politicians and rights groups like Big Brother Watch, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer saying he would support the legislation at Second Reading without having even seen it. This is a reckless approach to a Bill which will do damage to our rights and will empower the Government.

It is unclear why the Leader of the Opposition wants to place more power in the hands of both Nadine Dorries and Nick Clegg (President for global affairs at Meta Platforms and previously vice president of global affairs and communications at Facebook). But it is absolutely vital that these threats are recognised on the Labour benches, before it is too late.

Here is a quick look at some of the most damaging aspects of the draft Bill (published last year) and the way it threatens freedom of speech, privacy and the rule of law.

1. Private Silicon Valley policing

The Online Safety Bill is not about upholding law and order. In fact, there is no mention of the police or law enforcement agencies in the legislation at all. The Bill outsources online policing to the tech platforms themselves, requiring the likes of Facebook to make determinations on what is and isn’t illegal on their sites rather than the police or the courts.

 While this may be clear and obvious in some circumstances, in others, such as around the limitations of free expression, it is much harder. It also means that there is no improved role or resourcing for policing of the online crimes that we all want to see dealt with, such as stalking, harassment and racist abuse – the Government simply wants tech companies to deal with it, and criminals will continue to get off the hook.

Where this becomes really problematic for free speech is where platforms are also obliged to tackle entirely lawful expression on their sites if it is deemed to be “harmful” based on broad Government definitions. In this new tech dystopia, the companies’ terms of use, which are designed entirely to protect their corporate, data-guzzling interests rather than citizens, will become synonymous with law online. Our brave new online world will be presided over by the Government’s outsourced speech police in Silicon Valley.

2. Threat to freedom of expression

It is without doubt that the right most threatened by the Online Safety Bill is the right to freedom of expression. It is the deliberate targeting of free speech which is labelled “harmful” that makes this Bill a censor’s charter. Under a draft version of the Bill, platforms would be obliged to address so-called “harmful” expression in their terms of use and uphold these terms consistently under the threat of penalties.

These corporate terms of service go far beyond domestic speech restrictions and in many cases are entirely nonsensical.  These censorious rules have been responsible for the suspension of groups like Kill the Bill and the Socialist Workers Party on Twitter and Facebook over the last couple of years, in brazen acts of tech censorship.

It’s little surprise that radical campaigns, activists, and people talking about mental health and gender have been disproportionately targeted for censorship so far. Censorship always reflects where power lies, whereas free speech has always protected the right of marginalised groups to express themselves. Ministers are trying to pitch this censorious Bill as in the interests of marginalised groups – but that claim couldn’t be further from the truth.

Not only will the so-called “legal but harmful” measure have the practical effect of increasing online censorship, which will disproportionately disadvantage marginalised voices, it will also make the platforms’ most nonsensical policies state-backed.

It has to be dropped completely.

3. Political control

If all of that wasn’t bad enough, the draft Bill also gives the Secretary of State a vast amount of executive power, including the ability to choose what is defined as “harmful” and as such what goes in the cross hairs for censorship. This means what we can and can’t say online could be entirely exposed to politicisation.

Only last year, the Home Secretary Priti Patel called for a clampdown on videos featuring migrant journeys on TikTok. Our Government are granting themselves powers to do exactly that under the legislation.

It is vital that the limitations of what we can say are clearly set out in statute and are closely scrutinised by our Parliament. These limitations should never be set by one politician and this brazen power grab must be resisted in Parliament.

4. Attacks on privacy

As well as the aforementioned threats to freedom of expression, the Online Safety Bill is set to seriously damage privacy rights in the UK.  The draft Bill contained measures clearly intended to undermine the privacy and security afforded by end to end encrypted messaging services and there is talk that the final Bill will compromise online anonymity too.

Private communications and online anonymity are vital for our safety and privacy – and are critical to protect journalists, human rights activists and whistleblowers all around the world. Moves to erode privacy online would set a terrible example for more authoritarian regimes to follow. If the Online Safety Bill compromises anonymity and privacy, these groups will be put at serious risk and we will all be less safe too.

5. Failure to tackle surveillance capitalism

At the heart of social media companies’ business models is the mass commodification of users’ sheer online presence; an aspect which goes almost entirely untouched by the draft Bill. This is despite the fact that these models drive many of the problems we associate with social media sites.

Mass corporate surveillance techniques are used to pry over individuals’ every move online. These data-gathering practices feed algorithms that cater content to users, particularly that which is sensational, in order to keep us online, gather more data, sell more products and continue this cycle.

By making Silicon Valley’s practices state-backed, this entire system of what has become known as ‘surveillance capitalism’ will become entrenched.

The Online Safety Bill is set to be authoritarian, censorious and could do serious damage to both free speech and privacy. As Parliament gears up to scrutinise this legislation, it is vital that MPs protect us against these threats and do not sign off on a blank cheque to undermine our rights online.

Mark Johnson is Legal and Policy Officer at Big Brother Watch

Image: Nadine Dorries. Source: Author: Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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