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UK Now Calling Its 'Online Harms Bill' The 'Online Safety Bill' But A Simple Name Change Won't Fix Its Myriad Problems

from the this-is-not-how-this-should-work dept

We’ve talked a bit about the UK’s long-running process to basically blame internet companies for all of society’s ills. What was originally called the “online harms” bill has now officially morphed into the Online Safety Bill, which was recently released in draft form.

Despite the UK government insisting that it spent the past few years talking to various stakeholders, the final bill is a disaster for the open internet. Heather Burns, from the UK’s Open Rights Group (loosely the UK’s version of the EFF), has a short thread about the bill, explaining why it’s so problematic. Here’s the key bit:

You’re going to read a lot today about the government’s plans for the Online Safety Bill on #onlineharms, a regulatory process which has eaten up much of the past two years of my professional work. I suppose if I had a hot take to offer after two years, it’s this:

  1. If you see the bill being presented as being about “social media” “tech giants” “big tech” etc, that’s bullshit. It impacts *all services of all sizes, based in the UK or not. Even yours.* Bonus: take a drink every time a journo or MP says the law is about reining in Facebook.
  2. If you see the Bill being presented as being about children’s safety, that’s bullshit. It’s about government compelling private companies to police the legal speech and behaviour of everyone who says or does anything online. Children are being exploited here as the excuse.
  3. So as you read the Bill, consider how altruistic any government initiative must be if it requires two layers of A/B tested messaging disinformation.

A week earlier Burns, who’s been deeply engaged in the process in the UK wrote up a long blog post explaining all the problems with the fundamental approach embraced in the bill: it’s basically outsourcing all of the roles of the government to internet companies, and then threatening to punish them if they get it wrong. Here’s just one important bit:

The first and most immediate impact of the imposition of senior management liability will be a chilling effect on free speech. This is always a consequence of content moderation laws which are overly prescriptive and rigid, or conversely, overly vague and sweeping.

When everything falls into a legally ambiguous middle ground, but the law says that legally ambiguous content must be dealt with, then service providers find themselves backed into a corner. What they do in response is take down vast swathes of user-generated content, the majority of which is perfectly legal and perhaps subjectively harmful, rather than run the risk of getting it wrong.

This phenomenon, known as ?collateral censorship? ? with your content being the collateral ? has an immediate effect on the right to freedom of expression.

Now add the risk of management liability to the mix, and the notion that tech sector workers might face personal sanctions and criminal charges for getting it wrong, and you create an environment where collateral censorship, and the systematic takedowns of any content which might cause someone to feel subjectively offended, becomes a tool for personal as well as professional survival.

In response to this chilling effect, anyone who is creating any kind of public-facing content whatsoever ? be that a social media update, a video, or a blog post ? will feel the need to self-censor their personal opinions, and their legal speech, rather than face the risk of their content being taken down by a senior manager who does not want to get arrested for violating a ?duty of care?.

The general summary for tons of experts is that this bill is a dumpster fire of epic proportions. Big Brother Watch notes that this would introduce “state-backed censorship and monitoring on a scale *never seen before* in a liberal democracy.” The scariest part is that it will require companies to remove lawful speech. The bill refers to it as “lawful but still harmful” (which some have taken to calling “lawful but awful” speech). But as noted above, that really creates tremendous incentives for excessive censorship and suppression of all sorts of speech to avoid falling on the wrong line.

Indeed, this is the very model used by the Great Firewall of China. For years, rather than instructing internet companies what to block with the Great Firewall, internet companies would often just get vague messages about what kinds of content the government was “concerned” about, along with threats that if the internet companies didn’t magically block all of that content, they (and their executives) would face liability. The end result is clearly significant over-blocking. If you only get punished for under-blocking, the natural result is going to be over-blocking.

Among the many other problems with this, the UK’s approach will only lead the Chinese to insist that this shows their Great Firewall approach is the only proper way to regulate the internet. They’ve certainly done that before.

It really is quite incredible how closely the bill mimics the Great Firewall approach, but with UK regulators OFCOM stepping in for the role of the Chinese government:

There are a few attempts in the draft bill to put in place language that looks like they’re supportive of free speech, but most of these are purely fig leaves — the kind of thing they can point to in order to say “see, we support free speech, no censorship here, no siree” but which fail to take into account how these will work in practice.

Specifically, there’s a section saying that websites (and executives), that will now face liability if they leave up too much “lawful but harmful” content, must make sure not to take down “democratically important” content. What does that mean? And who decides? Dunno. There’s also a weird carveout for “journalists” but again, that’s problematic, when you realize that merely the act of defining who is and who is not a journalism is a big free speech issue. And the bill does note that “citizen journalists will have the same protections as professional journalists.” Does… that mean every UK citizen has to declare themselves a “citizen journalist” now? How does that even work?

The whole thing is not just a complete disaster, it’s a complete disaster that tons of smart people have been warning the UK government about for the past two years without getting anywhere at all. I’m sure we’ll have a lot more to say about it in the near future, but for now it really looks like the UK approach to “online harms”… er… “online safety” is to replicate the Chinese Great Firewall. And that’s quite stunning.

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Comments on “UK Now Calling Its 'Online Harms Bill' The 'Online Safety Bill' But A Simple Name Change Won't Fix Its Myriad Problems”

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33 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

the UK, particularly under this Conservative Government needs to keep it’s hands off the Internet! it has done so much harm removing peoples rights, Union Rights, health and safety rights. i’m surporised there are any left at all! as long as their friends are happily continuing to reap an absolute fortune from the various openings that have been made, including from the pandemic, no one gives a toss about the ordinary people! nothing more important to the Tories than making money, by any means possible!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Theres a 9pm watershed on uk tv, drama,s ,films showing over 18 adult material, sex,violence are not shown before 9 on free to air tv,eg itv,bbc, channel 4 ,eg terrestial tv,
this is like trying to impose a tv rating system on all websites.
its a massive attack on free sppech.
making a law that censors legal speech is wrong,this will effect sites that host content for lgbt minoritys.
its ridiculous to expect all websites to be suitable for children or people under 18.
will this mean some youtube channels and twitch.com to be blocked by uk isps,
since they show playthroughs of games that are rated 18, mature rated ?
no expects ALL tv channels or movie channels to be safe for children to watch.
this is lierally the nanny state push by a so called free open democratic government.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Cody says:

Re: Re:

I’m not arguing with you there, I agree. I’m just saying that given all the ridiculous requirements being set by the UK many firms might opt to cease operating in the UK and block their services. Like if a firm gets 8% of its revenue from the UK why would it risk 10% on rules that are so vague?

Michael says:

Re: Re: Re:

Listen to the Regulate Tech podcast on Podbean. Someone who’s worked with Ofcom said that may well be the case. He said if a service provider decides they don’t want to conform to UK law, then they won’t be allowed to operate here. It was hard to tell if he was a fan or not, but he did say that imagine if dozens of countries decided to impose competing regulations on the various tech companies. You’d end up with dozens of national internets rather than a worldwide web. But that does seem to be the current direction of travel.

ECA (profile) says:

International company

Thats being told what its supposed to do by a FEW countries.
Trying to please everyone in the world is impossible.
Between the politics, the religions, and the idiocy. There is nothing that CAN BE CONSTRUCTIVE.
You can free up everything, and say anything posted must stay. WHICH the corps would love to get rid of a couple 1000 employees Doing that job(trying to do that job), for all sections of the world.
You can GIVE certain things that SHOULD be restricted, a nice basic list, is nice but wont happen if Every country has its OWN say.
YOU CAN CREATE an ADULTS ONLY section of the internet, which has been tried and failed. Because its hard for the internet to figure out how OLD you are from inside a box. Can you see a CARD that is equal to your Drivers license TO BE ALLOWED to wonder the net?

But isnt it better to allow kids/teens to SEE how bad things are? to EXPERIENCE the world Before it Ruins their lives?

Anonymous Coward says:

Thing is does Ofcom have the resources to do this? look at what happen to age verification it was delayed over and over again until it was scraped because they just could not find a way to get it up and running, its easy to see that the Online harms bill could also collapse under its own weight.

Anonymous Coward says:

And many websites might move out from the UK, put servers in France or Ireland, to avoid this bill, the UK is not in the EU,
it can only control UK websites or maybe make a New firewall of the UK,
What stupid politican decided no website can post content that
might upset children even if it’s legal
It makes no sense sense at this point every TV station and news org has a website

DocGerbil100 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

^ These two AC posts, right here. Pushing major sites out of the UK and into the EU would effectively make those sites subject to EU copyright law, but without the IP-promoting industries having to pay for the much more expensive and difficult lobbying effort to get the UK’s copyright laws changed.

Laws like this always have big financial backers, quietly doling out money and favours to the great and good behind closed doors. I wonder who paid for this law?

Michael says:

Re: Re:

News websites are specifically exempt. Ofcom will collect fees from any company that wants to operate in the UK. They think they’ll need £40 million to regulate the internet. It also sounds like the smaller operators (e.g. Gab, Parler & Bitchute) because they contain more problematic content will be leant on more heavily. Facebook is 95% of the way there apparently.

Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

UK Not Exactly a Bastion of Freedom

Does anyone remember the Prevention of Terrorism Act? Under that, at least once the government arrested its own (BBC) reporters for reporting on the other side during the Troubles.

In the States, England is remembered at least somewhat vaguely as having been an oppressive remote ruling power. There was a disposal of tea leaves and, later on, some armed conflict. There was also another armed conflict during the early 1800s, from which we still sing celebrating the British fleetness of foot.

Louis G says:

Cityfibre Disgraceful Behaviour - Pornography

As a Christian and mother of two children, online safety is a big concern for me, wanting to protect my children from what they see on the internet knowing how this can damage them or rob them of their innocence.

I’m pleased to see the UK government is trying to put measures in place to make the internet a safer place for children however it isn’t helpful when companies active within UK’s internet industry are working against them.

Recently a Mr Farnden Marketing Executive for Cityfibre was caught uploading and sharing indecent pornographic images, not to an adult website but a website easily accessed by men, women, children of any age.

Cityfibre is working at the very heart of the UK’s internet industry, installing the country’s fibre optic network.

So was Mr Farnden asked to resign, demoted or dismissed? No, unbelievably Cityfibre CEO Greg Mesch rewarded him with promotion to Head of Sector Marketing! They should be disgraced.

https://www.crunchbase.com/person/darren-farnden-entanet

Louis G says:

Cityfibre Disgraceful Behaviour - Pornography

As a Christian and mother of two children, online safety is a big concern for me, wanting to protect my children from what they see on the internet knowing how this can damage them or rob them of their innocence.

I’m pleased to see the UK government is trying to put measures in place to make the internet a safer place for children however it isn’t helpful when companies active within UK’s internet industry are working against them.

Recently a Mr Farnden Marketing Executive for Cityfibre was caught uploading and sharing indecent pornographic images, not to an adult website but a website easily accessed by men, women, children of any age.

Cityfibre is working at the very heart of the UK’s internet industry, installing the country’s fibre optic network.

So was Mr Farnden asked to resign, demoted or dismissed? No, unbelievably Cityfibre CEO Greg Mesch rewarded him with promotion to Head of Sector Marketing! They should be disgraced.

https://www.crunchbase.com/person/darren-farnden-entanet

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