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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Filed Under: censorship, china, free speech, intermediary liability, legal but harmful, online harms, online safety, uk


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  • icon
    Nathan F (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 10:12am

    So they want to try and hold corporation employees personally responsible if they don't follow the vague, confusing, and sometimes contradictory rules... I mean guidelines.. And yet they work so very hard to make it so politicians and other politically powerful people immune to personal responsibility when their decisions cause huge issues.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Jojo (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 10:47am

    How they went about reforming this bill

    UK Parliament: "Okay lets reform this bill."
    proceeds to just change the title.
    UK Parliament: "We did it. The children are now safe online!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      wereisjessicahyde (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 1:46pm

      Re: How they went about reforming this bill

      Lots of "thinking of the children" but as usually they can't come up with anything that will actually keep children safer.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 17 May 2021 @ 11:04am

    Governments have never seen anything good that they didn't want to ruin.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 11:10am

    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!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 11:11am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Michael (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 3:06pm

      Re:

      The likely outcome is age verification for most, if not all websites. Either the government hasn't really thought this through, or they have & don't care about the result.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Cody, 17 May 2021 @ 11:17am

    It might make sense for alot of companies to just cease UK operations by the looks of it. I know the EU and US wanna regulate the internet but none of their proposals are this bad.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 11:43am

    Once you understand the plain fact that moderation is free speech, it becomes easily obvious that laws to restrict moderation are always censorious.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Cody, 17 May 2021 @ 12:15pm

      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?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Cody, 17 May 2021 @ 12:17pm

        Re: Re:

        Sorry about this, the format of the comment section made it look like you were replying to my comment.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Michael (profile), 21 May 2021 @ 3:12pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 1:20pm

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 1:21pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 3:47pm

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 4:22pm

      Re:

      But don't they have the copyright directive?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        DocGerbil100 (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 4:55pm

        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?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 4:47pm

      Re:

      Also this may be against many trade deals the UK already agreed too.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Michael (profile), 21 May 2021 @ 3:19pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Tanner Andrews (profile), 18 May 2021 @ 4:46am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 May 2021 @ 7:28am

    Age verification is annoying.

    It's bad enough I'm subjected to this bullshit when trying to watch videos on YouTube.

    No, YouTube, I will not give you my credit card information just to watch a video of a Tornado that's been rated mature. Fuck off.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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