from the brexiting-the-internet dept
We already knew that the UK’s Online Safety Bill was going to be an utter disaster for the open internet, because that had been made clear early on. Last week, the government finally unveiled the latest version of the Online Safety Bill and it’s perhaps even worse than expected. It’s 225 pages of completely misunderstanding the internet, and thinking that if they just threaten companies to fix the internet, that will magically make the world work. Last year, when an initial draft was released, we noted that it was a near identical copy to the way that China’s Great Firewall initially worked, because it just sort of handwaves the idea that online service providers need to stop bad stuff… or else. And rather than recognize that’s a problem, the Online Safety Bill leans into it.
There’s a lot in this bill, and it’s going to take a while to dig through the whole thing and find all the many problems with it, but as UK lawyer Graham Smith highlights, the bill leans hard on giving the government the power to order websites to monitor and filter content.
As that shows the regulator OFCOM will now have the power to order websites to use “proactive technology” (i.e., monitoring/filtering) to deal with illegal content, children’s online safety, and “fraudulent advertising.” Of course, anyone who knows anything about any of this would recognize the problems. How do you build a monitoring tool that recognizes “illegal content”? Or content that is a risk to children’s safety? It’s not like there’s some clear definition. Normally, to declare something illegal, you have to have a full adjudication. But here, the UK may be demanding that service providers just figure it out, and never get it wrong. That’s going to work out great.
As Smith notes, this is a complete switch from the EU’s rules that forbade general monitoring requirements. The UK, post-Brexit has gone in the opposite direction entirely, to now potentially mandating general monitoring requirements.
As UK open web activist Heather Burns notes, this is, in some ways, the UK trying to Brexit the internet. I recommend reading her entire article, as it (and another post she wrote) highlight how oddly nationalistic the Online Safety Bill is, positioning it as creating a uniquely British internet, at war with the evils of Silicon Valley (as opposed to the evils of the EU for regular Brexit). But the internet is a global tool, and creating a unique one for your own country misunderstands the entire purpose of an open internet.
But, perhaps even worse, like Brexit, it appears that the Online Safety Bill, like unfortunately too many internet regulation bills in the US and elsewhere, seems more driven by spite and petulance, than thinking through what makes good policy. It’s about playing the victim, because that riles people up in support, rather than figuring out what would actually be good.
The second aspect of the UK strategy to Brexit the Internet is a linguistic narrative of petulant, infantile victimhood at the hands of an other. The them. The evil external bogeyman responsible for all the ills of the world. That other used to be the EU. It’s now SiliconValleyWokeryNickCleggBigTech. That current narrative, now, is as false as the old one was then: the othering is the point.
But back to the more immediate issues of the bill. For years now, we’ve explained how the concept of a “duty of care” would be a disaster for the open internet, for a variety of reasons. First, it always leads to overzealous blocking to avoid any risk, second, it’s a completely subjective standard, meaning that failures require massively expensive litigation to figure out if you actually met your “duty of care” or not, and third it’s a meaningless phrase that sounds good to politicians (and the press and some silly academics) without giving companies anything concrete to actually do.
Finally, the enforcement mechanisms in the bill, again, remind one more of Chinese or Russian authoritarianism, where if you get something wrong, the UK now wants to throw tech execs in jail:
And, even worse, it says that you can get in trouble for keeping up content even if it’s legal. This is what is commonly referred to as “lawful, but awful” but the UK calls it “legal but harmful” content. And the Online Safety Bill will punish companies for allowing such content. Of course, to avoid such punishment, basically anything controversial is unlikely to be allowed on the British internet any more. Again, this is extremely reminiscent of the original Great Firewall of China, where the government would punish web services for allowing content that might make people sad.
Everything about this seems to have been written by people who have no idea how any of this works in practice, or who don’t seem to care that this will lead to a massive suppression of the ability to speak online. Like Brexit cut the UK off from the wider EU and all the benefits that brought, this is an attempt to wall off the UK from the wider internet… and all the benefits that brought. Good luck over there on your tiny disconnected island, UK. You’re going to need it.
Filed Under: brexit, duty of care, filters, free speech, great firewall, lawful but awful, legal but harmful, monitoring obligations, ofcom, online safety, online safety bill, surveillance, uk, upload filters