Campaigners fear online law will give tech firms 'right to spy on us'September 5, 2021
Online anti-bullying law will give tech firms ‘right to spy on us’ and risks crushing freedom of speech, campaigners warn
- The Government’s Online Safety Bill is ‘fundamentally flawed’, campaigners say
- They fear things that can be legally said in a pub could now be prohibited online
- Firms may be fined for not removing content that could cause ‘psychological harm’
A proposed law to combat online abuse risks crushing freedom of speech and handing state-backed powers to technology firms to snoop on internet users’ private conversations, campaigners warn.
A hard-hitting report by the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch says that while well-intentioned, the Government’s Online Safety Bill is ‘fundamentally flawed’ and could harm ‘fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of expression’.
The clamour for legislation has been growing since the suicide of Molly Russell in 2017.
A hard-hitting report by the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch says that while well-intentioned, the Government’s Online Safety Bill is ‘fundamentally flawed’ and could harm ‘fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of expression’ [File photo]
The 14-year-old took her life after viewing thousands of online posts about suicide and self-harm. Her case increased pressure to force social media firms to do more to keep users safe.
The new system will be policed by Ofcom with powers to impose fines of up to £18 million on firms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube if they fail to remove content that could cause ‘psychological harm’.
But critics warn the definition of harmful is too vague and could lead to tech firms systemically erasing lawful comments on issues from transgender rights to Brexit.
The Big Brother Watch study, published today, warns that under the new law, things that can be legally and freely said in a pub will be prohibited online.
The new system will be policed by Ofcom with powers to impose fines of up to £18 million on firms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube if they fail to remove content that could cause ‘psychological harm’
It argues: ‘The law should be upheld online as it is offline… it would be dangerous to impose a two-tier system for freedom of expression with extra speech controls for lawful speech just because it is online.’
The study warns the draft bill could give social media companies the right to monitor private messages.
It says it ‘would empower and even force big tech companies to conduct mass surveillance of their platforms and act as speech police online’.
The report also cites examples of legitimate articles being censored by internet companies.
Facebook had to apologise after labelling an article by Mail on Sunday journalist Ian Birrell about the World Health Organisation inquiry into Covid-19’s origins as ‘false information’ last year.
The report also warns that the new law would allow the Government to add to Ofcom’s list of ‘harmful’ online content without consulting Parliament – creating a risk of the Bill being misused to censor debate.
Mark Johnson, of Big Brother Watch, said: ‘The Government is establishing a censor’s charter where big tech censorship would be state-backed.
‘Politicians talk about ‘reining in the tech platforms’ when really they’re getting into bed with them.’
A Government spokesman said: ‘We make no apologies for wanting to protect children online and tackling criminal content, including protecting young people from sexual abuse and content that encourages self- harm and suicide.
‘Our new laws beef up protections for free speech and journalistic content to stop tech firms removing legal content arbitrarily. Ministers have been clear they will not allow this to be a tool of censorship.’
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