UK: ARTICLE 19 warns of free speech threat from online harms proposals in Queen’s Speech

Freedom of expression organisation ARTICLE 19 has warned that the Government’s proposals for the online harms bill poses a significant threat to freedom of expression in the UK.  The announcement was made in the Queen’s Speech.

Executive Director Thomas Hughes said:
The online harms bill, which would compel social media companies to regulate ‘legal but harmful’ speech, would result in unprecedented censorship for online users in the UK.
“It could lead to social media companies using automated tools to proactively monitor what users are saying and to remove content at scale.
“We hope that the Government will listen to the concerns raised by ARTICLE 19 and others and amend the draft bill to ensure that freedom of expression is protected.”

In its submission to the consultation into the draft Bill, ARTICLE 19 raised the following concerns:

Restrictions on legal speech: The proposed new regulatory framework would cover both illegal and ‘legal but harmful’ content. It would be down to the regulator to define what constitutes online ‘harms’ but suggests this should be open-ended so that emerging harms could be added. This lack of definition is deeply problematic.

Platforms covered: The scope of companies covered by the White Paper proposals is very broad. As well as large social media companies, it would include file-hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services and search engines. It would also cover the comment sections on websites of media outlets or individuals.  ARTICLE 19 believes that private communications channels and forums should be out of scope.

Press regulation: Former Secretary of State Jeremy Wright MP gave assurances that the press would be excluded, providing they are members of one of the current press regulators in the UK (IMPRESS and IPSO). Given the outstanding issues with the press regulation in the UK, this is concerning and it would mean that the individuals that allow interactions of others on their websites would be subject to stricter regulation and requirements than major new media outlets.

Duty of care: ARTICLE 19 believes that the concept of a ‘duty of care’ is not appropriate when it comes to online content. Again, the white paper fails to define what this means.

Disproportionate sanctions: The sanctions proposed in the White Paper, which range from severe fines to website blocking of non-compliant sites and senior management liability, are far-reaching and unlikely to meet the proportionality test under international human rights law.

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