On 14 December 2021, the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill released its report on the Online Safety Bill, which is due to be put to Parliament for approval in 2022. The report is a result of several months of the Committee’s scrutiny of the Bill. On 21 October 2021, ARTICLE 19 presented oral testimony to the Committee, alongside other freedom of expression experts.
In response to the report, Barbora Bukovska, Senior Director for Law and Policy of ARTICLE 19 commented:
“ARTICLE 19 recognises that the concerns behind the drive for greater regulation of platforms’ practices are entirely valid. Indeed, we share them. We agree that online communications can raise serious challenges for human rights protection, can prevent others from speaking up, silence marginalised groups or have serious consequences offline.
However, we also believe that many of the solutions currently being proposed in the Online Safety Bill are likely to miss the mark. They will entrench the ‘dominance’ of the largest players and will give platforms more control over our freedom of speech.
We appreciate that the Joint Committee recommends removing some of the most problematic provisions from the Draft, such as some powers of the Secretary of State or the concept of ‘legal but harmful’ content. The report also reinforces the requirements for platforms’ transparency and possibilities for individual users to seek appeals and redress from platforms.
But even if the government incorporates the recommendations of the Joint Committee, many vague, overly broad and problematic provisions and concepts will remain in the Bill. We have long warned that these could have a very serious chilling effect on freedom of expression. Although the Bill claims that it will regulate platforms, in effect it will regulate users’ speech as the UK Government will effectively demand that companies police human interactions and decide what speech is ‘illegal’ or ‘harmful’. Risk-assessments for the protection of content harmful to children would almost inevitably entail age-verification mechanisms that are problematic, including on data protection grounds.
We are disappointed that our solutions that would better guarantee the protection of freedom of expression are totally absent from the report. In particular, the Joint Committee proposals fail to include provisions that would ensure the unbundling of hosting from content curation and interoperability of very large platforms, as advocated by ARTICLE 19.
The scope and state of the Joint Committee reports shows the complexity of the task at hand. It also shows that this task clearly cannot be rushed. The stakes for individual freedoms are too high. The draft Bill needs more than just quick fixes. ARTICLE 19 believes that even with the incorporation of the Joint Committee’s proposal, the Bill will still be overly complex, state-controlled and unworkable. It will chill freedom of expression and make people’s communications less secure.
We urge the UK Government to go back to the drawing board.”
ARTICLE 19 will study the recommendations of the Joint Committee report in a greater detail in the coming days. We stand ready to engage in further revisions of the Online Safety Bill and ensure that the final version fully meets freedom of expression standards.