UK: Online harms proposals are significant threat to free speech

Freedom of expression organisation ARTICLE 19 has warned that the Government’s proposals to impose a duty of care on social media companies pose a significant threat to freedom of expression in the UK. 

Executive Director, Thomas Hughes, said:

While social media companies should be transparent and accountable for their practices, the Government’s proposals will encourage the censorship of legitimate expression.

“The White Paper proposes to regulate ‘legal but harmful’ content, which means that protected speech could be removed at scale from social media platforms, undermining free speech rights in the UK. The plans could also result in social media companies using automated tools to proactively monitor what people say on their networks, through fear of penalties or fines. 

“We urge the Government to explore alternatives that would reward companies for demonstrating higher standards of conduct and to consider independent multi-stakeholder models, such as Social Media Councils, that would allow public debate and independent oversight of key issues in content moderation.”

In its submission to the consultation, 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: The Secretary of State Jeremy Wright MP has given 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. 

The consultation into the Online Harms paper closes at midnight BST, July 1. 

Read our response in full



For further information and interviews, please contact [email protected], 07749 785 932.


Notes to Editor

ARTICLE 19 is a freedom of expression organisation that campaigns for a world where all people everywhere can freely express themselves and actively engage in public life without fear of discrimination.