Danger warnings for UK online safety bill

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The British government introduced legislation on Thursday designed to “make the UK the safest place to go online”, but its wide-ranging Online Safety Bill also threatens free speech and the business models of major tech companies, according to its critics.

The bill addresses online harms, from bullying and fraud to child abuse, in an ambitious and contentious attempt to force Big Tech companies to police their networks. Their executives could face jail sentences if they fail to comply with some elements of the new regime marshalled by Ofcom, report Tim Bradshaw and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe.

The media and telecoms regulator will also have the power to audit the algorithms that govern what consumers see in their search results and social media feeds from Google and Facebook.

The bill could become law later this year, but the details of one of its most controversial elements — a requirement for the biggest internet platforms to police so-called “legal but harmful” abuses such as racism or bullying — will only be set out later through secondary legislation.

Additions since the original draft include new duties to prevent online fraud perpetrated through paid adverts and the criminalisation of “cyber flashing”, whereby people expose themselves to strangers online. Calls to ban anonymous users from major internet platforms altogether, in order to combat trolls, were ultimately rejected by the government. Instead, social media users will be given the ability to block every account that has not verified their offline identity.

The Open Rights Group, a civil liberties campaigner, described the proposals as an “Orwellian Censorship Machine” and said powers to imprison social media executives mirrored those exercised by Vladimir Putin in Russia.

Robert Colvile, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, said the bill’s scope remained unwieldy and its proposals would mean tech companies playing safe and removing content with “potentially disastrous consequences for our public debate as legal content is censored just for being potentially ‘harmful’ in the eyes of the platforms”.

Daniel Pryor, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute think-tank, concluded: “The Online Safety Bill was an illiberal, incoherent, anti-innovation mess when it was first introduced as a White Paper in 2019. After nearly three years of parliamentary debate and scrutiny, it is still an illiberal, incoherent, anti-innovation mess.”

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Source: Financial Times