British Lawmaker Wants to Ban Your Private Facebook Groups Because She Worries You're Using Hate Speech

Bill also calls for holding forum moderators legally liable for extreme speech.


Lucy Powell
Joel Goodman/ZUMA Press/Newscom

U.K. Parliament member Lucy Powell of the Labour Party wants to use her government authority to ban your private online group discussions.

I'm not exaggerating here. Powell introduced legislation in the House of Commons this week that would ban secret, private, invite-only groups on Facebook. It would go so far as to hold moderators legally responsible for hate speech or defamation on the forums.

Powell believes that secret online groups are responsible for radicalization (rather than the more logical likelihood that radicalization prompts people to seek out private online outlets). And she has this strange idea that outrageous ideas presented on social media outlets simply don't get challenged. She writes in The Guardian:

Online echo chambers are normalising and allowing extremist views to go viral unchallenged. These views are spread as the cheap thrill of racking up Facebook likes drives behaviour and reinforces a binary worldview. Some people are being groomed unwittingly as unacceptable language is treated as the norm. Others have a more sinister motive.

While in the real world, alternative views would be challenged by voices of decency in the classroom, staffroom, or around the dining-room table, there are no societal norms in the dark crevices of the online world. The impact of these bubbles of hate can be seen, in extreme cases, in terror attacks from radicalised individuals. But we can also see it in the rise of the far right, with Tommy Robinson supporters rampaging through the streets this summer, or in increasing Islamophobia and antisemitism.

In fact, extremist views get challenged all the time, online and elsewhere, by people like Powell and by many, many others. But she doesn't really mean that these views aren't being "challenged." What she means is that these radical views aren't being punished.

Powell notes that allowing private groups to exist "locks out the police, intelligence services and charities that could otherwise engage with the groups and correct disinformation." By "correct disinformation" she actually means "prosecute people." She doesn't say as much in her Guardian column, but her motion for consideration of the bill explicitly says that too few people have been prosecuted under the United Kingdom's Communications Act, which criminalizes online hate speech. She makes it clear that she doesn't think enough people are being punished by the government for saying bad things. This is not about correcting disinformation at all:

[O]nline hate crimes are still rarely prosecuted and go largely unreported. Our laws desperately need to catch up. Today I am proposing a small step to establish clear accountability in law for what is published on online forums and to force those who run the forums no longer to permit hate, disinformation and criminal activity.

The Evening Standard notes that the members of Parliament who support Powell's bill have themselves been subjects of online harassment. So most certainly part of this push involves elected government officials trying to stop people from saying stuff about them that they don't like under the guise of protecting citizens from harassment.

Powell talks about extremists trying to radicalize people into violence, but a look at how hate speech laws in U.K. are actually investigated paints a different picture. Over the weekend, viral outrage (of the like Powell worries about) erupted when the South Yorkshire Police tweeted out encouragement for citizens to report incidents of hate to them, even if they weren't even crimes under U.K. law:

After people complained that the tweet was reminiscent of Orwellian speech controls, the police department's chief constable responded that they had been misconstrued and that people were exaggerating the department's intent. He says he wants to keep track of what's going on in the community to engage in "proactive police work to try and stop crimes from happening in the first place."

But thanks to the United Kingdom's hate speech laws, that's actually what makes the department's behavior "Orwellian." The "crimes" he is trying to stop involve people expressing opinions that the government has officially declared hateful and off-limits. One reason his police department wants to investigate is to tell people they aren't allowed to say certain things.

And now M.P.s like Powell are deliberately looking for more opportunities to track down and punish people for saying things the government finds hateful, going so far as to try to ban private groups on social media entirely because the police cannot snoop on them. The privacy of your secret little online group where you complain about your neighbors (and perhaps even your local police!) is jeopardized because Powell thinks you're going to turn people violent.