U.K. 'Celebrates' Its New Freedom From the E.U. by Pushing Massive Online Censorship Orders

Government wants to force social media platforms to accept a “duty of care” to protect users from whatever they deem harmful.


A new policy will require online platforms to eliminate content the U.K. government decides is harmful, or face massive fines and possibly even criminal sanctions.

Lest anybody think Brexit was truly about freeing the United Kingdom from burdensome European regulations, this week the government announced that it was putting its Office of Communications (known as Ofcom) in charge of developing a massive regulatory framework to require further online moderation of content and communications online.

The United Kingdom wants to force online platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and others to have a "duty of care" for their users' safety, a legal term that obligates the companies to protect its users from certain harms.

Ofcom and the U.K. government are selling this new regulatory regime as a way to both protect children from sex trafficking and abuse and stop terrorist organizations from recruiting online. But what they're actually proposing is a much broader plan to shape social media communications to their liking. The new policy would also force platforms to tackle online "bullying," prevent their users from encouraging suicide, and prevent the spread of what the U.K. government deems "disinformation."

The Online Harms White Paper released last summer is being used as a framework. Here's what it suggests:

Companies must fulfill their new legal duties. The regulator will set out how to do this in codes of practice. The codes will outline the systems, procedures, technologies and investment, including in staffing, training and support of human moderators, that companies need to adopt to help demonstrate that they have fulfilled their duty of care to their users.

Companies will still need to be compliant with the overarching duty of care even where a specific code does not exist, for example assessing and responding to the risk associated with emerging harms or technology.

There are so many potential problems with this plan that it's hard to pick a point of entry. The first and most obvious issue is that there is no global consensus as to what constitutes a "harm," especially when it comes to speech. The U.K. has hate speech laws that wouldn't fly here in the United States—and a chunk of the organizing paper here discusses what sort of "duty of care" will be involved in monitoring and removing hate speech online.

As part of its so-called "war on obesity," the U.K. has implemented policies that censor advertisements of what it deems "junk food" (often inaccurately) in the media. This effort is referenced in the white paper in a section discussing online advertising and ethical practices. Fortunately, there's nothing listed in the "duty of care" demands that indicates Facebook will have to start censoring pictures of your home-baked cookies, but the inclusion of junk food advertisement bans in the context of a paper about "preventing harms" certainly does raise the specter of something focused on user content down the line.

The paper states that regulatory policies will be based on empirical data, and yet it also cites public polling results and contains fact-free, irresponsible, fear-mongering statements like this one: "Sexual exploitation can happen to any young person—whatever their background, age, gender, race or sexuality or wherever they live." While this is true on the most abstract of levels, the paper's reluctance to narrow the focus of a sexual exploitation policy casts doubt on the entire process: Are white, wealthy, legal-age males facing the same risk of sexual exploitation as every other demographic? Of course not. Saying that it can happen to everyone is not necessarily untrue, but it is a uselessly broad statement. We don't need more panicked Facebook posts from moms who think various strangers at the grocery store are plotting to snatch their children.

The paper also considers justifications for social media platforms' duty of care when it comes to stopping online advertisements for opioids, not just because people may be deceived by those ads, but also because there could be second- and third-order effects for first responders who "will continue to be exposed to potentially harmful environments" when they respond to emergency calls. Leaving aside the fact that first responders are not actually at risk of accidentally consuming illicit opioids when responding to emergency calls, is censoring social media really the best route to reduce what little exposure they do face?

Then there's the self-serving goals and rent-seeking of media outlets. The U.K. government wants social media platforms to play more of a role in moderating and fighting the spread of "disinformation," particularly as it involves the government and elections. The white paper declares:

Companies will need to take proportionate and proactive measures to help users understand the nature and reliability of the information they are receiving, to minimise the spread of misleading and harmful disinformation and to increase the accessibility of trustworthy and varied news content.

This includes potentially requiring that platforms partner with independent fact-checking organizations and "promoting authoritative news sources." Traditional media outlets in the U.K., like The Telegraph, have endorsed new laws controlling social media platform content, and it's easy to see why. With the government's help, these outlets can require social media platforms to promote their stories and suppress or remove those of alternative media outlets and independent journalists, all under the guise of fighting "disinformation" and protecting social media users. This is pure protectionism.

We've seen what happens in other countries when the government decides to play a role in declaring what is and isn't "fake news." In Singapore, the government is attempting to force Facebook to censor its critics. Part of the "duty of care" framework involves protecting public figures (like politicians) from online harassment, so watch what you say about woodchippers.

The U.K.-based Index on Censorship warns against the potential harms of implementing regulations based on this white paper. The vagueness of the proposals combined with the possibility of fines (and even possible jail time) all but guarantees that platforms will feel the pressure to err on the side of censorship of content. The Index on Censorship concludes that even though the white paper invokes "freedom of expression," it shows no intent to actually protect it:

The white paper gives far too little attention to freedom of expression. The proposed regulator would have a specific legal obligation to pay due regard to innovation. When it comes to freedom of expression the paper only refers to an obligation to protect users' rights "particularly rights to privacy and freedom of expression."

It is surprising and disappointing that the white paper, which sets out measures with far-reaching potential to interfere with freedom of expression, does not contain a strong and unambiguous commitment to safeguarding this right.

Whatever good it might possibly do for vulnerable social media users, this "duty of care" policy poses an even bigger threat to their free speech.

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  1. Lest anybody think Brexit was truly about freeing the United Kingdom from burdensome European regulations,

    Brexit WAS about freeing the UK from burdensome European Regulations so the UK could democratically decide its own burdensome regulations.

    Those of us who enthusiastically supported Brexit always said from the very beginning that we fully recognized that England wasn’t exactly cornerstone of individual liberty and freedom from the state. But like freedom of speech, we sometimes support things we don’t agree with if they uphold a higher principle. In this case, the principle was self-determination. Now that Brexit is official, the Brits can fight this stuff internally where if it came from the EU the option would be “fuck off British Wanker, Brussels has decided.”

    For those of you curious about the awful, insidious and anti-democratic machinations of the EU, I strongly recommend this doc:


    Look at it this way. I don’t support Bernie Sanders… at all. But I’m very much against the DNCs underhanded machinations to undermine his candidacy.

    I didn’t vote for Donald Trump, but the Justice department issuing FISA warrants to spy on him based on falsified documents and statements, and based on faked dossiers by shady former intelligence officials is a violation of democracy.

    Democracy doesn’t always end up with the results you want, but it’s better than an Oligarchy of unelected career officials making decisions for you thousands of miles away.

    1. Freedom! For local tyranny, that is. Man, fuck all that. There is no libertarian position on Brexit. The only thing that matters is liberty for individuals. Will Brexit increase or decrease individual liberty? It will be a mixed bag.

      1. It will increase accountability from the electorate. Again, I have no illusions about Democracy. But it’s better than what they had in the EU. And the EU was explicitly designed to remove the democratic institutions from the member states and transfer all political and military power to Brussels. In my estimation, there’s definitely a libertarian position on Brexit.

        Sure, we don’t know what Britain will look like without the EU, because… democracy. But we damn sure know what it looked like with the EU and that was 10,000 miles from a libertarian position.

        1. Even if the only goal had been to secure passage of the new Internet regulations, Brexit would have been a remarkable achievement. We support an entire panoply of similar laws here at NYU, along with rigorous police enforcement whenever necessary. For us, this is not a mere theoretical approach to Internet impropriety; we rolled up our sleeves and worked very closely with prosecutors to secure multiple convictions in our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case, documented at:


      2. One of the reasons pro-free market conservatives were pro-EU back in the 70s was because the EU was sold as a ‘common market’. Nothing more. Arguably, based on that now-proved incorrect characterization, a libertarian position probably would have been anti-brexit. Labour, on the other hand was entirely ANTI-EU because they were suspicious of the open markets. But as time wore on, the conservatives realized they’d been sold a bill of goods. Whether they were willfully ignorant of what the EU was going to become, or just blinded by the sales material, it’s hard to say. But as the 1980s rolled into the 1990s, the conservatives under Thatcher (herself initially a vehemently pro-EU politician) began to waver in what they saw as a loss of liberty.

        Officials in Brussels began to court Labour in the UK and promised them deals that if they supported the EU, they’d get all kinds of new Trade Union protections, and no one would ever be able to remove them because sovereignty in Britain would be a thing of the past. That was the moment when the free-market conservatives and the pro-union labour position on the EU flipped.

        However, Labour’s conservative working class remained skeptical of the EU because they remained suspicious of the EUs increasing dominance over UK politics.

        Cut at the relevant time

        Previously confidential documents from Nov 9th, 1970, now part of the public record which openly propose that the UK will eventually be “less independent than any of the 50 states of the US”. One minute, watch it.

        1. pro-EU politician) began to waver in what they saw as a loss of liberty.

          Should have written what they saw as a loss of sovereign independence. When I wrote ‘liberty’ I was talking about the collective liberty of the UK to determine its own economic and political destiny.

      3. “There is no libertarian position on Brexit.”

        Eunuch again making collectivist pronouncements about a subject he is far too shallow and unintelligent to discuss.

      4. There is no libertarian position on Brexit

        A massive regulatory superstate that’s the culmination of Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon and Hitler’s dreams?
        I think I can come up with a few.

      5. There is a great libertarian argument for Brexit for US libertarians.

        It allows the UK to be free of the burdensome EU, and gets the representation to be more local. And if the Brits go nuts with their invasive local laws, then we can point at them and say, are you sure you want to ban that, look at the UK and how screwed up they are?

    2. Well said, Reynolds

    3. It is interesting to me how Reason has been so elusive about taking a position on Brexit. It should be a clear good in removing the authority of a foreign unelected bureaucracy. Those of us supporting the Brexit effort have always been aware that culturally the UK is likely to implement policies we don’t like. Even then, at least this would be closer to the citizens doing it to themselves on a more local and accountable level. There of course was also a glimmer of hope that they’d change directions and head towards actual liberty, but this was always a longshot. I don’t think Reason is particularly bothered by the UK moving in a more socialist and less free direction. I think they are bothered by a failure in the battle for globalism. They have had little trouble overlooking how bad the EU has become since they are basically in favor of world governance

  2. Does this have anything to do with leaving the EU, other than occurring at the same time? I don’t mean this in an “orange mag bad” way; I’m just wondering if being in the EU would have prevented this.

    1. No, it would have been worse, because if Britain had decided they didn’t like it, they’d have been stuck with it. Check that doc out above. Hitchens enters a library containing all the EU laws. Section for the 70s and 80s. Bigger section for the 90s, another for the 2000s, now each leatherbound volume is no longer for each year, but each MONTH. He notes that soon, the EU regulations and laws will take over the ENTIRE library, displacing everything else in it.

      As I say above, Britain is no bright star for liberty, but at least they can debate this stuff internally now without Brussels putting its thumb on the undemocratic scales.

    2. You forget that Gillespie has stated globalism is such a major goal of “libertarians” that they should be willing to work with socialists to get there. Work with socialists and get more socialism. Work with global socialists on globalism and what you get is global socialism. This is the antithesis of libertarian thought and it’s disgusting to see such arguments made here

  3. Brexit was about the UK asserting its sovereignty o wer it’s own affairs, not an American regard for free speech protections. That being said, the EU’s p ok policies in this regard are also terrible, so I am not thg his is anything more than a lateral move for British subjects.

  4. This is absolutely wonderful!
    It means that the anti-semitic rants of the labor party will no longer be forced on unwilling Britons.
    It means that the hateful screams of the alphabet community against Christians, Muslims and Jews will no longer have a platform. (disclaimer; I selected the sequence of the major religions at random, no precedence intended or implied)
    It means the mindless ravings of school dropouts will no longer be prominently discussed as “news”.
    YEA! Free speech at last! It’s just a little bit sad it had to be freed by force.

  5. Sigh, every time I start to think we’re having a libertarian moment, some statist comes in and ruins it.

  6. Scandinavians either stole their culture from oppressed societies or somehow don’t matter, and England wants to regulate itself into infancy. I say let em’ and pick up the spoils. And forever point to them as a valid and empirical reason to not do that.

  7. Its really nice post thanks for sharing.
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  8. Whether the people of the UK should be free to make rules for themselves and what rules they should make are two separate questions that shouldn’t be conflated. Certainly, if anyone thinks the people of the UK shouldn’t have left the EU because free people can make bad choices might as well have advocated for dictatorships in Libya, Syria, and Yugoslavia–for fear of the mistakes free people might make with once they’re out from under the dictator’s boot.

    I imagine some elitists in the UK circa 1861 must have argued that it was a mistake for the United States to leave the British commonwealth in 1776. After all, if the colonists hadn’t left, Americans wouldn’t have been killing each other in the American Civil War. On the other hand, I can’t think of a single American circa 1861-1865 saying that they were sorry they left the British commonwealth, at least not in public. Not finding a peaceful resolution to the question of slavery was regrettable, but liberation from domination by a foreign power simply isn’t something reasonable people regret.

    Because some laws are better on the continent probably won’t make people in the UK regret leaving the yoke of the EU and having the freedom to make their own policies either–not for long. It’s just like in the U.S. If you don’t like the policies the people want, the libertarian solution is not elitists inflicting better solutions on them over their objections and against their will. The solution is persuasion.

    Sometimes, it seems like the best definition of elitism might be the assumption that trying to persuade average people is pointless.

  9. “OfCom”? I missed the big rename from “MiniTru”.

  10. When did folks in the UK decide that Orwell’s 1984 was a how-to book?

  11. Golly gee, I wonder if the latest Scottish push for independence might be a consideration for this additional Soviet, I mean English media control?
    Just saying….

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  13. Is Britain a democracy that decided against democracy?

    Maybe we shouldn’t follow their footsteps.

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  15. Hey fuck you “Reason” your globalist is showing. Seriously, what the fuck? It doesn’t surprise me that a leftard publication like “Reason” would want to bash countries that want to leave the over regulating, over taxing, over burdensome globalist EU. Their Koch suckers who think borders should be left wide open for any criminal asshole that wants to rape, rob, steal and kill.

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  17. Guido Fawkes http://www.order-order.com pretends to value free speech but once banned there is no possibility of either explanation or remission. Given some of the comments which are allowed, Fawkes’ criticism of the Government’s plans appear hollow if not hypocritical.

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