U.K.'s Awful Internet Bill Becomes a Bit Less Hostile to Free Speech

At a dangerous moment for the free exchange of ideas, civil libertarians can tally a win.


With European Union officials threatening to ban Twitter unless the social media platform throttles online conversations to the satisfaction of the continent's political masters, it's encouraging to hear slightly less-authoritarian news from other sources across the Atlantic. Having severed ties with the E.U., the United Kingdom is accordingly drifting a bit from that supranational body's terrible policies on speech. The latest version of the country's proposed internet regulatory bill, while still intrusive and controlling, steps back a bit from the censorious brink.

"Controversial measures which would have forced big technology platforms to take down legal but harmful material have been axed from the Online Safety Bill," the BBC's Chris Vallance and Shiona McCallum reported this week. "Critics of the section in the bill claimed it posed a risk to free speech."

Yes, you read that right. For a long time—the proposed bill has been in development for years—British lawmakers proposed to force online services to remove some perfectly legal speech of which the government disapproved.

"The bill previously included a section which required 'the largest, highest-risk platforms' to tackle some legal but harmful material accessed by adults," the BBC helpfully clarifies. "It meant that the likes of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube would have been told to prevent people being exposed to content relating to self-harm and eating disorders as well as misogynistic posts. That prompted criticism that the bill opened the door for technology companies to censor legal speech."

Technically, the companies would have been forcefully deputized to censor speech on behalf of the government. But that's a popular tactic these days that compels private firms to shoulder the costs and take the blame for authoritarian actions.

Note that British officials already have the power to arrest and prosecute people for saying mean things on the internet. As Scott Shackford detailed earlier this year, Joseph Kelly, of Glasgow, was convicted of "grossly offensive" posts in which he mocked a retired soldier who died of COVID-19. But that's not intrusive enough for the powers-that-be. As the article suggests, civil libertarians are not amused.

"If the Online Safety Bill passes, the U.K. government will be able to directly silence user speech, and even imprison those who publish messages that it doesn't like," the Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) Joe Mullin cautioned in August. "The bill empowers the U.K.'s Office of Communications (OFCOM) to levy heavy fines or even block access to sites that offend people."

That would seem to be a feature, not a bug, as far as the bill's sponsors are concerned, so civil libertarian objections gained little traction. The turning point, such as it is, came when members of the ruling Conservative Party pointed out that the legislation's advocates had failed to do a vital bit of due diligence in the creation of an authoritarian law: that is, imagining its enforcement in the hands of your worst enemies. Since the floundering Conservatives are trailing the opposition Labour Party, that's a very real likelihood.

"The online harms Bill could allow a future Labour government to clamp down on free speech, says Lord Frost and senior Tories," The Telegraph's Charles Hymas reported in July. "The former Brexit minister is among nine senior Tories who are demanding [then-Culture Secretary] Nadine Dorries ditch plans to regulate legal but harmful content online because of fears a future Labour government could use it to censor free speech."

When you're poised to lose the next election, it's wise to refrain from empowering state officials to muzzle their critics. Of course, you shouldn't muzzle critics even if you expect to retain power, but fear of being on the receiving end effectively reinforces principles. Conservative opponents of the more censorious aspects of the Online Safety Bill seem to have prevailed, since the section to which they objected has been excised.

For the record, the senior Tories' worries appear justified.

"Replacing the prevention of harm with an emphasis on free speech undermines the very purpose of this Bill, and will embolden abusers, COVID deniers, hoaxers, who will feel encouraged to thrive online," huffed Labour's Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell in response to the revision. Should her party take power, she's likely to be chief among those enforcing the Online Safety Bill in its final form.

But pulling a few teeth from the bill isn't the same as defanging the thing. It's still a dangerous piece of legislation, and not just with regard to free speech.

"Despite its intention to make the U.K. safer, the Online Safety Bill currently contains clauses that would erode end-to-end encryption in private messaging," cautioned a Nov. 24 letter signed by 70 organizations, cyber security experts, and elected officials. "Undermining protections for end-to-end encryption would make UK businesses and individuals less safe online, including the very groups that the Online Safety Bill intends to protect. Furthermore, because the right to privacy and freedom of expression are intertwined, these proposals would undermine freedom of speech, a key characteristic of free societies that differentiate the U.K. from aggressors that use oppression and coercion to achieve their aims."

In addition, the government promises that the revised bill, which is expected to become law by next summer, includes a host of mandates and criminal offenses sure to create a regulatory minefield.

"As well as making larger tech companies publish a summary of their risk assessments concerning the dangers their platforms pose to children, other moves to boost transparency and accountability include giving OFCOM a new power to require platforms to publish details of enforcement action it takes against them."

"Unregulated social media has damaged our children for too long and it must end," insists Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan.

Ultimately, only the savviest and most politically connected firms will be able to navigate the byzantine rules without running afoul of government enforcers.

So, as we tally up a partial win for freedom in the revision of the U.K.'s Online Safety Bill, we'll have to remember that it's only a win because of the overall hostile environment government officials around the world have created for the free exchange of ideas. And we should be thankful for the protection that America's culture and First Amendment provide for free speech.