Privacy groups warn of threat to free speech from online harms regulation

Privacy campaigners have labelled the Government’s planned online harms regulation a threat to free speech.

Organisations including the Open Rights Group and Article 19 have criticised plans to introduce a statutory duty of care for internet companies, enforced by a regulator.

They argue that the increased monitoring of content posted online will lead to greater surveillance and censorship.

The Government’s proposals said the regulator – set to be Ofcom – would have the responsibility of making sure online companies have the systems and processes in place to fulfil the duty of care to keep people using their platforms safe.

Platforms will need to ensure that illegal content is removed quickly and minimise the risk of it appearing, with particularly strong action needed on terrorist content and online child sexual abuse, and will be required to explicitly state what content and behaviour is acceptable on their sites and enforce those rules.

However, Quinn McKew, acting executive director of Article 19, said the plans would hand “censorship” tools to firms who want to protect themselves from punishment.

“The Government’s proposals to impose a ‘duty of care’ on social media companies will delegate censorship powers to private companies, and could require the bulk surveillance of our communications through upload filers,” she said.

“While it’s still unclear what a ‘duty of care’ will actually mean in practice, it will almost inevitably result in the removal of legitimate expression.

“In the face of possible fines and personal prosecutions, companies will err on the side of caution and use algorithms to remove content at scale.”

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, agreed that the current proposals did not protect free speech.

“This is a dangerous proposal that could cause vast restrictions on free speech,” he said.

“Private companies would be deciding what is legal or illegal, and will always remove more than they need, rather than less.

“Instead, the Government should seek to ensure that companies have sufficient independent scrutiny of their actions. This is known as co-regulation, and could be supervised by Ofcom.”

The Open Rights Group also said it felt that the duty of care concept remained too vague and needed clearer definition.

The Government’s full response to the online harms consultation is due to be published in the spring.