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LONDON – UK free speech advocates are up and ready to fight over plans to regulate online content.

The online safety bill that will be presented to parliament later this year is a far-reaching effort to crack down on harmful and illegal forms of online speech, from the exploitation of children to terrorist propaganda.

But as the date draws closer, senior members of Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party are sharpening their knives to potentially split the bill, which also covers more delicate legal areas like disinformation, in the name of free speech. .

Amid a wider ‘culture war’, efforts to shape online harm legislation are attracting Tory heavyweights like former Brexit Secretary David Davis, who has warned the bill could becoming bossy “by accident”, and former Defense Secretary Liam Fox, who warned that this could have “unintended consequences”.

“The government would be wise, when this bill comes forward, to give it a lot of pre-legislative control, to think through all angles,” Fox told POLITICO.

The unfolding of the Free Speech Squad could not only affect the bill, but also weigh on the international internet policing talks, which are taking place this summer between G7 leaders in Cornwall.

“I think there is a whole range of problems associated with such a bill, which will be very, very easy to try to fix one problem, but which will create another,” Fox added.

Long time to come

When the Johnson government inherited the Big Tech Platform policing plans from the previous administration under Theresa May, opponents had hoped the new prime minister could dump it.

The former Daily Telegraph columnist courted controversy in his articles, including one comparing veiled Muslim women to letterboxes, and has long cultivated a political brand as a freedom fighter.

But he did not do it. In December, his government said online content and certain legal activities could be considered harmful if “they cause a reasonably foreseeable risk of significant negative physical or psychological impact on individuals.”

Opponents saw red on the definition. “The government’s proposals … would be authoritarian and fundamentally threaten the right to free speech,” said Mark Johnson, a legal and political official with advocacy group Big Brother Watch last week.

Yet in an effort to draw a fine line on Big Tech, the Johnson government has given the Free Speech Squad a lot of reassurance that the bill could not be used to stifle certain views.

The Prime Minister has entrusted former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, one of the bill’s most fervent initial critics, to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sports, which oversees the legislation.

Whittingdale warned in 2019 that the bill could do more harm than good, telling a Society of Editors event that he wanted to counterbalance “rather hysterical pressure” on the government to “control the dissemination of the news. ‘information”.

Since then, ministers have flagged guarantees for freedom of expression in the bill, including the fact that companies “will not be able to arbitrarily eliminate controversial views”, and an appeal mechanism for those who feel that positions are unfairly being cut.

Whittingdale said last week that his “very strong belief” in the importance of free speech was “shared equally” by the Prime Minister and Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden.

“We recognize that adults have the right to access content that some may find offensive and disturbing, and as such, this policy will not prevent adults from accessing or posting legal content, nor from requiring companies to remove specific pieces of legal content, ”says a fact sheet accompanying the government’s December announcement.

Get organized

Yet Conservative members remain on their guard. Adam Afriyie, a backbench MP who last year created an all-party parliamentary group to “promote and protect freedom of expression”, expressed concern that the legislation could “fundamentally lock in some of the views that people find it unpleasant in a virtuous sort of way ”.

“I’m very, very aware of the risks of putting a comma in the wrong place and all of a sudden we have a huge assault on our natural freedom of speech,” he said. “And I suspect it wouldn’t be inadvertent if some of these campaign groups get involved in trying to gain recognition individually.”

Stephen Gilbert, his Conservative counterpart, who is currently chairing a free speech inquiry in the House of Lords, said that while “no one wants to see illegal content stay online” the proposals to regulate legal content but damaging were “fraught with difficulty”.

“If we’re going to penalize platforms that don’t have robust processes to remove illegal and harmful content quickly, should we also demand that these processes be designed to avoid excessive systemic removal of content?” he asks. “Censorship itself is harm online.”

Former Brexit negotiator Davis echoed this view. “Anxious sometimes to be cautious about their reputation, they [platforms] are quite repressive … And the same problem applies to the law on online harm. How the hell do you judge in this area? ” he said.

As for Fox, he said young people needed help to “become more resilient” against online abuse by encouraging them to stand up for people who are being bullied rather than just sit idly by.

The ranks of the Freedom of Expression Squad are growing as the passage of the bill draws closer.

Six other MPs expressed concern about the protection of freedom of expression in the bill and pledged to be more engaged once the bill is published.

Former Tory Leader Iain Duncan-Smith said: “One of the areas that people fought and died for was freedom of speech and we need to make sure that doesn’t limit people’s ability to speak. , even if you don’t like what they say. “

William Wragg, another Conservative MP, said the proposal currently seemed “quite amorphous” and that he did not want something that was “absolutely unnecessary and coming to nothing”.

For Heather Burns, policy officer at campaign organization Open Rights Group, the bill is proving to be a test for Johnson’s government.

“As far as the Conservatives are concerned, this will truly be a litmus test for them on their commitment to the principles of free speech, in addition to proportionate, sensible and business-friendly regulation that does not interfere with life. private “. she said.

This article is part of POLITICOPremium Tech: Pro Technology policy coverage. Our expert journalism and suite of political intelligence tools allow you to transparently research, track and understand the developments and stakeholders that shape EU technology policy and drive decisions impacting your industry. . E-mail [email protected] with the code “TECH” for a free trial.

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