9 April 2019

Why does the Government want Britain to be a world leader in censorship?


The long-anticipated online harms white paper launched by the Government yesterday is an historic attack on freedom of speech that will only serve to entrench the tech giants and stymie innovation.

The white paper calls for the imposition of a broad and unspecified “duty of care” on internet companies to prevent “illegal and harmful activity”, placing liability on platforms for content posted by their users (in clear contradiction with the EU’s e-Commerce Directive). This is to be enforced by a new quango with the power to level fines of up to 4 per cent of internet companies’ worldwide turnover, jail time for senior executives or even site blocks.

The Government claims to be leading the world, which they are: in internet censorship. “We are the first Western regime to consider this,” media lawyer Mark Stephens explained. “The only other countries doing this are Saudi Arabia, China, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia.” What an august group to join. I hadn’t quite realised this is what ministers had meant when they argued for a Global Britain.

The scope of websites and the type of content this covers is extremely broad and ill-considered.

Virtually every website that allows users to generate content will be subject to this proposed law, including discussion forums, messaging services, search engines, online retailers, travel websites, and even news websites with comment sections. This last part, covering news websites, will instigate press regulation by the backdoor, as they could be mandated to remove swaths of content. It’s also not clear how most websites will comply. For example, the majority of web forums just don’t have the resources or capability.

Importantly, the Government isn’t just targeting “illegal” material, it also wants to censor “unacceptable content,” that is to say, completely legal speech. There is something bizarre about listing terrorist material and in the next breath talking about “echo chambers” – these issues are simply not equivalent.

The government’s list of “Harms with a less clear legal definition”, i.e. harms which are entirely legal under certain circumstances, includes “trolling”, “intimidation”, “extremist content”, and “disinformation”. The lack of certainty in definitions – one man’s trolling is another man’s important argument – will lead to perverse results. Will we be allowed to criticise politicians with memes? Would humorously edited photos of the Vote Leave’s campaign bus come under “disinformation”? Are questions about the makeup of the UK’s immigration intake akin to “extremist content”?

In practice, all this speech and much more will be removed by tech companies to avoid massive fines and jail time, and please the powerful new sector regulator. Other tech companies, such as American firms without a UK presence, are likely to ignore it and potentially become inaccessible to UK users. To make matters worse, we know the regulator will not be unbiased. Like any regulatory body, it will inevitably be administered by central London bureaucrats who are inclined to show a “tough” approach against the ideas they dislike.

What makes the white paper so disheartening is the fact that Britain, historically, has been a beacon of freedom to the world. The Government’s internet censorship regime will only serve to justify and normalise the censorship in Russia, China and Iran. Yesterday it emerged that a British woman has been arrested in Dubai for calling her ex-husband’s new wife a “horse” on Facebook. What moral authority does the UK Government have criticising the UAE for draconian overreach when they are introducing measures to make equivalent speech unlawful?

We should also should not underestimate the danger posed by creating a new apparatus of state censorship could pose in the future. For example, after appointing their cronies to the internet regulator, a future Corbyn government may just end up deciding that “trolling” includes questioning the socialist mission of the nation and that “misinformation” includes claiming that communism has led to 100 million deaths.

This internet censorship regime is taking Britain down the dark path of the Government telling us what we are allowed to view, think and say.

These new regulations won’t just undermine free speech, they’re also going to hurt competition and innovation in the tech sector. More rules is exactly want the tech giants want.

Last week Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, writing for the Washington Post, called for a new internet regulator. He was resoundingly criticised by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who raised concerns it would violate freedom of expression protections in the First Amendment of the US constitution.

But this raises the question: why does a company like Facebook want more regulation? Facebook is a multi-billion-dollar company who can afford to comply with government regulation in numerous countries by hiring thousands of censors. It is the smaller, newer companies that will struggle to moderate offensive material. Zuckerberg himself explained this last year when being questioned by Congress:

When you add more rules that companies need to follow, that’s something that larger companies like ours just has the resources to go do and it just might be harder for a smaller company just getting started to comply with.

New systems of internet regulation create barriers to entry and substantial costs for start-ups and smaller firms, locking in the dominant market position of the likes of Facebook.

This white paper proposals clearly contradicts other government priorities to support online competition. Dom Hallas from Coadec, who represent startups, has warned that it won’t be the “tech giants… but everyone else” who will suffer. Coadec found that 68 per cent of UK investors would respond by reducing investment in local platform businesses because of increased liability, as proposed in the white paper.

Start-ups are key to driving technological innovation. By imposing regulatory requirements to control user content that small startups cannot hope to meet, the Government all but guarantees that the next Facebook or Google will not be founded in the UK or employ British workers.

This white paper appears to be driven by moral panic and political expediency. In a press conference yesterday, Home Secretary Sajid Javid went as far as declaring that the internet is “a hunting ground for monsters.” This rhetoric reveals irrational fear, not reasoned analysis and consideration of unintended consequences of a new regulatory regime.

If the Government wants to preserve Britain as a free, democratic country they should shelve the online harms white paper. If not, it is incumbent upon civil rights campaigners across the political spectrum to oppose its enactment.

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Matthew Lesh is Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.