UK Online Safety Bill Likely to Impinge on Free Speech: Poll of Tech Experts

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A survey by BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, has found almost six out of 10 experts in the field believe the British government’s Online Safety Bill will have a detrimental impact on freedom of speech.

Last month, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned, the government put the legislation on hold until his successor will be appointed.

The BCS—which was founded in 1957 as the British Computer Society—said many IT experts had concerns about whether the Bill was workable and only 14 percent thought it was “fit for purpose.”

The Bill would impose a duty on social media platforms to protect users from harm and make them develop systems to remove harmful and illegal material, such as abuse by trolls, links to suicide websites, and child abuse images.

Pornography websites would have to use age verification technology to stop under-18s from accessing their sites and social media platforms would be obliged not to allow misleading adverts.

The BCS said it received 1,296 responses to the survey (pdf) from tech professionals and found only nine percent were confident it would succeed in removing “legal but harmful content” and 74 percent felt it would do nothing to stop the spreading of disinformation and fake news.

Rob Deri, chief executive of BCS, said: “There is real need to prevent online harm, but this law only goes part way to trying to achieve that. The aim should be to prevent hatred and abusive online behaviours, by stopping harmful material appearing online in the first place—and that takes a mix of both technical and societal changes.”

‘Bill Leans Too Heavily on Tech Solutions’

Deri said: “The Bill leans too heavily on tech solutions to prevent undesirable content, which can’t be relied upon to do that well enough and could affect freedom of speech and privacy in ways that are unacceptable in a democratic society.”

He said the new prime minister, whether it will be Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss, should take the opportunity to “fundamentally review” the Bill, which was introduced by Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries, a Johnson loyalist who may not survive the new leader’s Cabinet reshuffle.

In April, critics of the Bill said it would erode freedom of speech and could drive more people towards the darkweb.

At the time, cybersecurity and intelligence expert and CEO of Cybhorus, Pierluigi Paganini, told The Epoch Times: “The removal of legal but potentially harmful speech from social media platforms requests an extraordinary effort from IT giants. The concept of ‘harmful’ is questionable and leaves ample room for interpretation by the moderator.”

In June, the former Brexit Secretary and Tory peer, Lord Frost, said: “The best thing the government could do would be to slim down the Bill so they can proceed rapidly with the genuinely uncontroversial aspects, and consign the rest where it belongs—the waste paper basket.”

PA Media contributed to this report.

Chris Summers

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Chris Summers is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in crime, policing and the law.



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