UK Online Safety Bill Attacks Free Speech and Encryption

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The British government has had more than a year to review its Online security bill in a proposal that would not affect the fundamental rights of users. He did not and the bill should be dropped. The current bill is a threat to free speech and undermines the encryption we all rely on for online security and privacy.

The government intended to move forward and vote on the Online Safety Bill last month, but the planned vote has been postponed until a new UK Prime Minister can be chosen . Members of Parliament should take this opportunity to insist that the bill be completely defeated.

Subjective standards for censorship

If the Online Safety Bill passes, the UK government will be able to directly silence users and even jail those who post messages it doesn’t like. The bill empowers the UK’s Office of Communications (OFCOM) to impose heavy fines or even block access to sites that offend people. We said last year that these powers raise serious concerns about free speech. Since then, the bill has been amended, and it has gotten worse.

People should not be fined or thrown in jail because a government official finds their speech offensive. In the United States, the First Amendment prevents this. But UK residents can already be punished for online statements that a court finds “grossly offensive”, under the Communications Act 2003. If the Online Safety Bill is passed, it would expand the potential scope of such cases. It would also deviate significantly from Europe’s new internet bill, the Digital Services Act, which avoids turning social media and other services into tools of censorship.

Section 10 of the revised bill even authorizes a prison sentence for anyone – up to two years – for anyone whose social media post could cause “psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress”. The message doesn’t even have to cause harm. If the authorities believe that the offender intended to cause harm and that there was a substantial risk of harm, that is sufficient to bring an action. There is also a separate crime of transmitting “false communications”, punishable by fines or up to 51 weeks in prison.

The problem here should be obvious: these are entirely subjective criteria. People disagree all the time about what constitutes a misrepresentation. Determining which statements present a “real and substantial risk” of causing psychological harm is the quintessentially subjective question, as is who might have a “reasonable excuse” for making such a statement. The apparent lack of legal certainty casts doubt on the compliance of UK online safety law with international human rights standards.

The few exceptions in the section appear to be grants to large media companies. For example, recognized press publishers are exempt from the section on communication offences. The same goes for anyone “showing a made-for-the-theatre film to members of the public”.

The exceptions are telling. The UK’s proposed new OFCOM censors make it clear that they will never stand in the way of corporate media concerns; it is only small media makers, activists, citizen journalists and ordinary users who will face additional scrutiny and the penalties that come with it.

Online platforms will also face massive liability if they fail to meet OFCOM’s deadlines for removing images and messages related to terrorism or child abuse. But it is extremely difficult for human critics to properly discern between activism, counter-narrative and extremist content. Algorithms do an even worse job. When governments around the world pressure websites to quickly remove content they deem “terrorist,” it leads to censorship. The first victims of this type of censorship are usually human rights groups seeking to document abuses and war. And while the bill requires online service providers to consider the importance of journalists’ freedom of expression, the safeguards are onerous and weak.

Another attack on encryption

The bill also empowers OFCOM to commission online services to “use accredited technology” – in other words, government-approved software – to find child abuse images (section 104) . These commands can be issued against online services that use end-to-end encryption, which means that they currently have no technical means of inspecting user messages. This part of the bill is a clear push by the sponsors of the bill to get companies to abandon or compromise their encryption systems.

Unfortunately, we have seen this pattern before. Unable to garner public support for police analyzing every online message, some lawmakers in liberal democracies have turned to workarounds. They claimed that certain types of encryption backdoors are needed to inspect files for the worst crimes, such as child abuse. And they claimed, incorrectly, that some methods of inspecting user files and messages, like client-side scanning, don’t break encryption at all. We saw it in the US in 2020 with the EARN IT Act, last year with the client-side scanning system offered by Apple, and this year we saw a similar system offered in the EU

These types of systems create more vulnerabilities that endanger the rights of all users, including children. Security Experts and NGO spoke clearly about this issue and called for the removal of the anti-encryption sections of this bill, but the sponsors of the bill unfortunately did not listen.

If passed, the anti-encryption and censorship online security bill won’t just affect the UK – it will a plan for repression in the world. The next UK Prime Minister is expected to drop the bill in its entirety. If they don’t, Parliament should vote to reject it.

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