Safety without censorship


This report from UK think tank the Centre for Policy Studies discusses a better way to tackle online harms.

The Government’s previous plans to make digital companies more responsible for their users’ safety online will not work as intended. As the Government prepares to announce sweeping proposals this autumn this report raises significant concerns about the existing proposals for regulating online speech, which the think tank argues will stifle freedom of expression and penalise small businesses and start-ups who will be unable to afford the costs of compliance. It argues that the vagueness of the responsibilities the new regime imposes, the excessive scope and disproportionality of its sanctions will result in measures that violate fundamental legal principles of liability and privacy, and are therefore likely to fail in their present form.

Of particular concern in the original Government White Paper are: The plans to review private messaging; The desire to create a regime that goes way beyond social media to cover all manner of online speech, including customer reviews, workplace messaging platforms and apps that allow collaboration between employees; The intention to create a new category of speech that is ‘legal but harmful’ meaning speech that is legal would be removed from platforms. Instead, the CPS is proposing that Ofcom should take responsibility for online harms regulation, as under the current proposals, but with entirely separate functions for dealing with illegal and legal content. Ofcom’s powers should only allow it to take enforcement action where a particular platform has consistently failed to act on egregious content. The guiding principle should be that it is for Parliament to determine what is sufficiently harmful to be criminalised, not for Ofcom or individual platforms to guess. If something is legal to say, it should be legal to type. The report also calls for a beefed up police response to tackle the most egregious online harms and better enforcement of existing laws banning terrorist and child sexual abuse content – with new manpower and resources to address the challenge. The report was supported by The Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec), the policy voice of tech startups and scaleups.

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