LONDON—the UK’s Online Safety Bill has pit advocates willing to forfeit civil liberties for safer online spaces against those who staunchly oppose any attempts to circumscribe free speech and anonymity online. The result is legislation that not only fails to meet the needs of UK Internet users but will likely undermine civil liberties of Internet users around the world.
But a new report from the Center for Data Innovation argues it is possible for Parliament to successfully balance these competing interests.
“The current draft of the Online Safety Bill is well intentioned but spoiled by its loose definition of what constitutes ‘legal, but harmful’ content. Fixing that problem that would go a long way towards striking the balance everyone wants,” said Kir Nuthi, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Data Innovation, who co-authored the new report. “The path forward for Parliament is to amend the bill to clearly define what content is and isn’t in scope. Conversely, failing to address this problem would undermine the very goals the bill aims to achieve.”
According to the report, if the bill passes in its current form, it would stifle legal free expression and harm online privacy. The Center’s analysis concludes that the government should amend the Online Safety Bill so that it addresses these shortcomings. To protect legal free expression the report proposes that Parliament take one of three approaches:
- Amend the bill only to restrict illegal content online and move certain harmful content from the lawful to unlawful category.
- Clearly define specific types of legal and illegal content it requires services to moderate to best position service providers to protect civil liberties such as freedom of speech.
- Codify intermediary liability protections for online services to proactively moderate content.
To better balance anonymity and safety online, the report calls on the UK government to make the following changes to the bill:
- Remove age assurance or verification recommendations from the proposal and prevent OFCOM from prescribing this technology in the future.
- Remove protected communications from the scope of the Online Safety Bill.
The legislation, according to the Center, is unclear on what content online services should monitor and remove—the definitions for content deemed harmful to children and content deemed harmful to adults are vague and would likely compel online services to over-moderate for fear of penalties. The report finds that though the Online Safety Bill creates provisions to preserve speech that may be considered priority harmful but is of democratic importance or journalistic value, online services may still over-moderate or under-moderate as they struggle with subjective and contextual nuances that are not encompassed or clarified by the bill’s text.
The Center finds that the bill’s attempt to reduce online harm would lead to government-sanctioned surveillance of many online services, including encrypted communications. The bill’s recommendations for online services to use processes and software to verify the age of users and its overbroad scope of the services it covers could harm users’ privacy and anonymity, according to the report.
“The Online Safety Bill directs online services to use age assurance measures that could result in measures requiring users to disclose their personally identifiable information to access online content. Such measures could undermine user privacy and anonymity and serve as another entry point for bad actors to access users’ personal information,” says Nuthi. “And the bill’s overbroad scope also perpetuates privacy concerns. The scope covers private messages and encrypted communications—that’s messaging platforms like Signal, Wire, and WhatsApp that use end-to-end encryption to protect users and their private conversations over the Internet. Because of the way the Online Safety Bill’s scope covers encrypted communications, these platforms could be forced to weaken their protections, perform client-side scanning, or create backdoors that could then be accessed by bad actors.”
According to the report, while the policies of the current Online Safety Bill are well-intentioned and target credible harm and severe online content, the bill’s loose definition of what constitutes “legal but harmful” content, overbroad scope, and general legislative overreach encroach on the civil liberties of all users—not just those in the United Kingdom. The Center finds that the legislation undermines legal free expression, privacy, and anonymity, which is why amending the bill is necessary.
“In its current form, the Online Safety Bill fails to balance legal free speech, privacy, and online safety, but there is a legislative pathway that would address the very real issues Internet users face in the United Kingdom and around the world,” said Nuthi. “Amending the Online Safety Bill is not just a possibility but a necessity if the United Kingdom wants to be a world leader in Internet safety and online platform regulation.”