An Unsafe Bill: How the Online Safety Bill threatens free speech, innovation and privacy
- The Online Safety Bill establishes a new regulatory regime for digital platforms intended to improve online safety.
- The Bill raises significant issues for freedom of expression, privacy and innovation.
- There is a lack of evidence to justify the legislation, with respect to both the alleged prevalence of what the Bill treats as ‘harm’ and the link between the proposed measures and the desired objectives.
Freedom of expression
- The duties in the Bill, in respect of illegal content and legal content that is harmful to adults, combined with the threat of large fines and criminal liability, risks platforms using automated tools in a precautionary and censorious manner.
- The Bill appears designed to discourage platforms from hosting speech that the Secretary of State considers to be harmful, even if that speech is legal. The Bill allows for the expansion of the category of ‘legal but harmful’ content with limited parliamentary scrutiny.
- The Secretary of State and Ofcom will have unprecedented powers to define and limit speech, with limited parliamentary or judicial oversight.
- The introduction of age assurance requirements will force search engines and social media to withhold potentially harmful information by default, making it difficult for adults to access information without logging into services, and entirely forbidding children from content even if it could be educationally valuable.
- Some small to mid-sized overseas platforms could block access for UK users to limit their regulatory costs and risks, thereby reducing British users’ access to online content.
- Safeguards designed to protect free expression are comparatively weak and could backfire by requiring application in a ‘consistent’ manner, leading to the removal of more content.Privacy
- The safety duties will lead platforms to profile users and monitor their content and interactions including by using technologies mandated by Ofcom.
- The inclusion of private messaging in the duties risks undermining encryption.
- The child safety duties will infringe the privacy of adult users by requiring them to verify their age, through an identity verification or age assurance process, to access content that is judged unsuitable for children.
- The user empowerment duties will further necessitate many users verifying their identities to platforms.
- The Bill imposes byzantine requirements on businesses of all sizes. Platforms face large regulatory costs and criminal liability for violations, which could discourage investment and research and development in the United Kingdom.
- The Bill’s regulatory costs will be more burdensome for start-ups and small and medium-sized businesses, which lack the resources to invest in legal and regulatory compliance and automated systems, and therefore the Bill could entrench the market position of ‘Big Tech’ companies.
- The likely result of the additional regulatory and cost burdens on digital businesses will be the slower and more cautious introduction of new innovative products or features, and fewer companies entering the sector.