U.K. set to pass bill to regulate extremist and 'offensive' social media content

Under the draft of the bill, social media companies and search engines will be required to remove “harmful content” that has “a significant adverse … psychological impact on an adult of ordinary sensibilities.”

U.K. set to pass bill to regulate extremist and 'offensive' social media content
Jonathan Brady, Pool via AP
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Social media companies and British citizens could soon face strict censorship and content restrictions once the United Kingdom's government passes its so-called Online Safety Bill, which is fast-tracked through Parliament following the murder of Sir David Amess by a terrorist last week.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson signalled on Wednesday that he was prepared to change course on the bill, which he had previously neutered. The stricter version of the bill could make executives at social media companies criminally liable for both extremist and “offensive” content on their platforms.

Under the draft of the bill, social media companies and search engines will be required to remove “harmful content” that has “a significant adverse … psychological impact on an adult of ordinary sensibilities.”

As detailed by the London-based Free Speech Union, the Online Safety Bill empowers the U.K.'s regulatory agency, Ofcom, to regulate social media companies and search engines, and all content hosted on their platforms. The law would impose a “duty of care” on these services, forcing the responsibility of protecting their users onto social media platforms.

“Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the bill is the requirement that these providers act quickly to remove content that is ‘lawful but still harmful,’ such as ‘misinformation,’” the Union explained.

“The Free Speech Union is concerned that the bill will require Ofcom to decide what is information and what is misinformation and force social media companies to censor content that falls on the wrong side of that line, even if it’s lawful,” the group said.

“Surely, if speech isn’t prohibited offline it shouldn’t be prohibited online? In a democratic society, citizens should be free to make up their own minds about whether they trust what they’re reading. Asking a state regulator to decide what information is trustworthy comes with a variety of risks, not the least of which is that it will sometimes get it wrong, or deliberately suppress accurate information at the behest of powerful political forces,” the group added.

Criminal liability was previously taken off the table by former digital minister Oliver Dowden, who said that tech companies were much more motivated by financial consequences.

In Parliament on Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer once again raised the suggestion of making social media companies criminally liable for content hosted on their platforms. The Mirror reports that Starmer is being backed by British NGOs and political organizations like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

“Tough sanctions are clearly needed,” he said. “Yet under the government's current proposals, directors of companies failing to crack down on extremism would still not face criminal sanctions, why is that?”

Starmer pointed Parliament to extremist material that was easily searchable on Google, in reference to dozens of hours of jihadist sermons by ‘hate preacher’ Anjem Choudary.

“The government could stop this by making it clear that directors of companies are criminally liable for material on their sites,” he said. “We don't need to delay, so in the collaborative spirit we saw on Monday, will the PM commit to taking this away, looking at it again and working with all of us to strengthen his proposed legislation.”

In response to Starmer’s remarks, the prime minister’s deputy spokesman said that he agreed with the proposal.

“We are obviously very much alive to this issue which is why we wanted to create a legal duty of care through the online safety bill and we will continue to listen and work with the companies involved and any recommendations will be considered in the usual way,” the spokesman said.

Jo Stevens, the shadow secretary of state for digital, culture, media, and sport said: “After months of campaigning by Labour it was heartening to hear that Boris Johnson has relented and will introduce criminal sanctions for senior tech executives who break the rules, as part of the long awaited Online Safety Bill.”

"We will be ensuring these are not just warm words, but that this law is toughened up to do what's needed to make our online spaces safe,” she added. “We must stop online spaces from being safe spaces for terrorists."

To be clear, Starmer’s proposal wouldn’t only affect social media companies.

The bill, if passed, would create a two-tiered system in which journalists are afforded speech rights unavailable to anyone else who uses the Internet. The bill includes protections for journalistic content as well as “content of democratic importance,” effectively allowing the British government to regulate the work of journalists.

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  • By Ezra Levant

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