Internet crackdown raises fears for free speech in Britain
Critics of the government’s flagship internet regulation policy are warning it could lead to a North Korean-style censorship regime, where regulators decide which websites Britons are allowed to visit, because of how broad the proposals are.
The mooted legislation, launched on Monday in the online harms white paper, covers any website that “allows users to share or discover user-generated content, or interact with each other online”, a definition which potentially covers vast areas of the internet.
As well as social media companies and discussion forums, any site with comment sections, crowdsourced reviews or individual user profile pages falls under that definition, encompassing everything from online news sites to video game stores.
The regulation imposes a duty of care on affected sites, holding them liable for restricting “behaviours which are harmful but not necessarily illegal”. A site that does not fulfil its duty of care could be fined, its senior managers held criminally liable or the regulator could demand the site be blocked entirely.
The proposed rules, and the creation of a regulator to enforce them, are part of a wide-ranging series of recommendations that attempt to tackle the spread of material related to terrorism, child abuse, self-harm and suicide on the internet.
The white paper, unveiled on Monday, comes following growing pressure on the government to act in the wake of the death of teenager Molly Russell, whose father believed that exposure to images of self-harm on social media was a factor in her taking her own life.
But critics from across the political spectrum have warned the legislation could also threaten freedom of speech. Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: “The government’s proposals would create state regulation of the speech of millions of British citizens. We have to expect that the duty of care will end up widely drawn, with serious implications for legal content that is deemed potentially risky, whether it really is nor not.”