The UK government claims it wants to make the internet safer by giving itself sweeping censorship powers. A major new analysis adds to widespread condemnation of the move.

Scott Bicheno

June 27, 2022

4 Min Read
Opposition grows to UK’s censorious Online Safety Bill

The UK government claims it wants to make the internet safer by giving itself sweeping censorship powers. A major new analysis adds to widespread condemnation of the move.

Once more we have the in-form Institute of Economic Affairs to thank for bringing the mismanagement of a matter of telecoms public internet to the fore. In this case it’s a briefing paper titled ‘An Unsafe Bill – How the Online Safety Bill threatens free speech, innovation and privacy’, which laments many aspects of the sprawling bill, but especially the attempt to criminalise online speech that remains legal offline.

Sporting all the hallmarks of bad law, the bill wants to compel internet platforms to censor speech that, while legal, could still be considered ‘harmful’. This is just one example of what must be assumed to be deliberately vague terminology, designed to make the government their sole arbiter. Platforms will also be compelled to censor speech they might ‘reasonably consider’ to be illegal.

All these subjective, ill-defined conditions come with the threat of massive fines if they are not followed. The obvious result will be that platforms err on the side of caution, at least in the UK, and censor extensively just to be safe. One example of the kind of ‘harm’ the bill wants to ban is ‘intentionally causing psychological distress’. Since intention is usually impossible to ascertain, this will place uncontested power in the hands of complainants – sincere and otherwise.

“There has been a lot of attention on the Bill’s coverage of ‘legal but harmful’ speech, but the duties of care that target illegal content are just as worrying, considering that context and intent are key to such offences, and especially in light of the new speech crimes that the Bill creates,” said co-author Victoria Hewson.

“In the offline world, these offences have to be investigated and proven and the courts take protecting freedom of expression seriously. Tech platforms will not have the time or resource to do this and when faced with fines in the millions, will be incentivised to remove content that would not be criminal offline. It is ironic that the government is pursuing this at the same time as it seeks to safeguard free speech in universities. Are we looking at speech being protected on campus, but censored on social media?”

“This Bill is an attack on the fundamentals of a free society,” said co-author Matthew Lesh. “It seriously threatens our ability to communicate and right to privacy, while providing unprecedented regulatory powers to ministers and Ofcom. The government has spoken a lot about wanting to remove burdensome red tape, but first, they should do no harm by not introducing new powers.”

The IEA managed to get a few political heavy hitters to endorse the paper.

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“This is a thorough and convincing outline of the many serious problems with the Online Safety Bill,” said David Davis, MP. “While the Government no doubt has good intentions, in its current form, the Bill could end up being one of the most significant accidental infringements on free speech in modern times. The Bill also risks undermining encryption and privacy rights, and will hand several powers to the Secretary of State which will not be subject to adequate parliamentary scrutiny.”

“Free Speech is a basic human right, essential for the functioning of democracy and necessary to allow differing views to be contrasted and evaluated in a pluralistic society,” said Liam Fox, MP.  “Any restrictions should be exceptional and determined by rigorous tests of necessity and a sense of proportion, otherwise, perfectly well intended actions can have highly damaging unintended consequences. Any legislation must be tested against these principles.”

“The evidence just keeps mounting showing that the free speech protections in the Online Safety Bill are not worth the paper they’re written on,” said Ruth Smeeth, CEO of Index on Censorship and former Labour MP. “Silicon Valley has a stranglehold on our freedom of speech, and this bill will give it even more muscle to censor our legal content. Cross-party MPs told the government to remove ‘legal but harmful’ because it would have a chilling effect on free speech, but the government has chosen to ignore them and us.”

This ridiculous bill has apparently almost doubled in size in the past year to 255 pages. One reason for this is presumably attempts to paper over its many cracks and appease opponents, while still giving the government and Ofcom almost unlimited power over online speech. As Frost inferred, if the government genuinely cares about online safely then it needs to focus on the stuff designed to protect kids and bin the rest.


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About the Author(s)

Scott Bicheno

As the Editorial Director of, Scott oversees all editorial activity on the site and also manages the Intelligence arm, which focuses on analysis and bespoke content.
Scott has been covering the mobile phone and broader technology industries for over ten years. Prior to Scott was the primary smartphone specialist at industry analyst Strategy Analytics’. Before that Scott was a technology journalist, covering the PC and telecoms sectors from a business perspective.
Follow him @scottbicheno

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