It’s worse than we thought

16 April 2019 — Open Rights Group

Last week the Government unveiled ambitious new plans to protect UK Internet users from digital threats including “behaviours which are harmful but not necessarily illegal.”

Open Rights Group agrees that companies deal with material that is illegal or breaks their own community guidelines, but the way the White Paper on Online Harms is pushing is a huge step beyond that.

For starters, exactly how something is deemed officially harmful remains unclear. The plan lists no evidence standard or threshold for action. That means legal content could be blocked or banned with little proof of harm and without due process.

They list protecting free expression as a key factor, but again the devil is in the (lack of) details. They have simply not explained how this will be accomplished, but safeguarding free expression can’t be dealt with as an afterthought.

The bottom line is that government want content cleaned up, that they won’t make unlawful. Instead, a regulator will ban material at platforms, without any clear indication of the justification for doing so.

To make matters worse, the plan is vastly too expansive. Rules will apply to Facebook and independent websites alike. Apps are included. Even ‘cloud computing’ is in scope. The exemption for websites belonging to newspapers is meaningless because so much of that content is viewed through social media platforms that will not be exempt.

As a final blow, the government intends to block websites that aren’t compliant. There will be many sites that don’t comply. This could lead to sites like Reddit or Switter being the targets of blocking, just because they don’t sign up to UK safety standards.

The good news it that the Government is asking for feedback and in the coming weeks Open Rights Group will offer you guidance on how to respond. There is a way forward: government could focus on making sure complaints are dealt with by platforms, and that big companies have independent regulation of what they do, just like the press.

To help make sure this is heard loud and clear, you can protect free speech online by becoming a member of Open Rights Group.

This is going to be a long campaign – and one of the most important we’ve ever fought. Please help us stand up for free expression online.


Jim Killock
Executive Director
Open Rights Group

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