Government’s Online Safety Bill “poses greatest threat to UK free speech in living memory”, say campaigners

5 September, 2021 — Big Brother Watch

Big Brother Watch Team

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Big Brother Watch has launched a new report warning against the “censorious” Online Safety Bill, and sounding the alarm on the rise of Big Tech speech police.

The report, titled The State of Free Speech Online, explores how:

  • Marginalised groups are disproportionately impacted by tech platforms’ rules, which abandon legal speech standards
  • Online censorship has resulted in the removal of political parties’ and campaign groups’ online content
  • Online platforms’ “misinformation” policies are shutting down online discussions about public health policy
  • The Government’s little-known Counter Disinformation Unit pressures social media companies to take down lawful speech

The report documents the growing threat of social media censorship with a catalogue of shocking case studies of account suspensions and bans, particularly in relation to sex and gender, race, politics and health.

Far from “reigning in” social media companies, the campaigners say, the Government is “seeking a share of the extraordinary power to suppress and censor lawful speech on a scale never seen before”.

The report dissects the Government’s Online Safety Bill, which the civil liberties group warns would increase online censorship and pose a serious threat to online free speech in the UK.

Impact on marginalised voices

Over 2 years of research has unearthed scores of examples of online censorship involving marginalised groups – from feminist debates, to comments about sex or race, to erasure of people who have, or have had, mental health problems.

In one case, a gay man was locked out of his Facebook account for saying that being gay “would be so much easier without men, men are the worst”, showing the blunt nature of social media companies’ “hate speech” policies, which operate without contextualisation and often suppress the speech of those they claim to protect.

On Instagram, photos of users who have self-harm scars are routinely hidden and labelled as “sensitive content” that people may find “disturbing”.

On Twitter, scores of users have been suspended or banned in the course of debates about sex and gender, or for allegedly misgendering other users with terms such as “cis” or “dude”.

Political censorship

Big Brother Watch’s research also found a growth in arbitrary political censorship, with the posts of political parties and civil society groups shut down without justification.

Twitter recently removed the grassroots “Kill the Bill” campaign, which opposes the Government’s controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The campaign group was given no explanation for the suspension of the account and set up another account, which was also shut down. The accounts were reinstated after Big Brother Watch complained to Twitter.

Increased shutdown of public health policy discussion

Since early 2020, social media companies’ rules regarding so-called “disinformation” and “misinformation” have become increasingly stringent, with many platforms prohibiting content that diverges from WHO guidance. This has been documented by a number of high-level instances of academics and journalists having their posts about public health policies censored.

However, Big Brother Watch’s research also found this happening at a lower level and restricting the discussions of ordinary users.

Counter Disinformation Cell

The report also examines state-censorship and the work of the little-known Counter Disinformation Cell. The opaque Whitehall unit liaises with social media platforms, flagging posts mainly about coronavirus and the pandemic that it believes breach the platforms’ rules – although not the law.

The civil liberties group warns against the slippery slope of “extrajudicial censorship” and the convergence of power between the tech giants and Government.

QUOTES

Commenting on the publication of the report, Mark Johnson, Legal and Policy Officer at Big Brother Watch said:

We’ve exposed how, over recent years, social media companies have adopted increasingly censorious speech standards.

The Online Safety Bill will only make this worse and poses a greater threat to freedom of speech in the UK than any other law in living memory.

The Bill does absolutely nothing to help police deal with real crime online but rather, focuses the lens on ordinary people’s conversations.

The Bill will force social media companies to suppress lawful content which is controversial, counter-cultural or offensive.

These new rules will leave us with two tiers of speech, where speech that’s permitted on the street is not allowed online.

This framework for control of lawful speech will do untold damage to free expression that may be impossible to reverse. The Government should remove powers over lawful speech from the Bill altogether.

ENDS

Notes:

The report is available to download here.

Spokespeople are available for interviews. Contact Big Brother Watch’s 24h media line on 07730439257 or email info@bigbrotherwatch.org.uk

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