You’re On Mute: The Online Safety Bill and what the Government should do instead

Dr Radomir Tylecote, Victoria Hewson, Matthew Lesh, Dr Bryn Harris


The Government plans to put an Online Safety Bill, previously called the Online Harms Bill, before Parliament in 2021.

There have been some changes to the Bill, but most of the concerns the FSU expressed before still apply. The Bill remains a serious threat to freedom of speech.

The Government wants to make the UK “the safest place in the world to go online” but its plans will restrict online free speech to a degree almost unprecedented in any democracy. If the Government keeps to the plans laid out in its latest consultation response this will result in the censorship of legal speech.

Many of the so-called “harms” the Government describes are dangerously vague, including “offensive material”, as if offense is a harm the public need protecting from by the state.

The Government wants to impose a “duty of care” on internet companies so that they “take responsibility for the safety of their users” and prevent harms resulting from other people’s conduct, in effect making companies responsible for how members of the public treat each other, an unprecedented proposal that is both unenforceable and diminishes individual responsibility.

This duty will mean internet companies are obliged to remove “harmful content”, including that which risks “significant adverse… psychological impact on individuals”. “Psychological impact” could mean almost anything. Social media platforms and websites that breach this duty could be fined up to £18m or 10 per cent of their global annual turnover. This will lead to companies being over-cautious and removing any material that might fall foul of the new rules.

Companies will also be obliged to remove “disinformation and misinformation” which “could cause significant harm to an individual”. What does the Government mean by this? When discussing how to tackle “disinformation” the Government links to YouTube’s page outlining its policy of censoring content that “contradicts the World Health Organization”. YouTube’s censorship of talkRADIO earlier this year was dictated by this exact policy. The Government seems to regard this as best practice, rather than an unacceptable act of censorship.

The proposed new internet regulator is Ofcom, which is worrying. Its head, Dame Melanie Dawes, has said that on gender and transgender issues broadcasters should “steer their way through these debates without causing offence and without bringing inappropriate voices to the table”, which shows that Ofcom is no friend of free speech. This year, Ofcom enlarged the number of “protected characteristics” in its broadcasting code from four to 18, with broadcasters told that “hate speech” in their programmes now means: “all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred based on intolerance on the grounds of disability, ethnicity, social origin, sex, gender, gender reassignment, nationality, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, colour, genetic features, language, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth or age”.

The Government will set out priority categories of “legal but harmful” material in secondary legislation, including so-called hate content. Alarmingly, this is pending Ofcom’s advice.

Even though the Government claims the Bill will protect press freedom, their recent changes are limited to a newspaper’s own website or newsfeed and does not include journalists’ Facebook pages – so if a journalist posts a story they’ve written to Facebook, it could be taken down.

The Government has stated that its proposals are partly inspired by Germany’s 2017 “NetzDG” internet law. President Lukashenko of Belarus, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party and Venezuela have also cited NetzDG as the model for their online laws.

The authors of this report oppose the Government’s planned approach and propose an alternative that involves removing all references to “legal but harmful” material and providing more resources to law enforcement to better address genuine harms like child abuse and terrorist activity. However, if the Government goes ahead with the legislation the protections for freedom of expression should:

  • Remove any obligation imposed on internet companies not to publish “offensive” views; 
  • Insist that Ofcom pay due regard to freedom of expression and prevent it from punishing an internet company that refuses to remove content that is protected under English common law or the European Convention on Human Rights; 
  • Make sure the codes of practice that internet companies are bound by refer to the protection of freedom of expression as one of their objectives; 
  • Remove any reference to disinformation and misinformation from the Bill; 
  • Include a mechanism whereby individuals can appeal a decision to remove content they have posted to Ofcom.

Full Briefing