Free Speech Union responds to Government’s revised Online Safety Bill

The Online Safety Bill returns to the Commons next week (MailEpoch Times), and the latest iteration of the legislation seems, on the face of it, to be an improvement on the previous version — although the devil will be in the detail.

Plans to introduce a new harmful communications offence in England and Wales, making it a crime punishable by up to two years in jail to send or post a message with the intention of causing “psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress” have been scrapped (iNewsTechCrunch).

It means that the new version of the Online Safety Bill won’t criminalise saying something, whether online or offline. That’s good news. As Kemi Badenoch pointed out during this summer’s Conservative Party leadership contest, it’s not the role of government to be “legislating for hurt feelings” (FT).

The bad news is, the new communications offence was intended to replace some of the more egregious offences in the Communications Act 2003 (henceforth ‘CA’). As things stand, the offences in the Malicious Communications Act 1998 (‘MCA’) will be repealed, but not section 127 of the CA.

The latter will remain on the statute books, and the FSU will continue to campaign for its removal. The restrictions imposed on what you can say, whether online or offline, by the CA are, we believe, out of date and may, in part, be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights — that’s a claim we’re hoping to test in Strasbourg as part of FSU member Joe Kelly’s forthcoming appeal against his conviction and sentencing for posting a tweet that contravened the CA, section 127(1)(b). (You can read about that case here; and our latest briefing document on the CA is available here).

That said, this latest tweak to the Online Safety Bill does at least solve one problem the FSU has previously flagged up to the Government about the impact the legislation was likely to have in a multi-national state like the UK. Thanks to a little-known flaw, the legislation required category 1 providers to remove content that is illegal in every part of the UK if it’s illegal in any part of the UK.

The critical issue here was that the Online Safety Bill would only have repealed the relevant MCA offences in England and Wales, not Northern Ireland, thereby creating a risk that social media platforms within scope of the new online regulatory regime would not only have had to remove content that is unlawful under the new harmful communications offence, but content that was unlawful under the existing MCA, since that will remain on the statute book in Northern Ireland. In other words, when it came to what you could and couldn’t say online, the new harmful communications offence wouldn’t have replaced one set of rules prohibiting speech with another; it would have just added a new set.

Thankfully, that problem won’t now arise.

Another positive is that the clause in the Bill which obliges providers to remove content everywhere in the UK if it’s illegal anywhere in the UK won’t now apply to the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act — a piece of legislation that FSU Scotland Advisory Council member Jamie Gillies has previously described as “an authoritarian mess” (Spiked). The Government amended the Bill in July, so providers won’t be obliged to remove speech that’s prohibited by new laws that have been made by the devolved parliaments (Critic).

Fears that Nicola Sturgeon might become the content moderator for the whole of the UK can be laid to rest – at least for the time being.

Although as you may have guessed, the key phrase there is “for the time being”. Because it’s worth bearing in mind that a future Labour government could change that with a single, one-line amendment to the Bill. And given there’s now a chance Labour will form a minority UK government supported by the SNP after the next election, this is an issue that may well come back to haunt the Conservative Party in years to come.

In sum, the latest version of the Bill won’t criminalise saying something, whether online or offline, that causes “psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress” or, in Kemi Badenoch’s words, “hurt feelings”. For that, at least, we should be grateful.

Another positive in the Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan’s revised version of Bill is that clause 13, which would have forced providers to set out in their terms of service how they intended to “address” content that’s legal but harmful to adults, has now been scrapped. That’s good news, of course, but we shouldn’t exaggerate how much of a win this is. Some papers are reporting this as removing any reference to ‘legal but harmful’ from the Bill, yet the phrase ‘legal but harmful’ has never actually appeared in any versions of this Bill.

It’s also worth pointing out that thanks to an amendment the FSU successfully lobbied for in July, the previous version of the Bill would have made it clear that one of the ways providers could ‘address’ this content would have been to do absolutely nothing (you can watch Adam Afriyie MP setting out that amendment in the House of Commons here).

The Times this week suggested that “the Government has dropped plans to force social media and search sites to take down material that is considered harmful but not illegal”, but that’s not correct. It never planned to force sites to do that.

The FSU’s objection to clause 13 was always more nuanced. It was that if the Government published a list of legal content it considered harmful to adults and created an obligation on providers to say how they intended to ‘address’ it, that would ‘nudge’ them to remove it.

Even though the option to do nothing was available to providers in the previous version of the Bill, it would have been a brave social media company that chose this option, given that the Government had designated the content as harmful to adults.

Another objection to the previous version is that, according to its provisions, the list of legal content that was harmful to adults was going to be included in a statutory instrument and not in the Bill itself. One concern the FSU and other free speech groups had about this arrangement was that it created a hostage to fortune — once the initial list of legal content had been drawn up it could easily be added to by another statutory instrument, thus creating a ratchet effect.  

In that the person occupying the role of secretary of state now — or in the future — would be able to use the mechanism of the SI to lean on the tech giants to remove speech they disliked or disapproved of, the Government of the day would possess unprecedented powers to restrict speech, particularly if it removed the option to do nothing in response to the enlarged Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Despite the previous version of the legislation having only reached Committee stage in the House of Commons, this ratcheting effect on our civil liberties had already started to happen in real time. Back in June, for instance, SNP and Labour politicians on the Committee scrutinising the Bill laid an amendment to include “‘health-related misinformation and disinformation’ as a recognised form of lawful but ‘harmful’” speech. That found itself into the ‘indicative list’ of content that was going to be designated legal but harmful to adults published by Nadine Dorries, then the Culture Secretary. (FSU General Secretary Toby Young has written about the Bill’s ‘ratchet effect’ for the Critic.)

In the new version of the Bill, however, the list of legal content that’s harmful to adults won’t be included in a supplementary piece of legislation, but on the face of the Bill. (It’s not being described that way by the Government, but that’s essentially what it is.)

In the latest DCMS press release (29th November), the list is set out as follows: “legal content relating to suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, or content that is abusive, or that incites hatred, on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sex, gender reassignment or sexual orientation”. That’s almost identical to the ‘indicative list’ of legal but harmful adult content set out by Nadine Dorries in July, which rather suggests that reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. (Although, credit where credit’s due, the list no longer makes reference to ‘health related misinformation’). The FSU expects similar wording to appear in the new version of the Bill when it returns to Parliament next week.

Another key change is that the new Bill attempts to shift the locus of responsibility away from ‘paternalist providers’ and towards ‘empowered users’. Instead of saying how they intend to ‘address’ harmful content in their terms of service, providers will now have to say what tools they’re going to make available to their users who don’t want to be exposed to it. That’s what Michelle Donelan means when she says in the Telegraph that, “I have removed ‘legal but harmful’ in favour of a new system based on choice and freedom”.

What we’re talking about here is essentially the social media equivalent of a ‘safe browsing’ mode. That’s an improvement, not because the previous version of the Bill forced the big social media platforms to ban it outright — it didn’t — but because it won’t ‘nudge’ them into doing so in the way the previous version did.

Essentially, the Bill is signalling to providers that if they want to make this content available to adult users in an unrestricted form they can, and the Government would have no objection, even though it considers it harmful. The only proviso is that if providers do intend to make this content available to their adult users, they have to provide them with the tools to restrict it if they wish to do so — the social media equivalent of a ‘safe browsing’ mode.

On the face of it, this is an attractive approach. It empowers adult users to choose what content they’d like to see, with the state no longer nudging providers into restricting legal but harmful content for everyone, regardless of their appetite for this material.

Nevertheless, the FSU has some concerns about this ‘user empowerment’ model. For instance, there’s a significant risk that the big providers (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) will make the ‘safe’ mode their default setting, so if adult users want to see ‘lawful but awful’ content they will have to ‘opt in’.

That may result in perfectly lawful yet politically contentious views — e.g., gender critical statements about transwomen not being women, or the need to ban transwomen from women’s spaces — being blocked by default since woke identity groups will argue that any such views constitute abuse or incitement to hatred based on their protected characteristics.

Of course, users would have the option of adjusting their settings so they can see that content,  but some won’t want to in case, say, a colleague sees something ‘hateful’ over their shoulder and reports them to HR.

And what about those who won’t even be aware they have a choice, or are aware but don’t know how to do anything about it?  

We know that that’s likely to be a lot of people thanks to research carried out by behavioural scientists on what’s known as ‘choice architecture’ — i.e., the idea that the way in which customers are presented with choices will influence their subsequent decision-making processes. As countless studies in that area have now demonstrated, one of the most powerful tools available to organisations wishing to ‘nudge’ consumers down certain behavioural pathways is the humble ‘default setting’. Why? Because consumers tend not to take active steps to change systems possessed of a built-in default mode.

So the devil here will be in the detail of what each social media platform’s version of ‘safe browsing’ looks like. If ‘safe mode’ becomes the default setting, for instance, how easy will it be to switch it off? It’s an important question. As one recent study put it, “if defaults have an effect because consumers are not aware that they have choices… [they] impinge on liberty”.

And what about politically contentious websites like The Conservative Woman (TCW) and Novara Media – perhaps even the Spectator? Will their content be judged ‘unsafe’ by providers and only made available to users who ‘opt in’? That sounds far-fetched, but TCW was blocked by default by the Three mobile network earlier this year.

When the FSU looked into it, we discovered it was because the British Board of Film Classification, to which Three had outsourced the job of deciding which websites were ‘safe’, had given TCW an 18 rating. So Three restricted access to TCW for its users because its default settings excluded any websites the BBFC classed as only suitable for adults.

In light of this, it’s not unrealistic to think that under the new system politically contentious websites like TCW will be judged unsafe by the big social media platforms and banned by default (although not outright). And that will have a negative impact on their commercial viability. Not only will it limit their reach, but it will also make it harder for them to get advertising because most companies are concerned about ‘brand safety’ and won’t want to advertise on websites that are deemed unsafe by companies like Facebook. To a certain extent, that happens already, but it could get significantly worse after this Bill becomes law.

There are other free speech issues with the new Bill that Big Brother Watch has flagged up.

Taken as a whole, however, the FSU believes this version of the Online Safety Bill is an improvement on the previous version. Michelle Donelan has had to steer a difficult path between those of us lobbying for more free speech protections and a vast array of groups petitioning her to make the Bill more restrictive, including factions within her own party.

Letter to Bird College about the Principal’s demand that staff include their gender pronouns in their email signatures, as well as the Pride and BLM flags

We wrote to the Principal of Birth College, a performing arts college in South London, after an employee tipped us off about an all-staff email demanding they include their gender pronouns in their email signatures, as well as the Pride and BLM flags. In the letter, we pointed out that this was likely to be a breach of the Equality Act 2010 and Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights – and the Principal quickly backtracked. You can read some coverage of the story in the Daily Mail.

Help us make free speech an issue in the Conservative leadership campaign

Apologies for contacting you again a day after sending you our weekly newsletter. However, I wanted to let you know about the results of an independent opinion poll commissioned by the FSU which shows the public strongly support our five-point manifesto. CLICK HERE to read the press release and see the manifesto. The headline finding is that only two per cent of the public strongly agree that the Government is doing a good job of standing up for free speech. Among 25-49 year-olds, that number falls to one per cent.

In light of our poll, we’re asking those members and supporters of ours that are also members of the Conservative Party to write to the five candidates remaining in the leadership race, urging them to do more to protect free speech. If you’re a Conservative Party member, CLICK HERE to use our new campaigning tool to send the candidates an email. We have created a template and you’re welcome to use that, or feel free to adapt it.

The first time we used this tool was on Tuesday, when we urged our members and supporters to write to their MP asking for the Online Safety Bill to be held over until the Autumn when a new Prime Minister is in place. The following day, the Government announced that the Bill would, indeed, be held over – making it one of the most successful campaigns we’ve ever waged.

A big thank you to all of you who wrote to their MP earlier in the week. Let’s hope that if enough Conservative Party members now contact the five leadership candidates and urge them to stand up for free speech, our second campaign will be equally successful.

Kind regards,

Toby Young

General Secretary

The Free Speech Union is Hiring – Legislative Affairs Director

JOB TITLE:                   Legislative Affairs Director

CONTRACT:                 Part-time employee/contractor – Initially 0.5FTE.

SALARY:                      Subject to experience.

DEPARTMENT:            Legislative Affairs

REPORTS TO:             General Secretary

PURPOSE:                   To oversee the FSU’s parliamentary work – finding MPs and peers to sponsor and amend bills, building support for those bills and amendments (e.g. written and oral briefings given to key decision-makers, placing stories in the press, publishing policy papers), creating networks of MPs and peers, as well as their staff (e.g. by organising dinners and larger social events, as well as WhatsApp groups), liaising with the APPG on free speech, select committees and other parliamentary groups, responding to consultations and inquiries, and building relationships with think tanks and other relevant bodies (e.g. political parties, other pro-free speech organisations like Big Brother Watch and Index on Censorship).

Who are we?

The Free Speech Union is a non-partisan, mass-membership public interest body that stands up for the speech rights of its members and campaigns for free speech more widely. Our in-house legal team, working with our casework team, coordinates legal representation for members in difficulty. Our research and briefings arm publishes briefings on where free speech needs to be better protected. Our events arm organises online and in-person events.

In the last year, the FSU has seen sister organisations set up in the US, New Zealand and South Africa, with further expansion is to come. We have an exciting journey ahead and we’re looking for talented individuals to join our organisation.

The role

As we continue to expand our parliamentary work, we are looking for a Legislative Affairs Director. This individual will help to drive our lobbying, campaigning and advocacy work, with a view to strengthening legislative protections of free speech, seeing off legislative challenges to free speech and persuading ministers and senior officials to protect free speech in other ways, e.g. via departmental guidance.

We are looking for an exceptional individual who is committed to free speech and has experience of working with parliamentarians and government officials to influence policy, e.g. by lobbying and campaigning, helping to steer bills through parliament and amending existing bills.

The ideal candidate will have experience of developing and implementing successful campaigns designed to influence policy, producing tangible results. With a good understanding and experience of Westminster’s legislative, regulatory, and governmental framework, as well as a grasp of how the different regional governments of the United Kingdom work, you will understand how to steer parliamentarians and other policy-makers to achieve legislative change. You will also understand how to drive public and media awareness to achieve this.

You will be used to working with a variety of politicians and officials, and will be a confident and effective communicator, whether talking to members of the public, business leaders, senior members of the government, senior officials or the executives of regulatory bodies. Management experience is preferred.

While we are initially looking for someone to work for two-and-a-half days a week, this will probably increase quite quickly as the FSU grows.


  • Developing strategies for influencing the government and government officials;
  • Overseeing the amendment of bills going through Parliament from start to finish (involves a detailed understanding of the parliamentary process);
  • Writing briefing materials, including briefing papers, and making sure they reach the right people;
  • Preparing witnesses called to give evidence by parliamentary bodies, e.g. a Public Bill Committee;
  • Being an advocate for bills and amendments the FSU is backing;
  • Overseeing submissions to public consultations and inquiries, e.g. by the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Joint Committee on Human Rights;
  • Building a network of pro-free speech parliamentarians and their staff;
  • Helping to put together social events for key government decision-makers;
  • Liaising with think tanks, pro-free speech groups and other relevant bodies seeking to influence public policy;


Network of contacts in and around Westminster.
At least two years’ experience of lobbying or similar.
Good writing skills, with an emphasis on correct English spelling, grammar and punctuation, clarity and concision.
Detailed understanding of how the legislative process works in Westminster and the regional governments of the United Kingdom.
Good Microsoft Word and Excel skills.
Agreeable – good interpersonal skills with people at all levels, with a professional and courteous manner.
The ability to work flexible hours which may include weekends or evenings.
Homeworking – must have premises, equipment and systems to enable productive working from home.
Post-graduate degree.
Experience of working in government.
Experience in the use of case management systems, e.g. Sales Force.
Knowledge and experience of compliance with all the relevant regulations.

Applicants should send a CV and introductory letter to [email protected]. The FSU is actively recruiting for this role and may withdraw it at its discretion.



  • Employer pension contribution of eight percent.
  • The autonomy and flexibility of working from home (we don’t have a permanent office although we do have access to office spaces when needed).
  • Full access to our learning and development programme.
  • 28 paid holidays per calendar year (pro rata) including public holidays (annual allotment increases with tenure).
  • The chance to get together with the entire FSU team face-to-face, at our away days and events.

Probationary Period

This post is subject to the requirements of a three-month probationary scheme for new staff only.

Review of this Job Description

This job description is intended as an outline of the general areas of activity and will be amended in the light of the changing needs of the organisation. To be reviewed in conjunction with the post holder.

The FSU values diversity. We are an equal opportunity employer and consider qualified applicants without regard to Age, Disability, Gender Reassignment, Marriage or Civil Partnership, Pregnancy and Maternity, Race, Religion or Belief, Sex.

The Free Speech Union is Hiring – Director of Data and Impact

JOB TITLE: Director of Data and Impact

CONTRACT: Up to 0.5 FTE initially

SALARY: Up to £51,000 pro rated

DEPARTMENT: Operations

REPORTS TO: Chief Operating Officer

PURPOSE: We are looking for an innovative and proactive Director of Data and Impact to lead and oversee the development and management of SalesForce and our other data systems and take on responsibility for ensuring SalesForce is properly integrated with our other systems and is accessible to our employees and contractors. The work will also include analysing membership and case data with a view to recruiting more members, e.g. via social media, and to inform our research and lobbying work. This is a great opportunity to join a small and young organisation and make the role your own.

LOCATION: Home-based with ability to travel.


  • Develop, implement and maintain our SalesForce databases and collect accurate data about our members and cases;
  • Produce reports about our members and cases based on accurate data;
  • Ensure data is clean, secure and GDPR compliant;
  • Work with external SalesForce developers to manage and develop SalesForce, making sure it is fully integrated with our website, and keep up to date with developments of SalesForce;
  • Provide SalesForce support and training as needed to staff, including induction for new staff and managing our user accounts and licenses;
  • Work closely with the Director of Digital Content on campaigns and marketing;
  • Collect, analyse and report using data obtained via our campaigns;
  • Identify how to refine and improve the internal management and navigation of our data systems;
  • Other reasonable duties that may be required;
  • Benchmark our services to members against similar membership organisations.



  • Must be able to work flexible hours as we are not a typical 9-5 organisation;
  • Educated to degree level or above;
  • Excellent analytical and numerical skills with the ability to analyse and interpret data in accurate and concise ways, including ways that inform the organisation’s overall strategy;
  • Good overall IT skills;
  • Excellent communication skills which will enable you to collate, analyse and communicate data-based information;
  • Experience in operating and developing SalesForce:
  • Experience in conducting research, producing data-rich reports and interpreting data;
  • Good understanding of the importance of managing and processing data in a secure, compliant and accurate way;
  • A practical and methodical approach to solving problems;
  • Well organised with good attention to detail;
  • Passionate about free speech;
  • A can-do attitude; and
  • Mastery of spelling, punctuation and grammar in written work.


  • Experience of website building, including a working knowledge of WordPress and WooCommerce;
  • Familiarity with digital advertising; and
  • Ability to code (PhP).


Please submit your application including your CV and a cover letter of no more than 750 words that answers the following questions:

• Why do you want to work for the FSU?

• When can you start?

• What is your salary expectation?

We’re keen to fill the position quickly so will begin the interview process on a rolling basis.

Applicants should send a CV and introductory letter to [email protected].

The Free Speech Union is Hiring – Communications Officer

JOB TITLE: Communications Officer

CONTRACT: Up to 0.4 FTE initially to full time

SALARY: Up to £30,000 pro rated

DEPARTMENT: Communications

REPORTS TO: General Secretary

PURPOSE: We are looking for a person with a broad set of communication skills who can oversee our written output. Responsibilities will include writing, commissioning and editing research papers, as well as FAQs and briefing documents. The research papers and FAQs will be published on our website, but the briefing papers will be circulated to key decision-makers. In addition, you will be responsible for writing FSU responses to government consultations and writing weekly and monthly newsletters for our members and supporters, as well as writing articles promoting our research papers. This is a great opportunity to join a small and young organisation and make the role your own.

LOCATION: Home-based with ability to travel.


  • Write, commission, edit and, if necessary, rewrite research papers on free speech issues for publication on our website;
  • Write articles for newspapers, magazines and periodicals to promote our research papers;
  • Help the General Secretary write articles and come up with quotes for newspapers, etc. and brief the General Secretary before media appearances when requested;
  • Write FAQs on free speech issues of interest to our members, e.g. how to find out if a ‘non-crime hate incident’ has been recorded against your name and, if it has, how to get it expunged;
  • Write briefing papers on legal and policy areas with a free speech dimension for circulation to key decision-makers, e.g. the Online Safety Bill;
  • Write the FSU’s responses to government consultations on proposed changes to the law that will affect free speech, e.g. banning conversion therapy;
  • Keep abreast of all the free speech news and suggest social media posts to the Director of Digital Content and Marketing;
  • Write the weekly email newsletter, which is a round-up of that week’s free speech news, for distribution to members;
  • Write the monthly email newsletter, which is a round-up of the FSU’s activity in the past month, for distribution to members and supporters;
  • Other reasonable duties that may be required.



  • Must be okay to work flexible hours as we are not your typical 9-5 organisation;
  • Excellent communication skills with superb knowledge of the English language, including taking pride in accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar;
  • Familiarity with the lingua franca of academia, e.g. able to read a research paper in a social science journal, and the ability to translate research findings into plain English;
  • A passion for free speech and a broad understanding of the complexities of free speech issues, including the point of view of those who don’t value free speech as highly as us or don’t believe it is in peril;
  • Experience in writing polemically about complex issues across a range of different publications, from periodicals to tabloids;
  • Keen interest in free speech stories in the mainstream media and social media;
  • Ability to work quickly to deadline and at a moment’s notice without a significant decline in quality of written work;
  • Broad knowledge of social media;
  • A can-do attitude; and
  • Excellent attention to detail in written work, e.g. could be employed as a copy editor.


  • Experience of working in the Communications Department of a similar organisation;
  • Front-of-house broadcast media experience; and
  • Some understanding of public policy/legislative affairs.


Please submit your application including your CV and a cover letter of no more than 750 words that answers the following questions:

• Why do you want to work for the FSU?

• When can you start?

• What is your salary expectation?

We’re keen to fill the position quickly so will begin the interview process on a rolling basis.

Applicants should send a CV and introductory letter to [email protected].