Why the Government’s plans to regulate the internet are a threat to free speech

Dr Radomir Tylecote


The Government’s proposed new internet regulator will infringe free speech

The Government published the Online Harms White Paper in April 2019 and intends to put a Bill before Parliament next year. The proposals aim to make the UK “the safest place in the world to go online”, but they will seriously infringe free speech.

Some of the harms the White Paper identifies are real, including distributing images of child abuse and online activities by terrorists. But these would be better dealt with by simpler legislation and more resources for law enforcement.

However, some of the harms the White Paper describes are vague, such as “unacceptable content” and “disinformation”. These are not fixed but would be determined by a future regulator. This will lead to sweeping censorship. Online Harms does not even properly define “harm”, so the definition risks being outsourced to activists and lobby groups.

A proposed new regulator will even have the power to censor lawful content: the government says new regulation should prohibit material “that may directly or indirectly cause harm” even if “not necessarily illegal”. The Government also singled out “offensive material”, as if giving offence is a harm the public should be protected from by the state.

The proposals move the UK towards the internet laws of China, Russia and Belarus

The Government’s proposals are partly inspired by Germany’s 2017 “NetzDG” internet law, but Human Rights Watch has called for Germany to scrap the law, saying it “turns internet companies into censors”. President Lukashenko of Belarus, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party and the Venezuelan government have cited NetzDG as the model for their online laws.

Our government’s plans also bear a worrying similarity to Beijing’s internet censorship policies. Beijing censors “rumours” because they cause “social harms”. Our government’s proposals describe “disinformation” as “harmful”, and will make “content which has been disputed by reputable fact-checking services less visible to users”, forcing companies to promote “authoritative news sources”. This contradicts our government’s claim that “the regulator will not be responsible for policing truth and accuracy online”.

While the authors of the White Paper believe their proposals will mean more “tolerance” and less “hate”, they will likely have the opposite effect, as people respond angrily to censorship and conspiracy theorists enjoy the cachet of being banned by the state.

In this briefing we outline the Government’s Online Harms plans and explain why they are a danger to freedom of speech. Later this year, the Free Speech Union will propose alternative regulation to protect the vulnerable without jeopardising free speech.

FSU research papers are designed to promote discussion of free speech issues. As with all FSU publications, the views expressed are those of the author(s) and not those of the FSU, its directors, Advisory Councils or other senior staff.

Full Briefing