New ‘online harm’ legislation is a threat to free speech

There is a problem online and it is causing real harm, but banning language rather than engaging in education sounds like a political fix rather than an actual solution

Ruth Smeeth
Monday 28 September 2020 12:29 BST
Health secretary Matt Hancock: 'we must legislate' social media companies

I have definitely experienced more than my fair share of hate speech.  Even in the last week, if you look at my social media mentions you’ll find more than a couple of vile racist and misogynist comments. I have lived the reality of banter becoming abuse and then threat, and I know the consequences – both physical and emotional - of online hate. So I’m not questioning that there is a problem with online abuse. But, there is always a but, the question is what can and should we do about it?  

The government is proposing new “online harms” legislation as a panacea for all that is wrong with the internet, but as ever with good intentions, there are significant unintended consequences, most notably the undermining of our core human right to free speech.    

At a basic level, much that we worry about happening online, such as child grooming and exploitation are already illegal. We just need to better enforce current law. So the fundamental question for the government is what are they trying to fix? Is it the end of trolling online? Of hate speech? Of bullying?

If that’s the case, then as a former politician I worry about the concept of legislating for cultural change. There is absolutely a problem online and it is causing real harm, but banning language rather than engaging in education programmes screams as a political fix rather than an actual solution.

These proposals are also flawed in a range of areas and will either over sanction or underwhelm and not actually deliver the positive digital citizenship we need. They introduce a new concept into law – “legal but harmful” for online speech. It’s conflating what is already illegal, such as incitement and threat, with speech which we may disagree with, but in a free society is, and should be, legal. Most worrying is that this legislation would establish a two-tier legal system for abuse, with your comments online being much more heavily regulated than what we get up to offline.

The proposals also seek to make social media companies follow new codes of conduct, which is fine, but unless they are explicit they may well lead to the outsourcing of determining acceptable speech to private companies. Combined with the threat of heavy fines for individual company directors this may well create the perfect storm for online censorship, because why would the companies stand up for free speech if they will be fined for doing so?  

This is why I’m supportive of the proposals made by the Centre for Policy Studies in a report launched today to clearly separate illegal content from content which may be distasteful or offensive, but which in a free society should be tolerated. The report clearly states that the police should be given the resources they need to prosecute deeply harmful illegal content online, but also starts a debate on how we can avoid a dangerous chilling effect on freedom of expression for speech which is, and should remain, completely legal.  

At a time when Covid-19 has hastened our dependence on the digital world, the proposals - which were put forward by the government when Theresa May was prime minister - don’t work. The majority of us are now dependent on online platforms every day either for work or to keep in contact with our extended family and friends who we simply can’t see. So a framework for our online lives is important to each and every one of us, which is why we should be wary of government overreach. That’s what this legislation could well be.  

As a country we need a national conversation about how we should treat each other online and offline, and where the boundaries should be. That isn’t what we’re going to get with this legislation, rather we’re going to see a political fix and a series of algorithms determining what we can and can’t say on the internet.

Ruth Smeeth is the CEO of Index on Censorship. Ruth was a Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North from 2015 until 2019. Prior to that she was deputy director of anti-racist organisation, Hope not Hate.

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