Is government preparing to censor discussions about migration?

Over the weekend, you may have seen news reports discussing how Home Secretary Priti Patel has ordered social media companies to remove posts which “glamourise” dangerous migrant crossings from Europe. To many observers, it seemed like a yet another desperate attempt by a politician to scapegoat platforms for all the world’s ills. For us, however, it was a harbinger of how upcoming content moderation laws can, and will be, used by politicians to silence conversations which they don’t want you to hear. Legal migration is at the top of their list.

Politicising the limits of free speech

Under the upcoming Online Safety Bill, service providers will be required to limit the reach of or remove content, including user-generated content, which qualifies as legal and permissible speech but which could be considered subjectively “harmful” to adults or to children. The rules of what is or is not permissible, and what is or is not “harmful”, will be drafted by Ofcom, the online safety regulator. Ofcom’s Chairman, of course, is a political appointment, meaning they are an independent regulator in name only. Thus from day one of the online safety regime, Ofcom’s remit will be to do what government tells it to do.

The draft Bill grants the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport with the powers to make unilateral decisions, at any time he or she pleases, as to what forms of legal but subjectively harmful content must be brought into the scope of the Bill’s content moderation requirements. Incredibly, the Bill will allow them to make those decisions for political reasons. It will also empower them to direct Ofcom to order companies to enforce those modified content moderation rules, immediately, with only token Parliamentary oversight.

That route to politicised content moderation and censorship will, at least, have a legally defined and transparent process. What the Home Secretary is clearly testing out, by contrast, is her ability to demand the silencing of legal discussions around a legal topic on the grounds of the national interest, and to order platforms to remove that content completely outside a regulatory process.

Is this silencing legal speech?

The Home Secretary’s demands for platforms to remove posts which “glamourise” lethal Channel crossings comes as it was revealed that the number of migrants attempting the journey has doubled this year. It also follows the Home Secretary’s vow to crack down on people smugglers, which she laid out in the Government’s New Plan for Immigration. The Plan, for what it’s worth, was widely criticised, with academics pointing out that it was “completely unfounded in any body of research evidence”. So it’s hardly any surprise that the Home Secretary is taking the strategy to social media.

To be clear, people smuggling is already illegal, and platforms should remove content from people smugglers advertising their services. That is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the Home Secretary appearing to decide that legal discussions of legal migration, full stop, must be censored from the web, and that the mere discussion of the topic is “glamourising” it. But framing this crisis as one which social media companies are perpetuating focuses on the wrong part of the problem. 

Migrants’ rights groups have long campaigned the Government to expand safe and legal routes for asylum seekers, as a means of cutting dangerous Channel crossings. But rather than rethinking a policy which has encouraged people who are already in vulnerable situations to take routes that endanger their lives, the Government has chosen to shift the blame onto social media companies. As long as the Government continues in its approach to Channel crossings, people will continue to undertake this perilous journey, and be at risk of abuse and exploitation from people smugglers, regardless of whether or not platforms follow the demand to censor that content.

One wonders where this would logically end. Would platforms be required to remove content from charities like the Red Cross which provide emergency medical help to asylum seekers, including children? Would the unforgettable images of children who have not survived the journey be banned for being subjectively harmful, despite being journalistic content? Would an order go out to social media companies to delete the accounts of charities and civil society groups working in the migration sector – including Open Rights Group – for discussing and thereby “glamourising” the issue?

A legal route to political censorship

Now let’s return to the draft Online Safety Bill. It includes provisions establishing what are called “business disruption measures”. These can be used to compel service providers to stop providing essential technical support, such as payment gateways and infrastructure, to a site or service; they can be used to compel a service to be blocked at ISP and app store level; and they can be used to compel a service to be blocked from the United Kingdom altogether.

There are many qualifications before a business disruption measure can be issued, many of which will involve both the regulator and the courts. But there are provisions within the draft Bill which would allow these measures to be handed down, with neither a regulatory process nor an advance warning, if “the circumstances of the failure or the risks of harm to individuals in the United Kingdom are such” that government deems it necessary. That means issues of national security or the national interest, which are largely the Home Secretary’s choice to decide.

Thus the stage is being set for government to not only order the censorship of legal discussions on legal topics for political reasons, but to order the restrictions or even the blocking of the service providers and platforms where those discussions live. After all, what better way to silence a politically uncomfortable conversation than cutting off access to the platform? Blocking platforms from the UK, after all, is the stated goal of many of the Bill’s supporters.

And after the weekend’s news stories, it’s clear that rather than waiting for the Bill to enter the Committee process, much less become law, the Home Secretary is acting as if the online safety regime is already here, and that she has the power and authority to order platforms to censor the legal content she wants censored. The business disruption measures afforded to her within the Online Safety Bill will, no doubt, be the next hint she drops to platforms and service providers who continue to “glamourise” the topic.

The Online Safety Bill represents a huge shift of power and control from ourselves, and what we can choose to say, to politicians, who will decide what we can say. This is being done under the usual guises: keeping people “safe” online, reining in the power of tech giants, and making platforms more accountable: all points we very much agree with. But placing vast powers over our legally permissible political discussions, no matter how controversial, is not how this Bill has been sold. And government’s intentions to gain control over our legal and permissible speech, for political reasons, has taken literally just days to be exposed.

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