Online Safety made dangerous

From the government press release, and without seeing the text of the Bill, there are already things we can say about the Online Safety Bill. It is a festival of inane, poorly thought out and dangerous ideas. Longer term, it will be fuel for the Putins and other authoritarians, who revel in the prospect of identifying everyone and deciding for themselves what is right and wrong, and will be very pleased that the UK government is taking essentially the same approach.

Sweeping ministerial powers

Deciding what is ‘legal but harmful’ has proved impossible, so the Bill’s answer is to allow ministers to decide. They have however conceded that this should be rubber stamped by Parliament. This means that the boundaries of online censorship will be politically driven, rather than defined by laws governed by human rights.

It will also undermine the ‘independence’ of the new Official Internet Censor, Ofcom, who will be told what needs removing by their political masters.

Backdoor Press regulation

Because there are exemptions to allow the press to say vile but lawful things which the rest of us cannot, Ofcom must determine who the press are. In practice this will mean that, for instance, a publisher can show they are a member of a press body, such as a regulator. Thereby the state will now regulate who is allowed to be the media, at least in order to avoid online censorship. The press do not seem to have realised that they have conceded something they have campaigned against for decades.

It is also extremely hard to see how the distinction between the uncensorable press and the rest of us will be maintained in practice, without making press posts and online comments attached to them a haven for the worst kinds of social media comments and behaviour.

Jail for executives, fines for non-compliance

Placing people in jail for failures to abide by regulatory duties to remove legal content ought to appear extreme and dangerous. Yet it is being touted as a central policy.

Powers to fine and block non-compliant services are also difficult to understand, when applied to the many smaller, overseas companies that allow UK users to register.

Last minute bad ideas to curb anonymity

A few weeks ago, the government added a pledge to force social media companies to allow people to verify their identity, and then decide whether to exclude unverified accounts from interaction. This will create a two tier social media system, with safe but anonymous users being treated like abusers (or ‘trolls’).

There is no significant link between trolling and anonymity; indeed during the spate of racist football abuse last year, nearly all of the trolls were entirely identifiable. Abusers are generally entitled and do not see their behaviour as unjustified, making no effort to hide who they are.

On the other hand, victims of abuse, bullying and harassment often do maintain anonymity to avoid being identified and suffering real world harm. This is a policy that will punish the victims rather than the abusers.

Proven failures on Age Verification brought back

Age Verification for purely pornographic websites may be a reasonable goal, but the government proposes implementing this for any website with adult content available. Currently this includes sites like Reddit, Google Search, and Twitter. Such sites would at a minimum need to accurately segregate adult content (not easy in practice) or age verify customers in the UK – while not placing the same requirements for customers elsewhere.

Such sites could then face fines or requests to block their service in the UK. In practice, this could lead to some smaller sites deciding opting out of serving UK users in order to avoid compliance issues.

For adult websites, age verification needs a great deal more regulatory action than purely relying on data protection to retrospectively enforce against widespread data breaches. And we should remember that the government plans to make data protection largely meaningless and unenforceable.

Likewise, customers need to choose AV tools, not porn providers. Unless laws enforce interoperability, we have a danger of this policy creating a gold and a data mine for the porn industry.

The failure to provide specific privacy protections and customer choice led to the last attempt collapsing.

Bans on encryption

Last year, the government widened the scope of the Bill to include Instant Messaging, in order to try to ban new encrypted messaging products, or limit them through ‘Technology Notices’.

Tackling the business model

Many groups are criticising the Bill for failing to tackle the business model, which promotes unpleasant and provocative content over other kinds of material. However, business models cannot be changed simply through content or ‘safety’ regulation; this is a very poor way to address problems of platform power and monopoly, as it leaves the basic drivers of data silos and monop-oly power in place.

Rather, in order to place the user in the driving seat, so they can push the kinds of user experience they desire, this has to be addressed through data protection and competition policy, something we note is being handled in a very dangerous way.

We urge critics of the Bill, such as the signatories to the Demos letter, to work with ORG on these aspects of platform regulation. We can get much better results by showing how the Bill will fail to meet its objectives by advocating for better competition and data protection enforcement.

Cementing or reducing monoply power

The bill as a whole may deter smaller operators from entering the UK market. It will make it harder for government to envisage the idea of competition, as they will feel that the ‘regulated’ market should not be undermined by smaller actors with fewer duties. We have a very serious but undiscussed choice to make; the default is more Facebook and more monopoly, more power to Silicon valley executives, if the Bill has the intended regulatory effect. For those groups and MPs really concerned about Platform Power, we need to understand that this Bill is a strategic threat, not an opportunity.

[This blog has been edited to reflect the fact than attacks on encryption are very much present in the Bill, despite the government press release]