What Sunak’s speech means for digital rights

On Friday 1 March 2024, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made a statement about extremism outside Downing Street. This was followed by media reports over the weekend about how some of the vague proposals mentioned by Sunak would be delivered. Here are ORG’s key concerns about how digital rights and freedom of expression could be impacted by the government’s plans.

Re-defining extremism

The Prime Minister said that a ‘robust new framework’ for dealing with extremism will be put in place this month. This announcement was followed by media reports that the definition of ‘extremism’ will be expanded to include those who undermine Britain’s institutions and values.

We are concerned this will impact on people’s online right to free expression, and some members of the government share these worries.

There have been previous attempts to redefine extremism in the UK over the years and we need to ensure that any new definitions do not undermine freedom of expression. With some politicians and parts of the media calling pro-Palestine protests ‘hate marches’, we need to make sure that any definitions of extremism do not conflate support for Palestine as necessarily antisemitic or supportive of Hamas.

The Prime Minister put the onus on pro-Palestine supporters to not “let the extremists hijack your marches. You have a chance in the coming weeks to show that you can protest decently, peacefully and with empathy for your fellow citizens”.  This is despite the fact that pro-Palestine protests throughout the country have been peaceful with only small numbers of arrests despite the number of people attending.

However, his criticisms of extremism did not extend to comments that many would find questionable from members of his own political party. Former Home Secretary, Suella Braverman MP still retains the Conservative whip despite questioning the integrity of the police in a Times oped, which claimed the police were more favourable in their treatment of pro-Palestine protestors than far right ones. Braverman was subsequently accused of inciting violence by far right extremists at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day. Sunak also has not criticized former Prime Minister Liz Truss who sat silently at an event while far right strategist Steve Bannon praised far right leader Tommy Robinson as a “hero”. And while Lee Anderson had the Whip removed after saying that London Mayor Sadiq Khan is controlled by Islamists, the Prime Minister refused to condemn these comments as Islamophobic.

If free speech is to flourish then people on both sides of the political divide must be allowed to express themselves within the constraints of the law. To claim some people’s views are extremist, while turning a blind eye to other arguably extreme views creates a double-standard.


The Prime Minister stated: “We will redouble our support for the Prevent programme to stop young minds being poisoned by extremism. “

As many human rights organisations have pointed out, Prevent is a flawed counter-terrrorism programme that undermines the right to be presumed innocent that underpins our criminal justice system. Last year, over 85% of people referred to Prevent did not meet the criteria for a Channel intervention (the government’s anti-radicalisation programme). In previous years, these figures have been as high as 95%. But as ORG highlighted in our recent report, these people’s data is still retained for at least six years and up to 100 years. And there are particular harms for children, who make up most of Prevent referees. Overall, the oversight of Prevent data retention decisions seem to be wholly internal, and it is very difficult for people to access their records and exercise their right to request data is removed.

Prevent and the pre-crime state

ORG’s report into how unaccountable data sharing is harming a generation.

Read now

By redoubling support for Prevent, we can expect that more people will be wrongly referred to Prevent on the basis of the subjective impressions of teachers, social workers, doctors and others. However, these public officials are not trained in counterterrorism, and are being put under pressure to refer people often because of a lack of other safeguarding support. Young people in particular need to be able to learn about and discuss challenging political situations without fear of surveillance and being referred to a programme that could harm their educational and life opportunities.

Ban on MPs engaging with campaigners

It has also been reported that the government is drawing up proposals to prevent MPs and councillors from engaging with groups that use disruptive tactics. The Guardian has reported that this could include groups like Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. This would be a serious threat to both the right to protest and democratic engagement in the UK.

Migrants’ rights

On Friday, Sunak said: “The Home Secretary has instructed that if those here on visas choose to spew hate on protests or seek to intimidate people, we will remove their right to be here.”

There needs to be clarity about whether there would be an independent legal process to determine whether someone had actually committed a crime prior to having their visa removed.

Migrants have the same rights to protest and to freedom of expression as everyone else in the UK. By extending these rights to migrants to everyone here in the UK we demonstrate our values and commitment to Human Rights. These vague proposals may lead to people being deported without due process or feeling compelled to self censor their opinions and actions through fear that public officials are trawling through social media and taking comments out of context.

ORG has for nearly two decades campaigned to ensure that digital surveillance and privacy are properly protected. As we have argued, it is those who are least able to defend themselves who are first attacked by these inherently discriminatory systems.

It will not be any kind of surprise that migrants and racialised communities are first to be targeted by this government, but the viciousness of Sunak’s policies is exactly why we need to stand with those he wishes to victimise.