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June 06, 2013

Civil society groups express concern to Culture Secretary about online content restrictions

ORG, Index on Censorship, English PEN and Big Brother Watch have written to the Culture Secretary this morning, setting out concerns about possible new measures to deal with illegal or extreme content online.


Dear Secretary of State,

We are writing to you regarding news that you have summoned internet companies to a meeting about how they deal with illegal or extreme content online.

As representatives of civil society groups focused on freedoms in the digital age, we are very concerned about changes to the law or industry practices that involve restrictions on access to information online. The powers to make decisions about what people are allowed to see and do on the Internet are significant and must be treated with extreme care. There are particular problems when governments expect or require companies to police online content.

An understandable desire to ensure a 'safer' environment online can easily lead to overreaching or unaccountable powers or practices. Through mistakes or abuse these can quickly lead to restrictions on far too much content and undue infringements of people's privacy. For example, mobile networks' Internet filtering in the UK routinely over blocks the websites of shops, political blogs or community sites. In Australia, it has emerged that 250,000 websites were accidentally blocked when a government agency tried to take down sites allegedly involved with fraud. The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue highlighted his grave concerns about these problems in his 2011 report. 

Poorly implemented fixes will not only inhibit freedoms in the UK. They will also set a very damaging precedent internationally, providing more cover for States whose interests in restricting access to information online or the surveillance of citizens is more sinister. This was emphasised by the Foreign Secretary William Hague at the London Cyberspace Conference in 2011.

As representatives of leading UK civil society groups, we would therefore request that we are present at the forthcoming summit to ensure these concerns are addressed.


Yours sincerely,

Jo Glanville, Director, English PEN
Kirsty Hughes, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship
Jim Killock, Executive Director, Open Rights Group
Nick Pickles, Executive Director, Big Brother Watch