MPs try to ban ‘harmful’ words from the Internet in a new free speech row as critics argue new laws will ‘seriously threaten freedom and democracy’
- Ministers’ plans to force blanket regulation will not work, says think-tank report
- Regulations on online companies and websites will ‘seriously threaten privacy’
- The Conservative Government published its White Paper on the subject last year
- Preparing to introduce an Online Harms Bill to create a new category of speech
New laws to ban ‘harmful’ words from the internet are unworkable and will ‘stifle’ freedom of speech, an influential report has found.
Ministers’ plans to force blanket regulation on online companies and websites to protect people will not work, according to a new report by think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies.
Instead they will ‘seriously threaten freedom, privacy, competitiveness and the UK’s reputation for democratic accountability’, the report said.
The Government published its White Paper on the subject last year and is preparing to introduce a new Online Harms Bill.
The report has raised concerns about plans to create a new category of speech that is ‘legal but harmful’. This could mean an article that is deemed to be offensive but not illegal, which is then shared on social media, could be taken down.
Ministers’ plans to force blanket regulation on online companies and websites to protect people will not work, according to a new report by think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies (file image)
Ruth Smeeth, the former Labour MP and chief executive of Index for Censorship, said: ‘We all recognise that there is a problem with online hate but you simply can’t legislate for cultural change.
‘We need nuance, we need consistency, we need education and, most importantly, we need a serious debate about our digital lives. We cannot have a situation that legislates for “legal but harmful” speech – this would be a clear attack on our rights to free speech and expression.’
A ‘clear distinction’ must be made between speech that is illegal and speech that is legal but ‘harmful’, the report said.
It warns of a ‘culture of overcautiousness’ which could ultimately ‘erode important checks against creeping censorship’.
The Government has insisted its regulation is not designed to force online companies to remove legal content viewed by adults.
However, the report, which was part-funded by the Coalition for a Digital Economy, warned that more targeted regulation is needed instead of sweeping ‘duty of care’ plans.
A ‘tough’ new regulator should be set up, under the oversight of Ofcom, the communications regulator, and should have separate functions for dealing with illegal and legal content, it added.
Ruth Smeeth (pictured with Labour leader Keir Starmer on September 22), the former Labour MP and chief executive of Index for Censorship, said: ‘We all recognise that there is a problem with online hate but you simply can’t legislate for cultural change’
Ofcom should only be allowed to take enforcement action where an online platform has ‘consistently failed to act on egregious content’.
‘The guiding principle should be that it is for Parliament to determine what is sufficiently harmful to be criminalised, not for Ofcom or individual platforms to guess,’ the report said.
The think-tank also called for a beefed-up police response to tackle the most serious online harms and better enforcement of existing laws banning terrorist and child sexual abuse content.
The proposals will ‘not make us safer’, it argues, while punishing small businesses which will not be able to afford the costs of compliance.
Caroline Elsom, senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies and author of the report, said: ‘It is encouraging to see the Government making a genuine attempt to grapple with the multitude of conflicting rights and principles that govern individual and companies’ behaviour online.
‘But getting the balance right between protecting people from harm and upholding the right to freedom of expression and privacy is a delicate line to tread.’
A Government spokesman said: ‘We have set out plans for proportionate regulation which prioritises the protection of children, whilst safeguarding people’s rights and ensuring we maintain a free and open internet.’