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UK’s risible “Online Safety Bill” kicked into the long grass

The UK’s “draconian, censorious, suffocating” Online Safety Bill has been dropped from government discussion this week owing to what a spokesperson told the BBC were “timetable pressures”.

A flurry of late amendments to the controversial bill were due to be discussed this week with the bill then expected to clear the Commons later this month before proceeding to the House of Lords.

The bill as it stands is deeply illiberal, criminalising (Section 151) any online “message” that causes “harm” described as “amounting to at least serious distress” — shitposters, off to prison, the lot of you.

May 2022 analysis by Matrix Chambers’ of the bill had concluded that “the Bill, if enacted, will result in many violations of the right of freedom of expression of internet users under under ECHR Article 10” with the law firm’s Gavin Millar QC concluding that “far from the claim of the Culture Secretary that the Bill will protect free speech it actively undermines existing legal protections in an unprecedented manner.”

In a “critical review of the Online Safety Bill” academic Markus Trengove et al had added on June 24, 2022 that the proposed legislation would “place costly positive duties on entrepreneurs that limit their free enjoyment of their property (not to mention downstream effects on their competitiveness)…”

But will nobody think of the children?

It has also been criticised — despite the good intentions of reducing harm to children — for imposing requirements including risk assessments on pretty much anyone who has a URL that could be typed by a child and a host of administrative compliance obligations to Ofcom that would be deeply onerous for SMEs.

Those in the technology sector hopeful it will die a quiet death in the long grass can expect little help from the main opposition. Labour’s shadow minister for digital and media (DCMS) described the delay as “an absolutely devastating blow & another example of the Tories prioritising their own ideals over people’s safety…

She added on Twitter: “By dropping this Bill you’re endangering children, making it easier for terrorists to plot, and enabling bad state actors to interfere with the security and governance of the UK…”

The NSPCC’s Andy Burrows said that the delay meant families would “continue to pay the price for the failure and inaction of tech firms who have allowed harm to fester rather than get their house in order”.

Not everyone was wringing their hands.

Heather Burns, Head of Policy & Governance, Maidsafe one trenchant critic, said: “This Bill was a shower of elitism, grandstanding, willful technical ignorance, and blatant incompetence throughout. None of the people who devised or defended this Bill should ever be allowed to go near any form of tech policy again.”

Lawyers at Pinsent and Masons had earlier noted of the bill that ” there is a sense that the government has tried to tackle so much that it must inevitably postpone engaging with much of the detail until after the Bill becomes law… it is unclear from reviewing the Bill how that [it targets online content systems and content] will work in practice” while Matrix Chambers had added “the Government is still not able to define terms at the heart of the legislation such as ‘legal but harmful’ or give the as many as 180,000 technology companies big and small who will implement this new legal framework clear guidance on how this landmark legislation should operate…”

It remains unclear whether the future Prime Minister, as elected by 200,000 Conservative Party members over the summer, will revive the bill in its current draft form, indeed at all. Watch this space.

SItting on the fence about the delayed draft Online Safety bill? Read it here [pdf].

See also: Defence, industry, academics maul HMG over chip sector failings

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Ed Targett

Ed Targett is the founder of The Stack. He has served as editor of Tech Monitor, Computer Business Review, and Roubini Global Economics. He has 15 years of experience in newsrooms and consultancies. His interests span technology, foreign policy, and sustainability.

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