The Christian Institute is warning MPs that the Government’s Online Safety Bill needs sweeping amendments to stop it tramples on free speech.
The bill will require social media companies and search engines to restrict “legal but harmful” adult content. It will empower government ministers to decide what it covers.
Ahead of the first debate on the bill next week, the Institute issued a briefing to MPs welcoming protections for children and action against illegal content, but explaining that restrictions on content deemed “legal but harmful” are wide open to abuse.
“Freedom of expression will lose”
Outlining some of the problems with the bill, the Institute explained that there is currently no clarity as to what legal content would be considered “harmful”. It will eventually be introduced in secondary legislation, but that means Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and her successors will be able to amend it with little parliamentary scrutiny.
The briefing also warned that tech companies, which could be fined up to 10% of their annual global revenue if they fail to meet their new obligations, are likely to censor “far more than necessary”. .
He pointed out that “Silicon Valley billionaires have already shown themselves to be very willing to eliminate opinions with which they personally disagree”, and that rather than help the situation, the new bill “will put repressive tendencies companies on steroids”.
The bill will also make Ofcom “the most powerful internet regulator in the West”. The briefing noted that, given the track record of Ofcom and its predecessors in censoring Christian broadcasts, “free speech will be the loser”.
Simon Calvert, the Institute’s Deputy Director of Public Affairs, said: “The Online Safety Bill addresses important issues, but puts free speech at risk.
“Yes, Big Tech companies need to take more responsibility for the content of their platforms. But the government’s approach is incredibly dangerous. He will hand over the guns to government ministers to silence viewpoints they disagree with and put heavy commercial pressure on Big Tech executives to do the same.
“This risks the most draconian censorship of ideas on the internet in the Western world. The Bill needs much stronger protections for free speech, with fewer powers given to the Secretary of State and Ofcom.
“Freedom of expression is under attack today. Many activists believe that “you can say whatever we want”! The only opinions they want in the public arena are their own. While well-meaning, this online safety bill will hand the guns to these thin-skinned activists to silence their opponents.
“Big Tech’s Worst Instincts”
Mr. Calvert continued: “This vague notion of restricting content deemed ‘legal but harmful to adults’ will encourage Big Tech’s worst instincts. Most of Silicon Valley shares a very clear social and political agenda. They are already promoting ideas they like and devaluing those they don’t.
“This bill will make it even worse. It actually encourages activists to complain to social media companies about views they don’t like.
He concluded: “Prevailing Christian beliefs are already cynically attacked as ‘harmful’ by activists determined to silence them. The government should stand up to these bullies, not give them a stick to beat us with.
“Free speech in the UK should not be decided by leaders in Silicon Valley. And government ministers should not be able to pass speech censoring laws without parliament having the opportunity to amend them.
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