The National Archives reported on May 13 that on Wednesday the British government introduced the Online Safety Bill into the House of Commons to censor legitimate speech and block websites that do not comply. The bill was described as a “terrible and historic attack” on free speech.
The bill imposes an “obligation” on websites to ensure that “clearly lawful speech” with “adverse psychological effects” is countered. This means that there will be a wide range of criteria for what speech is acceptable online and offline, and that the UK government will put the onus of the decision first on big tech companies.
The bill states that if a site is deemed by Ofcom to have failed to stop “legitimate speech” that is not in compliance, including “fake news” as required by the bill, the site could be fined up to £18 million or even shut down altogether.
The bill does add some protections for online speech, but only for “journalists,” including “citizen journalists.
Matthew Lesh of the Adam Smith Institute said the bill represented a “terrible and historic attack” on free speech.
Mark Johnson, legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch, said, “The Online Security Act introduces state-sponsored censorship and surveillance on a scale never before seen in a liberal democracy.”
He added, “This bill is disastrous for privacy and free expression online. The government is suppressing vague categories of legitimate speech, which can easily lead to the silencing of marginalized voices and unpopular views. Congress should remove legitimate content from the scope of this bill entirely and refocus on real policing, not speech policing.”
All websites around the world, regardless of where they are hosted, will be affected by this legislation if British citizens have access to them. Andrew Torba, chief executive of pro-free speech platform Gab, said the bill would “destroy free speech online in the UK” and that he would refuse to pay any fines imposed on him by the British government.
Torba said, “If the British government blocks access to Gab, we will allow millions of British Internet users to use VPNs, just like the dissidents in China (Communist).”