MICK HUME: Online Harms Bill could lead us to state censorship

MICK HUME: Why the well-intentioned Online Harms Bill could lead us into a new era of sinister state censorship

As the old proverb says, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Those words certainly apply to the Online Safety Bill, a sweeping measure that, in the name of public safety, could actually herald a new era of sinister state censorship.

Freedom of speech is already under grave threat in this country, and this proposal could represent a hammer blow to its battered existence.

Of course, the impetus behind this Bill – which ministers will elaborate on today – could not be more noble.

Its purpose is to protect web users, particularly the vulnerable, from online content that may promote self-harm or even suicide.

The dangerous impact of such material was highlighted in 2017 by the tragic case of 14-year-old schoolgirl Molly Russell, who killed herself after viewing distressing content on her Instagram account.

The Online Harms Bill could protect web users, particularly the vulnerable, from online content. It follows the death of 14-year-old schoolgirl Molly Russell, who killed herself after viewing distressing content on her Instagram account. But new laws could usher in a new era of sinister state censorship

Under the planned legislation, virtually any company which hosts user-generated content, including global tech giants like Facebook and Twitter, will be handed a duty of care to safeguard their users.

In effect, self-harm content will be treated in the same way as other illegal material, such as child pornography or terrorist activity, with host websites being subjected to massive fines of up to ten per cent of their turnover, or even being closed.

Justified by a moral imperative, the Bill undoubtedly sounds like an advance for civilisation. Nobody with a shred of decency wishes to see horrific images of torture, murder, sexual exploitation, or self-harm plastered across the internet.

Internet companies do not have the resources to scroll through everything that appears on their platforms users post, so they instead rely on automated algorithms to weed out suspect items

But a problem still arises with the practicalities of the new law, particularly the scope it gives to a punitive new system of regulation.

For while the Government has said that news websites themselves will be exempt from the law, I fear that the attempt to make online behemoths put their house in order could still end up stifling free expression in a way that prevails in totalitarian regimes.

This is because around 55 percent of readers reach news articles online after being directed to them through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter or search engines like Google – sites which will not(itals) be exempt from the law.

It’s a simple fact these internet companies do not have the resources to scroll through everything that appears on their platforms, so they instead rely on automated algorithms to weed out suspect items.

But these algorithms are blunt instruments. 

They cannot, for example, always distinguish between an article from a mainstream news organisation discussing the problems of terrorism, and one from Islamist radicals promoting terrorism.

Therefore, in order to be safe and avoid fines from the regulator, the internet companies concerned will ensure the algorithm excludes both.

As a result, whether its MailOnline or The Guardian’s website, online news outlets could ultimately find their stories blacklisted.

The government says there will be ‘robust protections’ to prevent this happening – but we haven’t been told what they will be.

As so often with attempts to police speech, this latest move merely amounts to censorship by the back door.

I suspect there will also be inevitable mission creep, where the official definition of ‘harm’ keeps being widened to encompass anything that the state deems unacceptable.

Social media giants could be fined £18million, or 10 per cent of their global turnover, if they fail to protect their users from harm, under new laws set to come into place next year 

The lesson of history is that if the censors are given an inch they will take a mile. 

Only last month, in the US Presidential Election, Silicon Valley’s right-on tech giants banded together to suppress a major story published by the New York Post involving the murky financial activities of Joe Biden’s son Hunter, on the grounds that it was ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation’.

Are American web giants now going to be allowed to decide what news we in Briton should and should not be allowed to read online? It would be an outrageous infringement of our liberties – yet if this bill becomes law, I have no doubt that would be the result.

This country’s proud history of free speech is already on the wane. 

We must not let our politicians do away with it for good.

Mick Hume is the author of Trigger Warning: Is the fear of being offensive killing free speech? (William Collins)

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