If you care about free speech, the just-published report of the Joint Committee on the Online Safety Bill – a cross-party parliamentary committee composed of six MPs and six peers – is a mixed bag. This is the Bill which began life as a White Paper under Theresa May. Its aim? To make the UK the safest place in the world to go online. It will achieve this by subjecting social media platforms and internet search engines to state regulation, empowering Ofcom to impose swingeing fines on companies that fail to observe a new ‘duty of care’.
Let’s start with the good news. The Joint Committee recommends that the current protections in the Bill for journalistic content and ‘content of democratic importance’ should be replaced by protections for ‘content where there are reasonable grounds to believe it will be in the public interest’. This is much wider, and should give greater protection to ordinary users, not just journalists and politicians.
The report also proposes the creation of a new ombudsman that, among other things, would serve as a final court of appeal for people who feel aggrieved that they’ve had content removed by Twitter or Facebook, or been permanently banned. On the other hand, if it’s because they’ve been posting ‘misinformation’ about the Covid vaccines they’re unlikely to get very far. The Committee chastises social media companies for not doing enough to clamp down in this area. Yet given that Twitter’s latest ‘Covid-19 misleading information policy’, applies to those who share ‘false or misleading claims’ that ‘people who have received the vaccine can spread or shed the virus…to unvaccinated people’ this is cause for concern.
Perhaps the most eye-catching bit of good news is the section on online anonymity.