New UK internet law raises free speech concerns, say civil liberties campaigners

Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty ImagesClick play to hear this article from Amazon PollyLONDON The proposed new law for the internet in Britain is a power grab that could have serious implications for freedom speech according to academics and civil liberties groups.These groups are concerned that the proposed Online Safety Bill would give Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden unjustified powers to protect users from "harmful content".The Bill allows him to "modify" the code of practice that Ofcom created for tech companies to protect users.Critics claim such powers, which were included in a May draft of the proposed law and are due for immediate scrutiny by MPs, peers and other stakeholders, could compromise the independence of the regulator and possibly politicize regulation of the internet.Heather Burns, policy manager at Open Rights Group, stated that the notion that a political appointee would have the unilateral power of altering the legal boundaries for free speech based upon political whims makes it seem cold.Although the draft bill has not yet been passed through parliament, it will be reviewed line-by-line. It will then be brought back to parliament in the latter part of the year. The U.K. government is currently finalizing the composition of the pre-legislative panel.Concerns have been raised by even the Carnegie Trust, a public policy think-tank whose research on a "duty to care" model for regulating the internet has influenced early versions of the government’s legislation."To meet the U.K.'s international commitments regarding free speech," it responded to the bill. "There should be a separation between the executive and a communication regulator."It said that OFCOMs independence could be undermined if they have the power to amend a code to reflect government policy. "Removal is desirable in our opinion and would reaffirm regulatory independence."Industry fearsLorna Woods is a professor of internet law at the University of Essex who was involved in the research and response to Carnegie Trust. She said: "The secretary of State's ability to give Ofcom directions to bring Ofcom in line with government policy makes it a little troubling as to under what circumstances that secretary of state could do that and what level of detail is expected." This is slightly alarming.She said that it is possible to be concerned about how this works because Ofcom could be directed by a government to emphasize certain points that aren't politically neutral.Antony Walker, the Deputy Chief Executive at Tech UK, a trade organization with around 800 members from the tech industry, acknowledged that some of the powers contained in the bill seemed to go beyond what would be considered normal.He stated that an independent regulator was a positive thing in a sector well-regulated in a democratic society.He said that commercial companies need to know what compliance requirements are for their business. "If they are always looking over their shoulders, I believe that can have significant commercial consequences and also undermine confidence in the legislation."Ben Greenstone, a former principal adviser to the minister responsible for online harms, is now the managing director of Taso Advisory. A tech lobbying company, he said: The draft Online Safety Bill grants the secretary of state digital a remarkable and unprecedented power to direct an independent regulator. This creates serious uncertainty for businesses: rules can be changed based on one politician's whims.The clause's opponents also worry that the regulator could be politicized.It is clear that Ofcom's leadership, which will also be a political nomination, will be an independent regulator. They will carry out the political bidding for DCMS [the Department for Culture Media and Sport] and will do as they are told. Burns, from the Open Rights Group, said that these moves will be portrayed as being in the national interests or as matters national security.Mark Johnson, a Big Brother Watch legal and policy officer, stated that any restrictions to our right of free speech must comply with U.K. law, which was determined through a full legislative process. "Not on ministerial fancy."He said, "Giving such discretion government ministers means that this legislation will hand over enormous amounts of power to state," and "opens up this flawed system for regulation to politicization."A spokesperson for DCMS responded to POLITICO's request for comment. "Our world-leading laws will place strict and robust duties on In-scope companies and Ofcom in order to uphold and defend peoples freedom of speech and ensure they don't over-remove any content.""The bill was designed with appropriate and transparent checks to ensure that Ofcom's implementation of laws meets the policy objectives set by democratically elected parliament.POLITICO