Plans to police ‘legal but harmful’ content threaten free speech, peers warn

The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee has called on the Government to change its proposals to tackling some online harms.

Laptop stock
Laptop stock

The Government’s current plans to address “legal but harmful” content as part of its Online Safety Bill will threaten freedom of speech and be ineffective, peers have warned.

Under the proposals, tech companies will be expected to clearly state in their rules the types of content that are legal but they will consider harmful and enforce those policies consistently.

But a report from the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee says that instead, existing laws should be enforced more robustly and any serious harms not already illegal should be criminalised.

It said the current plans to allow tech giants such as Facebook and Google to identify these harms were flawed because those companies had “monopolised” the online public square and their content moderation could be more easily driven by business interests rather than the rights of users.

“If the Government believes that a type of content is sufficiently harmful, it should be criminalised,” chairman of the Committee, Lord Gilbert, said.

“We would expect this to include, for example, any of the vile racist abuse directed at members of the England football team which isn’t already illegal.

“It has no place in our society and the full force of the law must be brought down on the perpetrators urgently.

“The right to speak your mind is the hallmark of a free society and a right long treasured in Britain but it isn’t an unfettered right.

“The rights and preferences of individuals must be at the heart of a new, joined-up regulatory approach, bringing together competition policy, data, design, law enforcement and the protection of children.

“Britain can be a world leader, setting standards to which other countries can aspire.

“We must get this right.”

A computer mouse (Adam Peck/PA)
A computer mouse (Adam Peck/PA)

Lord Gilbert added that tougher competition laws were also needed as a result and called on the Government to ensure that platforms do not over-remove content.

“The benefits of freedom of expression online mustn’t be curtailed by companies such as Facebook and Google, too often guided their commercial and political interests than the rights and wellbeing of their users,” he said.

“People have little choice but to use these platforms because of the lack of competition.

“Tougher regulation is long overdue and the Government must urgently give the Digital Markets Unit the powers it needs to end these companies’ stranglehold.”

The report also called on tech firms to contribute to more resources for the police to aid effective law enforcement, particularly around areas such as online harassment and extreme pornography.

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