Boris Johnson’s free speech brigade takes aim at Big Tech regulation – POLITICO

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LONDON — Britain’s defenders of free speech are up in arms and ready for a fight over plans to regulate online content.

The Online Safety Bill coming to parliament later this year is a far-reaching effort to clamp down on harmful and illegal forms of online speech, from child exploitation to terrorist propaganda.

But as the date draws nearer, senior MPs from Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party are sharpening their knives to potentially carve up the bill, which also covers woolier legal areas like misinformation, in the name of free speech.

Amid a wider “culture war,” the effort to shape online harms legislation is drawing in Tory heavyweights like former Brexit Secretary David Davis, who has warned the bill could end up being authoritarian “by accident,” and former Defense Secretary Liam Fox, who has warned it could have “unintended consequences.”

“The government would be wise when this bill comes forward to give it lots of pre-legislative scrutiny, to think about all the angles,” Fox told POLITICO.

How the free speech brigade proceeds could not only affect the bill, but also weigh into international talks on policing the internet, which are taking place among G7 leaders in Cornwall this summer.

“I think there are a whole wide range of issues associated with such a bill, which will be very very easy to try to deal with one problem, but be creating another one,” added Fox.

Long time coming

When the Johnson government inherited plans to police Big Tech platforms from the prior administration under Theresa May, opponents had hoped the new PM might stick it in the bin.

The former Daily Telegraph columnist courted controversy in his articles, including one likening veiled Muslim women to letterboxes, and has long cultivated a political brand as a freedom fighter.

But he didn’t. In December, his government said online content and certain legal activity could be considered harmful if “it gives rise to a reasonably foreseeable risk of a significant adverse physical or psychological impact on individuals.”

Opponents saw red over the definition. “The Government’s proposals … would be overbearing and fundamentally threaten the right to freedom of expression,” said Mark Johnson, a legal and policy officer at advocacy group Big Brother Watch, last week.

Yet in an effort to tread a fine line on Big Tech, Johnson’s government has given plenty of assurance to the free speech brigade that the bill could not be used to stifle certain viewpoints.

The prime minister put former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, one of the bill’s strongest initial critics, into the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which is overseeing the legislation.

Whittingdale warned in 2019 that the bill could do more harm than good, telling a Society of Editors event that he wanted to counterbalance the “rather hysterical pressure” on government to “control the spread of information.”

Ministers have since flagged safeguards for freedom of expression in the bill, including that firms will “not be able to arbitrarily remove controversial viewpoints,” and an appeals mechanism for those who feel posts are unjustly removed.

Whittingdale said last week his “very strong belief” in the importance of free speech was “shared equally” by the prime minister and Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden.

“We recognize that adults have the right to access content that some might find offensive and upsetting, and as such, this regulation will not prevent adults from accessing or posting legal content, nor require companies to remove specific pieces of legal content,” states a factsheet accompanying the government’s December announcement.

Getting organized

Yet Conservative MPs remain on their guard. Adam Afriyie, a backbencher who set up an all-party parliamentary group last year to “promote and protect freedom of speech,” voiced concerns the legislation could “basically lock down certain views that people find distasteful in a kind of virtuous way.”

“I’m very, very conscious of the risks of putting one comma in the wrong place and suddenly we have a huge assault on our natural freedom of speech,” he said. “And I suspect that it wouldn’t be inadvertent if some of these campaign groups get involved to try and get themselves individually recognized.”

Tory peer Stephen Gilbert, who is currently chairing an inquiry into freedom of expression in the House of Lords, said that while “nobody wants to see illegal content stay online,” proposals to regulate legal but harmful content were “fraught with difficulties.”  

“If we are going to penalize platforms that do not have robust processes to take down illegal and harmful content quickly, should we also require that those processes are designed to avoid the systemic over-removal of content?” he asked. “Censorship is itself an online harm.”

Former Brexit negotiator Davis echoed that view. “In pursuit of sometimes caution over their reputation, they [platforms] are being quite repressive … And the same problem applies to online harms legislation. How on earth do you make the judgment in this area?” he said.

As for Fox, he said youngsters needed help to “become more resilient” against online abuse by encouraging them to defend people who are being bullied rather than stand idly by.

The ranks of the free speech brigade are growing as the bill’s adoption draws closer.

Six other MPs said they were concerned about freedom of speech protections in the bill, and pledged to be more engaged once the legislation was published.

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan-Smith, said: “One of the areas that people fought and died for was freedom of speech and we need to make sure that this doesn’t limit people’s ability to speak, even if you don’t like what they say.”

William Wragg, another Tory MP, said the proposal currently seemed “quite amorphous” and that he didn’t want something that was “absolutely useless and achieves nothing.”

For Heather Burns, a policy manager at the campaign organization Open Rights Group, the bill is turning out to be a test for Johnson’s government.

“Where the Tories are concerned, it’s really going to be a litmus test for them over how committed they are to the principles of free speech, in addition to proportionate, sensible, business-friendly regulation that doesn’t interfere in private life,” she said.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Tech policy coverage: Pro Technology. Our expert journalism and suite of policy intelligence tools allow you to seamlessly search, track and understand the developments and stakeholders shaping EU Tech policy and driving decisions impacting your industry. Email [email protected] with the code ‘TECH’ for a complimentary trial.

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