What does the new Online Safety Bill mean for free speech?

The UK Government’s new Online Safety Bill could change our relationship with the internet forever.

Monday, 9 October, 2023

Since its creation in the early 1990s, the World Wide Web has been a decentralised and democratic digital resource, giving everyone a voice and empowering the silent majority.

Websites operate in a global environment where domestic laws are often irrelevant, or incapable of being applied.

The concept of free speech has been zealously guarded, given the obvious temptations for governments to selectively censor it – as happens in China, Russia and North Korea.

Yet selective censorship is coming to the UK as well, following the Online Safety Bill’s successful passage through both Houses of Parliament.

While the Bill’s motives are laudable, its consequences may be horrifying…

What is the Online Safety Bill?

In an age of fake news, https://broadbanddeals.co.uk/guides/how-can-we-spot-fake-news/ troll farms and rampant online abuse, our lawmakers have repeatedly failed to tackle threats emanating in cyberspace.

There is strong evidence of state-sponsored interference in the Scottish independence and Brexit referendums, sowing division and intolerance that festers on today.

We’ve seen barbaric acts of war described as “special military operations”, while few would argue against greater curbs on content relating to child abuse, terrorism, racism or fake news.

The Online Safety Bill will force websites great and small – from social media giants to personal blogs – to accept more responsibility for the content they host.

Social media platforms have historically claimed they’re not responsible for the bear-baiting content they host, even as their algorithms aggressively promote it for more clicks.

There will also be more requirements to back up spurious claims with evidence, which might help to curtail some of the outrageous falsehoods perpetuated online in recent years.

Failure to comply with the Bill could lead to prison sentences for site owners, with content being blocked by search engines.

This all sounds positive…

It’s certainly well-intentioned. However, the devil is in the detail – and there’s a lot of detail currently unexplained and undefined.

To begin with, UK law will now insist search engines downgrade or hide content based on vague legal definitions of what’s unacceptable.

As any Facebook or X user will ruefully attest, two people may have diametrically opposing views on what’s unacceptable, honest, offensive, a fair opinion, up for debate, hateful…

How can the writer of a personal blog hope to not offend anyone, in any context, at any time, even inadvertently or retrospectively?

The algorithms used to police online content are bad at identifying subtleties like satire or hyperbole, let alone judging fair comment.

Yet the penalties for breaching ill-defined and constantly shifting standards are draconian, posing a far greater threat to free speech than anything ever seen online.

Smaller platforms won’t have the funds to invest in automated filtering systems, and the appeals process against OSB punishments is convoluted (and potentially inconsistent).

The end result is likely to be vast swathes of existing content being taken offline, for safety’s sake.

Everything could be deemed offensive to someone with an agenda, so no online content will be truly safe – at least not in the UK.

Foreign businesses may decide to ignore the OSB’s stipulations – the UK is only one of 195 nations in cyberspace – and rogue agents will ignore it just as they ignore existing legislation.

What can I do?

It’s probably best to disable website comments and delete any content that could potentially cause any offence to anyone.

If you’re frightened by the vagaries of a badly structured censorship law, a VPN is a cost-effective way of circumventing it.

Finally, if you think the OSB goes too far, register your concerns with Ofcom, the overworked regulator responsible for consistently policing this new Act.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!