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Online Safety Bill could hinder free speech, research warns

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The UK government is facing criticism over a new piece of internet legislation, which could grant ministers “unprecedented” censorship powers, according to think tanks.

The UK is facing calls to “slim down” its Online Safety Bill amid concerns over its impact on people’s freedoms and privacy.

The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has published a briefing paper in which think tanks warn about the risk that the bill could hand the Secretary of State and Ofcom “unprecedented powers to define and limit speech, with limited parliamentary or judicial oversight”.

The authors of the research have also expressed their fears that the piece of legislation will lead digital platforms to use automated tools in a “cautious and censorious” manner against content that is “only reasonably considered to be illegal”.

The Online Safety Bill has been presented by the government as a ground-breaking law that will protect the privacy and safety of children in the digital sphere. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has said it will make the UK “the safest place in the world for our children to go online”.

The bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, is set to require platforms legally to protect users from harmful content for the first time, with penalties for breaching the new rules including fines that could run into billions of pounds for larger companies. To avoid this, social media companies will be required to double down on content monitoring and impose more strict age verification processes.

According to Dorries, under the current draft of the bill, published last year, senior executives of online platforms could end up in prison if they do not act on illegal content published on their sites. 

However, the legislation is now facing opposition, with former ministers claiming that the bill could become “one of the most significant accidental infringements on free speech in modern times”. Former Brexit minister, Lord Frost, was also quoted saying the best thing the government could do would be to slim the bill down.

This would allow it to “proceed rapidly with the genuinely uncontroversial aspects, and consign the rest where it belongs – the waste paper basket,” he said, adding that the Tories “should not be putting this view into law”.

In addition to free speech concerns, think tanks have also warned of the consequences of imposing such strict legislations on thousands of internet platforms, claiming that these “Byzantine requirements” will hamper innovation.

In the past, the bill has also been criticised in the past for failing to adequately protect children from pornography and sexual harassment in schools. 

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