By Alex Rutherford
THE GOVERNMENT and Labour are exploiting the murder of David Amess MP to whip up fears around ‘online anonymity’ in order to ram through a raft of measures giving the government unprecedented control over online free speech.
The Bill has been on the cards for some time – the draft text was proposed back in April – but the idea of trying to turn the internet into a ‘safe-space’ for corporate advertising has been in existence long before.
The government claims the Bill is designed to protect the public from harmful online content including grooming, revenge porn, and posts relating to eating disorders and suicide.
But the Bill casts its net much wider than offences which are already prosecutable under existing laws. Efforts by MPs to amend the bill to outlaw anonymity online would have a chilling effect on activists and vulnerable groups – impacting everyone from trade unionists and whistleblowers to those whose anonymity provides protection, such as LGBT+ people, survivors of domestic violence and women in general who are subject to rocketing rates of cyber and real-world stalking.
The law supposedly contains exemptions for ‘journalistic’ content, however the criteria that must be satisfied for an organisation to be considered a ‘recognised news provider’ are extremely strict. Effectively the law protects any content from mainstream news providers while failing to offer any protection to independent journalists, bloggers and socialist organisations – the government will have the power to decide who does and does not qualify as “the press”.
Under the terms of the Bill, control of what is considered acceptable speech on the internet will be in the hands of the government, who would be able to decide the definition of ‘illegal content’ and block access to websites without any debate in Parliament. The Carnegie Trust, a think tank, has warned that the powers of the Secretary of State will be ‘relatively unconstrained’ and that the government ‘has not explained why the Secretary of State needs these powers’.
Ofcom, the government regulator, will be given the power to issue codes of practice that force social media companies to fulfill a ‘duty of care’ by policing conduct deemed to cross the criminality threshold, or face fines totalling £18m or 10% of turnover. But it will be left to social media companies – whose business model is premised on algorithms designed to promote harmful content and behaviour – to police the new law.
The Bill is a power grab by a government waging a wider offensive on democratic rights from policing to asylum. The labour movement should sound the alarm and oppose this Bill.