It was designed to be Planet Earth’s public square. Intended as a free and vibrant forum for the exchange of goods, services and ideas, life on the World Wide Web has grown more difficult of late, with internet freedom increasingly curtailed by online censorship and the siloization of data by national governments. That trend is not limited to autocracies like China and Russia. Data localisation laws which inhibit the transit of information outside national borders are increasingly being adopted by democracies, too, deepening divisions in an already-fractured global internet landscape.
One nation seemingly bucking that trend, however, is the UK. Recent analysis by Proxyrack places it at the top of the global rankings for nations with the least internet restrictions, followed by Japan, Germany, France and the United States. The firm’s analysis is based on a range of factors, from levels of censorship to social media restrictions, as well as the proportion of internet users. Based on these criteria, Proxyrack described the UK to be the world’s leader for ‘freedom to access the internet,’ deeming it ‘the most fundamental right when it comes to internet freedom’.
The UK’s high score on Proxyrack’s reports can partly be attributed to analysis from Freedom House as to the relative maturity of its internet landscape compared to the rest of the world. According to its latest report on the country, the UK scored highly in global rankings when it came to the limited scale of government control over internet infrastructure, the diversity of its online information landscape, and the ability of civil society groups to organise online, among other factors. Unlike many other nations, according to Freedom House, the UK ‘does not routinely restrict connectivity,’ while residents are able to go online and ‘mobilise, form communities and campaign, particularly on political and social issues’.
These freedoms are underpinned by the infrastructure which allows the UK to have a much higher proportion of people able to access the internet, per capita. Much of this is down to concerted efforts to plug the digital divide between urban and rural areas, as the government recently launched a large-scale digital infrastructure project last year called “Project Gigabit”. How widespread internet access translates into benefits for the economy is also clear. According to the Office for National Statistics, e-commerce sales by UK businesses in 2019 totalled £668.9bn, an increase from £639.7bn in 2018.
Internet freedom in the UK
The relatively liberal way in which the UK has run its corner of the internet has, however, been subject to new pressures of late. One has been the role Chinese telecoms giants have perceived to have played in the upgrading of its internet and mobile communications infrastructure. Amid a general fear across Europe and North America that such collaborations remain a security risk, the UK banned Huawei from further involvement in the construction of new 5G networks in the country. Additionally, the UK’s Telecommunications Security Act came into force last month, mandating enhanced security for the internal operations and supply chains of internet service providers, with fines set up to £100,000 per day, or 10% of the company’s turnover until the issues are resolved.
New regulations surrounding content are also challenging the liberal reputation the UK has hitherto enjoyed when it comes to internet governance. While its government has been relatively laissez-faire to date in issuing takedown requests to social media firms compared to other democracies – the UK issued only 16,544 such orders to Google, Twitter and Facebook as of 2020, compared to 18,345 from Germany and 19,881 from South Korea – the regime for content moderation is set to tighten dramatically with the passage of the Online Safety Bill (OSB.)
Introduced by the government last year in May, the OSB is the UK government's attempt to tighten the legal responsibilities social media companies and others have for policing illegal, abusive and dangerous content hosted on their platforms. Crucially, the bill is set to introduce a ‘proactive technology’ requirement on social media platforms to rapidly identify and take down content deemed ‘legal but harmful’ to underage users, which could include content related to self-harm, eating disorders and misogyny.
The focus on underage users, rather than consumers of all ages, came as the result of a recent government climb-down responding to criticism that the measures would seriously impact freedom of speech for millions of UK citizens. “It’s something we have been advocating for a long time together with other partners in our coalition like Big Brother Watch and the Index on Censorship,” says Chantal Joris, legal officer at the charity Article 19. Nevertheless, says Joris, it’s not a complete victory. The activist believes that social media platforms will take a low-risk approach by removing anything that might be considered illegal or harmful content, leaving open the possibility of indiscriminate and unaccountable content takedowns.
“Social media platforms will err on the side of caution,” she says. “They will not want to be held liable for fines that might be a high percentage of their turnover, so they will take a low-risk approach and just remove content that might be controversial.”
It’s not the only vexatious issue. The OSB also proposes to weaken the encryption standards of messaging platforms like WhatsApp to better allow law enforcement agencies to investigate criminal activity, while mandating automated content moderation solutions like client-side scanning to police the flow of illegal material across these communications networks. For campaigners like Jim Killock executive director of the Open Rights Group, such measures are an unacceptable intrusion by the government into the innate personal freedoms of all users of these platforms (although there is a healthy and ongoing debate about the extent to which these freedoms would be compromised.) As such, argues Killock, “The privacy of 40 million chat users is threatened by this bill.”
Freedom to harass
While there is no set date for the bill’s renewed consideration by the House of Commons, it is widely believed that it will be debated again before Christmas. But while legal experts and free speech campaigners continue to debate complex regulations, some are arguing that further delays to the bill will be catastrophic for those on the receiving end of illegal and harmful content online.
The scale of this epidemic was exposed in a recent study by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the University of Sheffield which, according to its authors, revealed a ‘crisis of online violence towards women journalists.’ A sentiment analysis of some 75,000 tweets directed at BBC disinformation reporter Marianna Spring, for example, found that 55% intended to discredit her as a journalist, while 27% were deemed sexist and misogynistic (the remainder were classified as generally abusive.) In a textbook case of how online violence can bleed into the physical world, a stalker even went as far as to leave a threatening message for the journalist on a noticeboard at her local train station.
Consequently, says Kalina Bontcheva, one of the report’s authors and a professor in computer science, the “swift passing of the draft Online Safety bill is of utmost importance, not only on journalist safety grounds, but also to limit exposure to online harms for children, minorities, public figures, and all UK citizens.” Dr Julie Posetti agrees. Social media platforms must be held accountable for their role as vectors of harmful content online, argues the ICFJ’s global director of research. “This is even more urgent in the context of Twitter’s recent takeover by a billionaire who has not signalled that he understands that protecting users from hate speech enables freedom of expression,” says Posetti.
Bereaved parents of children who recently lost their lives partly as a result of harmful content proliferating online are making similar demands. The father of 14-year-old Molly Russell who took her own life after extensively viewing social media content related to suicide, depression, self-harm and anxiety, said that “if we wait around and chase perfection, we’re endangering young people in particular, who are exposed to harmful content”.
As these debates continue, the UK’s internet landscape is on the cusp of a paradigm shift – one that could not only change the way millions of its citizens use the internet, but also endanger its reputation for liberal internet governance. Holding on to this rare accolade will depend entirely on what the government and the public decide in the coming months are the appropriate limits of freedom on the internet – in the market, in social conduct, and under the law.
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