Online harms law will stifle freedom of speech, says think tank

Online harms legislation will seriously undermine the fundamental right to free expression, an influential think tank has warned.

In a new report, the Centre for Policy Studies criticises UK Government plans to regulate lawful speech as part of its attempt to crack down on harmful internet content.

The broad range of harms being targeted include those the Government admits have a “less clear definition”, such as ‘extremist activity’ and disinformation.

Free society

The White Paper proposals would require companies to comply with a statutory duty of care by taking action against harmful content on their websites.

The think tank warned: “What is now deemed to be potentially harmful online can cover anything from the most extreme illegal acts to free expression of views that some may take as offensive.”

Ruth Smeeth of free speech group Index on Censorship said the proposals risk “conflating what is already illegal, such as incitement and threat, with speech which we may disagree with, but in a free society is, and should be, legal.”

‘Unintended consequences’

Under the measures, the Government plans to tackle underage exposure to pornography, advocacy of self-harm and sales of illegal drugs online.

Simon Calvert, Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute, commended these aims, but warned that the scope of the legislation should not be too broad.

“It is right that the Government should seek to clamp down on these activities. But the current approach is too wide-ranging. The Government must not let good intentions have unintended consequences for freedom of expression.”

A consultation on the White Paper closed in June 2019 and the Government’s full response is still awaited.

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