Online Safety proposals threaten freedom of speech, peers warn

Peers have warned that the Government’s draft Online Safety Bill could threaten free speech by giving major platforms the power to stifle “legitimate debate”.

In a detailed report, the Lords Communications and Digital Committee argued that the dominance of platforms such as Facebook and Google risks limiting freedom of expression under the proposed legislation.

The Government’s draft Bill – which has also been criticised for failing to protect children from online pornography – says that digital companies will be required to prevent their users accessing material that is ‘harmful but legal’.

‘Arbiters of truth’

But the Committee said that such companies are too often guided by “their commercial and political interests rather than the rights and wellbeing of their users”, risking their right to freedom of expression being curtailed.

Committee Chairman Lord Gilbert added: “People have little choice but to use these platforms because of the lack of competition. Tougher regulation is long overdue and the Government must urgently give the Digital Markets Unit the powers it needs to end these companies’ stranglehold.”

Platforms should not seek to be arbiters of truth.

The peers stressed that they were “concerned that platforms’ approaches to misinformation have stifled legitimate debate, including between experts.

“Platforms should not seek to be arbiters of truth. Posts should only be removed in exceptional circumstances.”


The peers argued that the Government should change its focus to enforcing existing laws more consistently and robustly, as well as criminalising any serious harms that were not already illegal.

Lord Gilbert said: “If the Government believes that a type of content is sufficiently harmful, it should be criminalised.

“We would expect this to include, for example, any of the vile racist abuse directed at members of the England football team which isn’t already illegal.”

Also see:

Free speech campaigners critical of report on ‘hateful extremism’

‘UK Govt must buttress free speech’: Adam Smith Institute

Jacob Rees-Mogg: ‘Free speech is fundamental to society’