It was conceived as the public square of planet Earth. Intended as a free and vibrant forum for the exchange of goods, services, and ideas, life on the World Wide Web has become more difficult lately as Internet freedom is increasingly curtailed by online censorship and the siloing of data by national governments. This trend is not limited to autocracies like China and Russia. Data localization laws that prevent the transmission of information across national borders are increasingly being adopted by democracies, deepening divisions in an already fragmented global internet landscape.
However, one nation seemingly bucking this trend is the United Kingdom. A recent analysis by Proxyrack places it at the top of the global ranking of nations with the least internet restrictions, followed by Japan, Germany, France and the United States. The company’s analysis is based on a number of factors, from censorship to social media restrictions, as well as the share of internet users. Based on these criteria, Proxyrack described the UK as the world leader in “freedom of access to the internet” and considered it “the most fundamental right when it comes to internet freedom”.
The UK’s high score in Proxyrack’s reports can be attributed in part to Freedom House’s analysis of the relative maturity of its internet landscape compared to the rest of the world. According to its latest report on the country, the UK performs well in global rankings when it comes to the limited extent of government control over internet infrastructure, the diversity of its online information landscape, and the ability of civil society groups to organize themselves online, among other factors. Unlike many other nations, according to Freedom House, the UK “does not routinely limit connectivity” while residents are able to get online and “mobile, build communities and campaign, particularly to political and social issues”.
These freedoms are underpinned by the infrastructure that allows the UK to have a much higher proportion of people per capita with internet access. Much of this is due to a concerted effort to close the digital divide between urban and rural areas, as the government launched a large-scale digital infrastructure project called Project Gigabit last year. It also becomes clear how comprehensive Internet access is reflected in the benefits for the economy. According to the Office for National Statistics, e-commerce sales by UK businesses totaled £668.9 billion in 2019, up from £639.7 billion in 2018.
Internet freedom in the UK
However, the relatively liberal way in which the UK runs its corner of the internet has come under renewed pressure of late. One was the role played by Chinese telecom giants in upgrading their internet and mobile infrastructure. Amid widespread fears across Europe and North America that such collaborations remain a security risk, the UK banned Huawei from further involvement in building new 5G networks in the country. Additionally, the UK’s Telecoms Security Act, which mandates heightened security for internet service providers’ internal operations and supply chains, came into force last month, with fines of up to £100,000 a day or 10% of the company’s turnover until the problems are resolved.
New substantive regulations also call into question Great Britain’s hitherto liberal reputation in terms of Internet governance. While his government was relative laissez faire to date in issuing takedown requests to social media companies compared to other democracies – the UK has issued just 16,544 such orders to Google, Twitter and Facebook in 2020, compared to 18,345 from Germany and 19,881 from South Korea – the regime is for content moderation set to tighten dramatically with the passage of the Online Safety Bill (OSB.)
Introduced by the government in May last year, the OSB is the UK government’s attempt to increase the legal responsibilities of social media companies and others for monitoring illegal, abusive and dangerous content hosted on their platforms. Crucially, the bill seeks to introduce a “proactive technology” requirement on social media platforms to quickly identify and remove content deemed “legal but harmful” for underage users, resulting in content related to could include self-harm, eating disorders, and misogyny.
The focus on underage users, rather than consumers of all ages, was the result of a recent government backstop responding to criticism that the measures would seriously affect the freedom of expression of millions of British citizens. “It’s something we’ve advocated for a long time, along 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. Still, Joris says, it’s not a complete victory. The activist believes social media platforms will take a low-risk approach by removing anything that could be considered illegal or harmful content, leaving open the possibility for content to be removed indiscriminately and without accountability.
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“Social media platforms will play it safe,” she says. “They won’t want to be held liable for fines that could represent a high percentage of their revenue, so they will take a low-risk approach and only remove content that may be controversial.”
It’s not the only annoying problem. The OSB also proposes weakening the encryption standards of messaging platforms such as WhatsApp to allow law enforcement agencies to better investigate criminal activity, while mandating automated content moderation solutions such as client-side scanning to monitor the flow of illegal material over these communications networks. For activists like Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, such actions are an unacceptable government intrusion into the innate personal liberties of all users of these platforms (although there is a healthy and ongoing debate as to the extent to which those liberties would be compromised). ) Therefore, Killock argues: “The privacy of 40 million chat users is threatened by this law.”
freedom to harass
While there is no set date for the House of Commons to reconsider the bill, 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 argue further delays in the bill will be disastrous for those receiving illegal and harmful content online.
The scale of this epidemic was revealed 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 against women journalists”. For example, a sentiment analysis of around 75,000 tweets aimed at BBC disinformation reporter Marianna Spring found that 55% intended to discredit her as a journalist, while 27% were deemed sexist and misogynistic (the remainder were deemed broadly abusive) . In a textbook example of how online violence can spill over into the physical world, one stalker even went so far as to leave a threatening message for the journalist on a bulletin board at her local train station.
Consequently, says Kalina Bontcheva, one of the report’s authors and a professor of computer science, “the speedy passage of the online safety bill is of paramount importance, not only for safety reasons for journalists, but also to reduce exposure to online harm for children to limit minorities, public figures and all British citizens.” Julie Posetti agrees. Social media platforms must be held accountable for their role as carriers of harmful online content, argues the ICFJ’s Global Director of Research. “This is all the more urgent in the context of the recent acquisition of Twitter by a billionaire who has failed to signal that he understands that protecting users from hate speech enables freedom of expression,” Posetti said.
Surviving parents of children who have recently lost their lives, in part as a result of the spread of harmful content online, are making similar demands. The father of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life after extensively viewing social media content linked to suicide, depression, self-harm and anxiety, said: “If we wait and chase perfection, we are putting young people at risk Especially people exposed to harmful content.”
As these debates continue, the UK internet landscape stands on the cusp of a paradigm shift – a paradigm shift that could not only transform the way millions of its citizens use the internet, but could also jeopardize its reputation for liberal internet governance. Holding on to this rare award will depend entirely on what the government and the public decide in the coming months as appropriate limits to freedom online – in the marketplace, in social conduct, and under the law.
Featured image by Myroslava Malovana/Shutterstock