Thursday 22 July 2021 9:36 am

Online harms laws pose threat to free speech, Lords committee warns

The government’s plans to crack down on harmful online content pose a threat to freedom of speech and would be ineffective, peers have warned.

In a report published today, the House of Lords communications and digital committee slammed plans to address “legal but harmful” material, saying the issue should instead be addressed through tougher law enforcement and tighter regulation of tech giants.

The committee called for existing laws to be enforced properly and any serious harms not already illegal to be criminalised.

It pointed to the “vile racist abuse” directed at England footballers as an example of the kind of online behaviour that — if not already illegal — should be outlawed.

The report also took aim at social media platforms such as Google and Facebook, accusing them of “monopolising” online discourse with too much power over what people say and see online.

The peers said content that is legal but objectionable to some people should be addressed by regulating the design of these platforms and by tightening competition laws to ensure people have greater choice.

They added that tech companies should provide more resources for police to enforce the law effectively on issues such as online harassment, death threats, incitement, stirring up hatred and extreme pornography on the basis that “polluters should pay”.

The committee welcomed proposals in the online harms bill to force digital platforms to remove illegal content and protect children from harm, but warned the draft legislation was “flawed” in relation to keeping children off porn sites and urged platforms not to over-remove content.

“If the government believes that a type of content is sufficiently harmful, it should be criminalised,” said committee chair Lord Gilbert.

“The right to speak your mind is the hallmark of a free society and a right long treasured in Britain but it isn’t an unfettered right. The rights and preferences of individuals must be at the heart of a new, joined-up regulatory approach, bringing together competition policy, data, design, law enforcement and the protection of children.”

The report echoes comments by a number of civil liberties groups and tech firms, who have warned that the upcoming online harms laws will damage free speech and disproportionately impact smaller platforms.

But Ofcom, which will oversee the new regulations, has insisted the laws will support free speech rather than undermine it.