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The Online Safety Bill: Can Safety be Separated from Privacy?

Source: eu.thespectrum.com

As the Online Safety Bill has been put on hold until Conservative members choose the UK’s next prime minister, sceptics are claiming that it wholly disregards democratic principles. With online abuse constantly increasing, the government’s manifesto has outlined it plans for the bill to allow the UK to become the safest place in the world to be online, while supposedly still maintaining free expression. Yet, to what extent should we favour online safety over freedom of expression and individual privacy? 

‘We should not be legislating for hurt feelings’, as argued by Conservative leadership candidate Kemi Badenoch, before being booted from the leadership race. The Online Safety Bill has received an exponential amount of abuse for its supposed prioritisation of psychological wellbeing over privacy and freedom of speech. 

Castigated for its murky proposals to give online platforms the right to determine which ‘legal but harmful’ material they will allow on their sites, the Online Safety Bill has certainly attracted its fair share of critics. But what exactly does the bill propose? 

Social media platforms, messaging apps, search engines and pornography sites must ensure that illegal material is detected and tackled, as well as ‘legal but harmful’ content. To name a few, the bill aims to prevent terrorism, disinformation and online abuse, as well as revenge pornography, cyberstalking, and child sexual exploitation. UK communications regulator Ofcom would be able to remove ‘harmful’ content and punish firms which fail to obey the bill’s terms and conditions. 

Source: statista.com

Not only does the bill fail to consider smaller online platforms that are renowned for propagating dangerous content online, such as 4chan and BitChute, but it is supposedly in direct competition with individual privacy. Likened to the Tories’ previous unsuccessful attempts to use age-verification measures to stop under-18s from accessing pornography, the Online Safety Bill will increase the number of online age-verification measures. Denying users the right to access content anonymously threatens online privacy. In the event of a misuse of power, personal information could be used to manipulate and coerce individuals. 

Where do ‘hurt feelings’ enter the equation? With social media influencers reporting that they are often unable to post content without receiving death threats from social media users, they are calling for the bill to be approached with urgency. Former Love Island contestant Amy Hart reported the abuse to social media networks, but her complaints were dismissed as the abuse did not violate community guidelines. However, the idea of a trade-off between online privacy and the prevention of psychological damage has not been well received. 

With influencers making a fortune out of presenting us with every detail of their luxurious lifestyles on Instagram, the abuse they report is merely dismissed as unfortunate but expected: you signed up for a life on social media, now deal with the consequences. 

Contrastingly, choosing to be a social media influencer does not equate to accepting abuse, and having to just get over it. As the 2022 cast of Love Island has arguably signed up to be social media influencers just by choosing to be on the show, this does not legitimate the torrent of abuse that we have witnessed so far. While Love Island’s first deaf contestant Tasha Ghouri has been in the villa for the last seven weeks, she has been the subject of intense online abuse. “Tasha is so annoying someone should just rip her hearing aid off – I can’t stand her voice either” is just one of the ableist comments that Tasha will have to scroll through now she has left the Love Island villa. 

Ableist trolling is just one of the forms of abuse that the bill aims to tackle: platforms will be held more responsible for the removal of harmful online content and must hold those responsible for its distribution. The Online Safety Bill also requires online firms to further tackle vile racist abuse. On the 11th of July 2021, we witnessed England’s defeat in the final of the 2021 UEFA Euro tournament final after a nail-biting penalty shoot-out. By the 14th of July, 2,087 racist tweets had been removed from Twitter. 

Source: secure.avaaz.com

In 1963, the 11th Duke of Argyll found and used photographic images of his wife, Margaret Whigham, engaging in sexual activity with another man as grounds to file for divorce and subsequently destroy his wife’s reputation. Despite also having extra-marital relations, he was the instigator of one of the first cases of revenge porn within the UK. With the added element of social media, cases of image-based sexual abuse, known as revenge porn, are ever-increasing. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of revenge porn victims doubled. Sextortion, when perpetrators threaten to post their victims’ images if they refuse to fulfil their demands, is also on the rise. 

Source: revengepornhelpline.org.uk

Speaking of her own personal experiences, a victim of revenge porn detailed the devastating effects this type of abuse had on her life. Her images, which she had sent many years before to an online friend, were being used on a fetish account on Twitter: 

How many more individuals must suffer before this is considered a serious issue? Out of the 19,000 revenge porn victims in the last four years, at least 2,000 of them were under the age of 18. In fact, for every month that the bill is delayed further, there will be another 3,500 online child abuse crimes. 

Would the Online Safety Bill come at a cost to end-to-end encryption? With the bill’s proposals for new rules that will allow online services to search for illegal material online, ultimately gives these services the right to allow third parties to have overall access to users’ private communications. Prior to Brexit, the EU’s e-Commerce Directive ensured that EU member states could not introduce measures to allow them to freely monitor exchanged messages between individuals. Since Brexit, this is no longer the case for the UK. 

Source: blog.etesync.com

The Online Safety Bill’s de facto termination of end-to-end encryption has concerned industry experts, as there could be an increased risk of hackers finding a way to uncover users’ financial data. Moreover, some users have expressed their doubts about the government’s plans to monitor their communications. There is certainly a difference between securing users’ online safety and imposing measures to increase governmental surveillance on a national scale. While the latter option may resemble the recycled plot of dystopian blockbuster movies, the potential for power misuse can never be overlooked. 

One thing is certain: the Online Safety Bill must not be dismissed under any circumstances. It is a vital piece of legislation that has the power to make the UK’s online environment much safer for its users. Yet, the potential negative implications of hindering end-to-end encryption, as well as failing to regulate smaller sites prone to accommodating threatening content, are issues that must be acknowledged. The vague definition of ‘legal but harmful’ content shows how it seems to be a half-finished bill. 

Without a doubt, with the ongoing battle to become the UK’s next prime minister, the Online Safety Bill must also be placed at the forefront of the Sunak versus Truss Conservative Leadership debate agenda. 

Lucy Thomas 

Lucy is an undergraduate BSc Politics and International Relations student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research interests include social stratification and international political theory.

Linkedin: /in/lucy-thomas


The Online Safety Bill: Can Safety be Separated from Privacy? Reviewed by Lucy Thomas on Saturday, August 06, 2022 Rating: 5
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