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Tech bosses face jail for ‘harmful content’ under new UK laws

What could possibly go wrong?


Tech bosses face jail for ‘harmful content’ under new UK laws
Thomas Macaulay
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Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW Writer at Neural by TNW

Threats of jail tech bosses over “harmful content” will endanger the UK’s tech sector and civil rights, campaigners have warned.

The penalty has been added to the British government’s Online Safety Bill. Under new amendments to the legislation, senior managers at internet platforms could be jailed for failing to protect children from online harm. The revisions also mandate the removal of videos depicting illegal immigration “in a positive light.”  

The changes follow pressure from politicians in the ruling Conservative party. The legislators had proposed introducing criminal liability for any breach of child safety duties, but the government has restricted this to intentional violations.

In a statement, Michelle Donelan, the UK’s culture and digital minister, said only senior managers who “consented or connived” to ignore enforcement notices risked imprisonment.

“While this amendment will not affect those who have acted in good faith to comply in a proportionate way, it gives the Act additional teeth to deliver change and ensure that people are held to account if they fail to properly protect children,” she said.

Child safety groups welcomed the move to make executives criminally liable, but critics have raised an array of concerns.

A patchwork of complaints

The diversity of the dissent is striking.

Wikimedia warned the penalties will affect not only big tech corporations, but also volunteer-led content moderation and public interest websites. The non-profit also notes that mandatory age verification can institute extra data collection, which puts user privacy at risk.

Libertarians have added concerns about the economic ramifications. They contend that threats of jail and heavy fines will stifle innovation and discourage startups from operating in the UK.

“The natural reponse will be to block users.

Matthew Lesh, head of public policy at the IEA, a free-market think-tank, said the proposals would ultimately be a boon for big tech. He argues that the rules will raise greater barriers to entry for their smaller competitors.

“There is also a significant threat that UK users simply lose access to many parts of the web,” Lesh told TNW. “The natural response of many platform operators, particularly those outside of the UK with a limited British audience, will be to block UK users. This was the response of thousands of US sites in response to GDPR.”

Free speech campaigners, meanwhile, fear platforms will be pushed to aggressively block content and deploy automated monitoring systems. This could lead to censorship of lawful posts, reduced access to online services, and restricted freedom of expression.

“That could be quite subjective.

Further qualms have arisen over the Bill’s ambiguities. Legal experts are wary that the rules will be open to different interpretations.

“Some of the Bill’s provisions are based on risk of ‘harm’, as defined in the Bill: physical or psychological harm,” Graham Smith, an IT lawyer at Bird & Bird, told TNW. “The government has said that psychological harm should not be limited to a medically recognised condition, so potentially that could be quite subjective.”

The capacity to exploit the rules has raised considerable alarm. Law professors have accused the government of using child safety as a smokescreen for “censorship and control.”

Tech ethicists warn the Bill could politicize “online harm” — a theory that’s intensified over the migration proposal.

The politics of “harm”

The new proposals would legally mandate the removal of posts showing people crossing the English channel in “a positive light.”

The government said this will help tackle illegal immigration encouraged by gangs. Refugee charities, however, warn it will endanger the rights of vulnerable migrants — and set a perilous precedent for campaigners.

The ORG, a digital rights group, notes that censorship of small boat crossings would extend to search engines.

“Websites could be demoted in listings if they have content deemed illegal,” the organization said in a tweet. “This could severely impact groups acting on refugee and migrant rights.”

Alisha Lewis, a local councillor for the Liberal Democrats party, described the proposal as a “fascinating combo of poor policy literacy and absurdly directed nasty anti-refugee sentiment.”

 

Undoubtedly, online safety for children is a pressing issue. But the broad reach, punitive measures, and subjectivity of the proposals risk creating more problems than they solves. It’s nearly four years since the government’s initial white paper was published, but the Online Safety Bill is still in disarray.

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