Free for all? Freedom of expression in the digital age

Published by the Authority of the House of Lords:

The right to speak one’s mind is a hallmark of free societies. Many people across the world are still deprived of that right, but in the UK it has long been treasured. However, it is not an unfettered right. Civilised societies have legal safeguards to protect those who may be vulnerable. One person’s abuse of their right to freedom of expression can have a chilling effect on others, leaving them less able to express themselves freely.

The internet—and particularly social media—provides citizens with an unprecedented ability to share their views. We welcome this and seek to strengthen freedom of expression online. However, the digital public square has been monopolised by a small number of private companies, which are often based outside the UK and whose primary aim is to profit from their users’ data. They are free to ban or censor whoever and whatever they wish, as well as to design their platforms to encourage and amplify certain types of content over others. Too often they are guided by concern for their commercial and political interests rather than the rights and wellbeing of their users. The benefits of freedom of expression must not be curtailed by these companies, whether by their actions or their failures to act.

In recent years, the harms users can suffer online have received growing attention. We support the Government’s proposal that, through the draft Online Safety Bill, platforms should be obliged to remove illegal content. Ofcom should hold them to strict timeframes where content is clearly illegal. We also support the Government’s intention to protect children from harm, although the draft Bill is inadequate in this respect–particularly in relation to pornographic websites. nor are we convinced that the draft Bill sufficiently protects vulnerable adults. These duties should be complemented by an increase in resources for the police to allow them effectively to enforce the law, including on harassment, death threats, incitement, stirring up hatred, and extreme pornography. Platforms should contribute to this increase in resources.

The Government also proposes to introduce duties in relation to content which is legal but may be harmful to adults. This is not the right approach. If the Government believes that a type of content is sufficiently harmful, it should be criminalised. For example, we would expect this to include any of the vile racist abuse directed at members of the England football team which is not already illegal. It has no place in our society. The full force of the law must be brought down on the perpetrators urgently.

Content which is legal but some may find objectionable should instead be addressed through regulation of the design of platforms, digital citizenship education, and competition regulation. This approach would be more effective, as well as better protecting freedom of expression.

When Government Urges Private Entities to Restrict Others’ Speech