UK drops ban on ‘legal but harmful’ online content in favour of free speech

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The British government has stated that it would not mandate internet companies to remove “legal but harmful” content from their platforms in response to concerns made by activists and legislators that such a mandate would stifle free speech.

In its place, it stated that rules enacted to ensure children’s safety online would require companies to remove any information that violated their terms of service or was illegal without going into detail about whose constitutionally protected speech should be muzzled.

Similarly to the European Union and elsewhere, Britain has struggled to find ways to safeguard social media users, and especially children, from potentially harmful information without stifling free speech.

Instead of weakening the measure, Digital Secretary Michelle Donelan claims she has increased safeguards for minors by mandating compliance with existing age restrictions.

She commented on BBC radio that companies “cannot just say ‘yes we only allow children over 13 to join our platform,’ then allow 10-year-olds and actively promote it to them. We’re stopping that from happening.”

She warned that companies could lose as much as 10% of their annual revenue if they do not implement measures to prevent access by those under the legal age of purchase.

Former British policy stated that social media businesses might be penalised if they failed to remove damaging content such as abuse, regardless of whether or not the content crossed the criminal threshold.

Donelan claimed the “harmful but legal” provision would have had “unintended consequences” and weakened free speech, even though it had been opposed by certain parliamentarians and slowed down the pace of the measure.

The government claims that if it were removed, there would be less chance that platforms would remove valid posts to avoid punishment.

The revised version does more to safeguard free speech by preventing platforms like Twitter and Facebook-owned Meta from censoring content or banning users for infractions that do not violate their terms of service or the law.

The Labour Party, an opposition group, argued that the bill’s intent would be weakened if the focus were shifted from “prevention of harm” to free speech.

“Removing ‘legal but harmful’ gives a free pass to abusers and takes the public for a ride,” claimed Lucy Powell, Labour’s culture spokesman. “The government has bowed to vested interests over keeping users and consumers safe.”

But the administration said that when the bill is brought back to parliament next month, the responsibility for removing content that violates their terms of service or the law will rest squarely on the shoulders of the technology companies.

It said the platform would have to provide options to help users avoid controversial information if they were likely to see it, such as the promotion of eating disorders, racism, anti-Semitism, or misogyny that does not rise to the level of a criminal offence.

Donelan stated that specific categories of damaging content could be criminalised, obligating social media platforms to address them or risk heavy fines.

The government has already promised to make the advocacy of self-harm criminal, and she told BBC News, “We all agree that this should be illegal; let’s make it illegal.”

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