The UK’s bold attack on free speech, named the Online Safety Bill and ratified by a majority of 72 in the House of Lords, isn’t getting any weaker. In fact, there are proposals to make it even worse.
The proposed changes demand accountability from tech companies for their use of algorithms that direct users towards certain content, not just for the content itself.
The most striking example cited in the debate was that of Andrew Tate, an influencer facing legal charges but also being the target of censorship across various social media platforms.
The bill is in the late stages of enactment and aims to regulate user-to-user service providers such as social media and search engines to protect users from “harmful” speech.
The proposed changes would make it illegal to “deliberately push 13-year-old boys towards Andrew Tate – not for any content reason, but simply on the basis that 13-year-old boys are like each other and one of them has already been on that site.”
Baroness Kidron, a crossbench peer and the architect of these changes, insisted on scrutinizing the ways companies design their services, often to push users towards specific types of content.
However, while aiming to protect young users from potential harm, this shift in focus will also stifle freedom of expression.
The amendments drew support from a number of political figures such as Baroness Harding, a conservative peer and former chief executive of TalkTalk, and Lib Dem peer Baroness Benjamin.
Nonetheless, some critics argue that the wide-ranging support may overlook the potential threat to the principle of free speech.
Culture Minister Lord Parkinson underlined the government’s view that the bill already acknowledges the role of functions, features, and design in the risk of harm. He voiced concern that the amendments may dilute the bill or invite exploitation of legal uncertainties, potentially affecting the free flow of information and user experience on these platforms.
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