It was designed to be the public square of planet Earth. Designed as a free and dynamic forum for the exchange of goods, services and ideas, life on the World Wide Web has become more difficult in recent times, with internet freedom increasingly restricted by censorship in line and the silosing of data by national governments. This trend is not limited to autocracies like China and Russia. Data localization laws that prevent the transit of information across national borders are also increasingly being adopted by democracies, deepening divisions in an already fractured global internet landscape.
However, the UK is one country that seems to buck this trend. A recent analysis of Proxyrack places it at the top of the global ranking of countries with the least internet restrictions, followed by Japan, Germany, France and the United States. The company’s analysis is based on a range of factors, from censorship levels to social media restrictions, as well as the proportion of internet users. Based on these criteria, Proxyrack described the UK as the world leader in “internet freedom”, considering it “the most fundamental right in internet freedom”.
The UK’s high score on Proxyrack’s reports can in part be attributed to Freedom House’s analysis of the relative maturity of its Internet landscape compared to the rest of the world. According to its latest country report, the UK scored high in global rankings for the limited extent of government control over internet infrastructure, the diversity of its online information landscape and the ability of civil society groups to organize online, among other factors. Unlike many other countries, according to Freedom House, the UK “does not routinely restrict connectivity”, while residents can connect and “mobilise, form communities and campaign, especially on political and social issues”. social”.
These freedoms are supported by the infrastructure that enables the UK to have a much higher proportion of people able to access the internet, per capita. Much of this is due to concerted efforts to bridge the digital divide between urban and rural areas, as the government recently launched a large-scale digital infrastructure project called “Project Gigabit” last year. How widespread Internet access translates into benefits for the economy is also clear. According to the Office for National Statistics, UK business e-commerce sales in 2019 totaled £668.9 billion, up from £639.7 billion in 2018.
Internet freedom in the UK
The relatively liberal way in which the UK has run its corner of the internet has come under new pressure of late, however. One was the role China’s telecom giants perceived to have played in modernizing its internet and mobile communications infrastructure. Amid widespread fear across Europe and North America that such collaborations will remain a security risk, the UK has banned Huawei from further involvement in building new 5G networks in the country. Additionally, the UK Telecommunications Security Act came into force last month, imposing heightened security for internet service providers’ internal operations and supply chains, with fines of up to £100,000 a day. or 10% of the company’s turnover until the problems are solved. .
New content regulations are also challenging the UK’s hitherto liberal reputation in internet governance. While his government has been relatively laissez-faire to date in sending takedown requests to social media companies compared to other democracies – the UK issued just 16,544 such orders to Google, Twitter and Facebook in 2020, compared to 18 345 for Germany and 19,881 for South Korea – the content moderation regime is set to tighten significantly with the passing of the Online Safety Bill (OSB.)
Introduced by the government last year in May, the OSB is the UK government’s attempt to strengthen the legal responsibilities of social media companies and others to control illegal, abusive and dangerous content hosted on their platforms. Crucially, the bill would introduce a requirement for “proactive technology” on social media platforms to quickly identify and remove content deemed “legal but harmful” to underage users, which could include content related to self-harm, eating disorders and misogyny.
The focus on underage users, rather than consumers of all ages, is the result of a recent government raid in response to criticism that the measures would have a serious impact on the freedom of expression of millions of citizens. British. “It’s something we’ve been advocating for a long time with other partners in our coalition like Big Brother Watch and the Index on Censorship,” says Chantal Joris, legal officer at the Article 19 association. Nonetheless, says Joris, this n is not a complete solution. victory. The activist believes that social media platforms will take a low-risk approach in removing anything that could be considered illegal or harmful content, leaving open the possibility of indiscriminate and irresponsible content removals.
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“Social media platforms will err on the side of caution,” she says. “They won’t want to be held liable for fines that could be a high percentage of their revenue, so they’ll take a low-risk approach and simply remove content that might be controversial.”
This is not the only vexatious question. The OSB is also proposing to weaken encryption standards for messaging platforms like WhatsApp to better enable law enforcement to investigate criminal activity, while mandating automated content moderation solutions like analytics. client side to control the flow of illegal material on these communication networks. For activists like Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, such measures are an unacceptable government intrusion into the innate personal freedoms of all users of these platforms (although there is an ongoing healthy debate about the extent to which those freedoms be compromised.) As such, Killock asserts, “the privacy of 40 million chat users is threatened by this bill.”
freedom to harass
Although no date has been set for the bill to be reconsidered by the House of Commons, it is widely believed that it will be debated again before Christmas. But as legal experts and free speech campaigners continue to debate complex regulations, some say further delays to the bill will spell disaster for recipients of illegal and harmful content online.
The scale of this epidemic was revealed in a recent study by the International Center of Journalists (ICFJ) and the University of Sheffield which, according to its authors, revealed a “crisis of online violence against women journalists”. A sentiment analysis of some 75,000 tweets directed at BBC disinformation journalist Marianna Spring, for example, found that 55% intended to discredit her as a journalist, while 27% were deemed sexist and misogynistic. (the others were classified as generally abusive). A textbook case of how online violence can bleed into the physical world, one stalker even went so far as to leave a threatening message for the journalist on a notice board at her local train station.
Therefore, says Kalina Bontcheva, one of the report’s authors and professor of computer science, “the speedy passage of the online safety bill is of the utmost importance, not only for reasons of the safety of journalists , but also to limit children’s exposure to harm online”. , minorities, public figures and all British citizens. Dr. Julie Posetti agrees. Social media platforms must be held accountable for their role as conduits of harmful content online, says ICFJ’s Global Research Director. “This is even more urgent in the context of the recent takeover of Twitter by a billionaire who failed to signal that he understands that protecting users from hate speech enables freedom of expression,” says Posetti.
Grieving parents of children who recently lost their lives in part to the proliferation of harmful content online are making similar demands. The father of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life after extensively viewing social media content related to suicide, depression, self-harm and anxiety, said that “if we wait and we are looking for perfection, we are putting young people at risk”. in particular, who are exposed to harmful content”.
As these debates continue, the UK’s internet landscape is on the cusp of a paradigm shift, which could not only change the way millions of its citizens use the internet, but also jeopardize its reputation as liberal Internet governance. Maintaining this rare distinction will depend entirely on what the government and the public decide in the coming months about the appropriate limits on internet freedom – in the marketplace, in social conduct and under the law.
Read more: The war on end-to-end encryption
Front page image by Myroslava Malovana/Shutterstock
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