Britain has passed a new “Online Safety Bill” into law that makes it a crime to transmit information online that the government says is harmful or false.
If the bill receives Royal assent, the arbiter of whether speech in question falls into an offending category will be the UK’s Office of Communications (Ofcom). The agency’s chief executive, Dame Melanie Dawes, released a statement expressing her eagerness to “take on our role as the regulator for online safety.”
“Today is a major milestone in the mission to create a safer life online for children and adults in the UK. Everyone at Ofcom feels privileged to be entrusted with this important role, and we’re ready to start implementing these new laws.”
Much of the media coverage of the bill has centered around its supposed focus on protecting children from older predators and age-inappropriate content, including pornography, as well as the technical aspect of what enforcement would look like.
However, the 244-page bill has sections devoted to regulating speech with headings such as “Communications offenses” and “Information offenses.”
Communications offenses include “Harmful, false and threatening communications.” But threats were already illegal in the UK, as ZeroHedge reported, and what is deemed harmful or false is not made explicitly clear in the text of the bill.
Notably, one category of offenses that appears throughout the legislation, called “Content that is harmful to adults,” is explicitly defined as not referring to illegal content. The law also contains a section instructing Ofcom to establish a committee on “disinformation and misinformation.”
Further, the law’s language differentiates between harmful and false information, the ZeroHedge article points out. Thus, as it states, it could punish truth-telling deemed harmful to adults “with a certain characteristic or members of a certain group.”
The law on harmful, false, and threatening communications does not apply to everyone. The section of the bill dealing with these communications offenses specifically states that legacy media are exempt.
“A recognised news publisher cannot commit an offence under section 156,” it reads.
As an example of the law’s reach into legal speech, The U.S. Sun reported that the bill would allow Ofcom to regulate and potentially force the video platform Rumble to remove COVID-19 vaccine and establishment media critic Russell Brand from its service.
Brand is in the midst of a flurry of past sexual assault accusations for which he is being investigated but has yet to be charged.
After the allegations against him went public, calls arose to de-platform Brand. Before this new law was passed, Rumble, a rival to the much larger YouTube platform, had already rebuffed a request last week by British Member of Parliament and Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Caroline Dineage, to demonetize Brand’s material on the platform.
Others have defended Brand from what they view as a double standard in which the media appears to condemn an establishment critic like Brand for his past while ignoring the apparent trespasses of other celebrities who espouse more mainstream viewpoints, like former shock jock Howard Stern.
“Howard Stern and Russell Brand both have promiscuous and controversial pasts, but the media’s treatment of them is strikingly DIFFERENT. Is this due to their political affiliations?” Mario Nawfal posted on X.
Brand took to the X platform to warn about the law, which he describes as granting “sweeping surveillance and censorship powers.” He argued that with this bill, regulators are taking the side of establishment media — the “recognized news publishers” that proponents of the bill have called “trusted news providers” — against anyone with viewpoints that differ from the mainstream narrative.
The new law holds social media companies and search engines liable for what people encounter on their platforms, placing a duty to report content violations onto the online provider.
To deal with offenders, Ofcom has been granted the power to levy fines against offending entities in the millions of pounds, up to 10% of annual global revenues, in addition to possible prison terms for individual offenders.