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Britain and Europe: United in Censorship

An anti-Brexit demonstrator chats to police officers outside the Houses of Parliament, in London, Britain, September 10, 2018. (Hannah McKay/Reuters )

The U.K.’s negotiations with the EU over Brexit may be going badly, very badly, but when it comes to the suppression of free speech, it appears that there is very little that divides Britain from many of its European partners.

There are plenty of examples to pick from, but if this Buzzfeed story is accurate, well…

Buzzfeed:

The UK government is preparing to establish a new internet regulator that would make tech firms liable for content published on their platforms and have the power to sanction companies that fail to take down illegal material and hate speech within hours, BuzzFeed News can reveal.

Under legislation being drafted by the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) due to be announced this winter, a new regulatory framework for online “social harms” would be created. BuzzFeed News has obtained details of the proposals, which would see the establishment of an internet regulator similar to Ofcom, which regulates broadcasters, telecoms, and postal communications.

Home secretary Sajid Javid and culture secretary Jeremy Wright are considering the introduction of a mandatory code of practice for social media platforms and strict new rules such as “takedown times” forcing websites to remove illegal hate speech within a set timeframe or face penalties….

The government is looking at legislation passed in Germany last year requiring social media platforms to remove illegal hate speech within 24 hours or face fines of up to 50 million euros. The German law was vociferously opposed by human rights groups and industry representatives who warned it would lead to censorship and an unmanageable burden on smaller websites.

I discussed the (deservedly notorious) German law during the course of an article on NRODT in June:

German chancellor Angela Merkel, infuriated by criticism of her immigration policy (and, rather less so, by Russian disinformation), endorsed a new law, the catchily named Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, under which social-media companies must take down posts that constitute “manifestly unlawful . . . hate speech” and “fake news” from their sites within 24 hours of a complaint. Failure to do so can result in a fine of up to 50 million euros. Fake news is criminally fake if it amounts, say, to an insult, malicious gossip, or defamation — including defamation of a religion or ideology — sufficiently serious to contravene German law.

Combine the potential size of the fine with offenses that lend themselves to flexible interpretation (much like that “manifestly”) and it’s easy to see that Berlin intended to scare social-media companies into an approach to censorship that goes far further than the letter of the law, a ploy that appears to be working. The government wanted to shut down talk that was not necessarily illegal but — after Merkel flung open her country’s doors in the summer of 2015 — uncomfortably unorthodox….

It appears that, like its fellow authoritarians in Berlin, the British government will be looking to use the process (short time limits and so on) as well as the strict letter of the law as a means of scaring social-media companies into erring on the side of caution when deciding what speech is or is not permissible.

It also appears that the current British government has also forgotten that the next election may well see the arrival in power of a hard-Left Labour Party with little fondness for either dissent or free expression.

Buzzfeed (my emphasis added):

The new proposals are still in the development stage and are due to be put out for consultation later this year. A spokesperson for the government confirmed it is “considering all options”, including a regulator. The planned regulator would have powers to impose punitive sanctions on social media platforms that fail to remove terrorist content, child abuse images, or hate speech, as well as enforcing new regulations on non-illegal content and behaviour online.

As we all know, “hate speech” is a very elastic concept. Under Labour it would doubtless become more elastic still.

Also:

BuzzFeed News has also been told ministers are looking at creating a second new regulator for online advertising. Its powers would include a crackdown on online advertisements for food and soft drink products that are high in salt, fat, or sugar.

The Conservative party is not what it was.

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