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The UK Passes Sweeping New Surveillance and Censorship Measures in The Online Safety Bill

If you’re tired of censorship and surveillance, join Reclaim The Net.

The UK has passed its controversial online censorship act known as the Online Safety Bill. The bill, one of the widest sweeping attacks on privacy and free speech in a Western democracy will become law.

The bill seeks to shield internet users, especially youth, from the slingshots of malicious online content. But the bill goes beyond forcing platforms to remove illegal content.

It calls upon social media giants to act as custodians, safeguarding users against ill-intent messages, cyberbullying, and explicit material.

The bill is shrouded in a veil of safetyism and pays only lip service to privacy and free speech rights. We cannot cower from highlighting the bill’s overt undertone of censorship, veering into a territory where freedom of speech and privacy might be sacrificed at the altar of digital safety.

Michelle Donelan, Technology Secretary, voiced her support for the bill, branding it as an “enormous step forward in our mission to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.” Under the proposed law, social media corporations will be forced into swift action, not just for removing violative content but also for hindering its emergence.

The implementation sword will be wielded by Ofcom, the communications regulator, with the law setting a stringent punishment pathway for non-compliers, inclusive of colossal fines and even incarceration.

The bill further pioneers new criminal offenses to its roster, like cyber-flashing and the distribution of manipulated explicit content, or deepfake pornography.

The bill imbues the government with tremendous power; the capability to demand that online services employ government-approved software to scan through user content, including photos, files, and messages, to identify illegal content. Non-compliance can result in severe penalties such as facing criminal charges.

From a free speech and anti-censorship perspective, this legislation is fundamentally disturbing. Critics argue this bill could enhance potential censorship on the pretext of safety.

The backdoor scanning system poses significant threats. It may be exploited by those with malicious intent, mishandled which could lead to false positives, resulting in unwarranted accusations of child abuse.

These alarming flaws render the online safety bill incompatible with end-to-end encryption – a staple for ensuring user privacy and security – and human rights.

The UK government has subtly conceded that it might not harness some elements of this law to their full potential. During the concluding discussion about the bill, a representative confirmed that the government would only order scans of user files when “technically feasible,” and these orders would be subject to compatibility with UK and European human rights law. This acknowledgment seems a subtle retreat from a previously aggressive stance taken by the same representative.

On the same day of these declarations, it surfaced that the UK government conceded privately that technology capable of examining end-to-end encrypted messages while observing privacy rights does not exist.

But, citizens who value their privacy shouldn’t have to rely on weak assurances from the government. The official safeguarding of privacy rights should be a priority. Rather than relying on murmurs of amendments, the government should offer comprehensive assurance through clear regulations and explicit protection policies for end-to-end encryption.

The bill, as it stands, allows the government to scan messages and photos, posing significant threats to security and privacy to internet users globally. These powers are enshrined in Clause 122 of the bill.

Several end-to-end encrypted service providers like WhatsApp, Signal, and UK-based Element have threatened to pull out their services from the UK if Ofcom demands examination of encrypted messages – an extreme but important move. This reaction is a testament to the perceived invasive nature of the Online Safety Bill.

If you’re tired of censorship and surveillance, join Reclaim The Net.

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