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UK: Peers Grill the Government About the Counter “Disinformation” Unit, Which Spied on Lawful Speech by Government Critics

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The issue of how freedom of expression is protected in the UK, as the country’s government works to combat what it considered to be “disinformation,” was somewhat examined during a recent parliamentary debate.

One of the players brought up is the Counter Disinformation Unit – now renamed as the National Security Online Information Team (NSOIT) – which news reports say has ties to UK’s intelligence agencies. (Not what the government representatives are spelling out, however.)

The unit notably “combated disinformation” in the past by spying on government critics – despite their speech being lawful.

Speaking in the British Parliament this week, Lord Strasburger had this question for the government: What steps are they taking to protect freedom of expression in the course of their work on combating so-called “disinformation?”

The Liberal-Democrat is the chair of the Big Brother Watch civil liberties and privacy group, and made reference to this during the debate. The response to Strasburger’s initial question came from Viscount Camrose, the parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

Camrose claimed that freedom of expression “underpins all the government’s work on tackling disinformation,” and brought up the Online Safety Act as something positive, in fact – “upholding those rights.”

Strasburger then went into the Counter Disinformation Unit’s activities, which he said got exposed for trying to prevent “legitimate criticism of the Government by MPs, journalists and academics” (that were personally targeted during the pandemic) – resulting in a government having to issue an apology.

And now, this member of the House of Lords wanted to know – what has actually changed, other than the name of the unit? And – why does the government refuse to allow the Intelligence and Security Committee to oversee NSOIT’s activities?

Camrose then focused on not being aware of a government apology, of the renaming being done to “better reflect” the unit’s purpose (rather than, say, a rebranding trick of a tarnished agency) – but did not address the issue of the supervision of NSOIT’s work.

He also insisted that NSOIT doesn’t in fact target individuals – “particularly,” as he put it, not journalists or politicians.

Camrose and his government colleagues were then asked by Baroness Chakrabarti to pen a letter to Strasburger and other affected by what she said was Big Brother Watch “(suggesting) that during the pandemic, politicians, journalists and civil society campaigners from across the political spectrum were personally targeted for critiquing the government’s handling of the pandemic.”

Camrose agreed to this request, and went on to claim that NSOIT’s sole purpose is to “look for at-scale attempts to manipulate the information environment” rather than go after individuals.

And from Lord Kirkhope’s question about “how this very interesting unit is comprised” and – “who are the members of the unit and from where do they come” – we heard this:

“The unit comprises civil servants who sit within DSIT (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology), and it occasionally makes use of external consulting services. It adjusts its size and membership from within the DSIT team according to the nature of the threat at any given moment.”

Another interesting question popped up during the debate – “who checks the fact checkers?”

This was Camrose’s response: “As part of the Civil Service, NSOIT would have robust internal measures to verify and check its own work, and indeed it reports regularly across government and to ministers.”

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