A victory for tackling transphobe pile ons and preventing LGBTQIA+ hate online? Not quite.
The Online Harms Bill is going to give media regulator Ofcom the power to fine social media firms and other tech companies when they 'fail in their duty of care' to protect users online.
This bill, as it stands, would also provide a legal basis for this censorship.
It's because it's been lazily put together, with vague wording.
The key power that we should be worried about is that the bill will give internet companies extensive powers to delete posts that may cause ‘harm.’
But because the new law, as it currently stands, does not define what it means by ‘harm,’ perfectly legal speech could be removed. Especially if hate groups put pressure on Silicon Valley tech companies to remove LGBTQ+ content.
But then when do media companies bow to this kind of pressure...? Only last week we saw Ofcom, the very regulator who would get this power pull out of Stonewall because its 'policy position' is to fight for trans rights.
The law would set a worrying international standard. And it would also remove the right to anonymity online. This again, at face value sounds like a no-brainer.
But if you are using the internet to be queer, because its the only safe place for you to be out? Imagine losing that space.
Anonymity allows LGBTQIA+ people to share their experiences and sexuality while protecting their privacy. Indeed, as plans to bring in ID at the point of voting has shown us, because many non-binary and transgender people do not hold a form of acceptable ID - social media would become another place our society locks them out of.
The good news is, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and threats of violence are already illegal. And so, with a simple change, this law could backup and strengthen protections we have IRL and take them online. It could, instead of a vague 'duty of care' to remove 'harm,' and be reframed to focus on illegal content.
With specific, written, protections for legal LGBTQIA+ content online this bill could even deliver a modern law that can prevent hate online.
Read the full open letter from Stephen Fry, Munroe Bergdorf, Peter Tatchell, UK Black Pride, myself and other LGBTQIA+ community leaders below.
This article was just one part of our weekly newsletter that summarises, understands and explains the news of the week:
The full open letter
As proud members of the LGBTQ+ community, we know first-hand the vile abuse that regularly takes place online. The data is clear; 78% of us have faced anti-LGBTQ+ hate crime or hate speech online in the last 5 years.1 So we understand why the Government is looking for a solution, but the current version of the Online Safety Bill is not the answer – it will make things worse not better.
The new law introduces the “duty of care” principle and would give internet companies extensive powers to delete posts that may cause ‘harm.’ But because the law does not define what it means by ‘harm’ it could result in perfectly legal speech being removed from the web.2
As LGBTQ+ people we have seen what happens when vague rules are put in place to police speech. Marginalised voices are silenced. From historic examples of censors banning LGBTQ+ content to ‘protect’ the public, to modern day content moderation tools marking innocent LGBTQ+ content as explicit or harmful.
This isn’t scare mongering. In 2017, Tumblr’s content filtering system marked non-sexual LGBTQ+ content as explicit and blocked it, in 2020 TikTok censored depictions of homosexuality such as two men kissing or holding hands and it reduced the reach of LGBTQ+ posts in some countries, and within the last two months LinkedIn removed a coming out post from a 16-year-old following complaints.3
This bill, as it stands, would provide a legal basis for this censorship. Moreover, its vague wording makes it easy for hate groups to put pressure on Silicon Valley tech companies to remove LGBTQ+ content and would set a worrying international standard.
Growing calls to end anonymity online also pose a danger. Anonymity allows LGBTQ+ people to share their experiences and sexuality while protecting their privacy and many non-binary and transgender people do not hold a form of acceptable ID and could be shut out of social media.4
The internet provides a crucial space for our community to share experiences and build relationships. 90% of LGBTQ+ young people say they can be themselves online and 96% say the internet has helped them understand more about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.5 This bill puts the content of these spaces at potential risk.
Racism, homophobia, transphobia, and threats of violence are already illegal. But data shows that when they happen online it is ignored by authorities. After the system for flagging online hate crime was underused by the police, the Home Office stopped including these figures in their annual report all together, leaving us in the dark about the scale of the problem. The government’s bill should focus on this illegal content rather than empowering the censorship of legal speech.
This is why we are calling for “the duty of care”, which in the current form of the Online Safety Bill could be used to censor perfectly legal free speech, to be reframed to focus on illegal content, for there to be specific, written, protections for legal LGBTQ+ content online, and for the LGBTQ+ community to be properly consulted throughout the process.
Signed by Stephen Fry, Munroe Bergdorf, Peter Tatchell, UK Black Pride, James Ball, Fox Fisher, Carrie Lyell, Jo Corrall, Clara Barker, Marc Thompson, Sade Giliberti, Cara English, Paula Akpan, Tom Rasmussen, Jamie Wareham, Crystal Lubrikunt, David Robson, Shane ShayShay Konno.
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