UK plan to police internet may be illegal, force Wikipedia shutdown

UK plan to police internet may be illegal, force Wikipedia shutdown

British Plans to Police the Internet Raise Concerns and Threaten Freedom of Expression

The British government’s proposed Online Safety Bill, aimed at protecting people from illegal or harmful content on the internet, has faced criticism and warnings of potential unlawfulness. Under the legislation, platforms hosting user-generated content would need to promptly remove proscribed material, ranging from pornography to cyberbullying. Noncompliance could result in hefty fines, service blocking, or even imprisonment for executives.

However, critics and campaigners have expressed long-standing concerns about the potential threats to privacy and freedom of speech. Now, they also believe that the proposed rules may be unlawful. In particular, clause 9(2) of the bill has drawn scrutiny, as it requires platforms to prevent users from encountering certain illegal content. Legal experts from Matrix Chambers, in a legal opinion provided to the Open Rights Group, have cautioned that this clause might breach international law.

The legal advice highlights “likely significant interference with freedom of expression that is unforeseeable and not prescribed by law.” This implies a substantial shift in the regulation of public communication and debate, as online content would need to be scrutinized and blocked before being posted, with no provisions for explaining restrictions to users. Monica Horten, the policy manager for freedom of expression at the Open Rights Group, criticizes the rule, stating that it upends the existing legal order on platforms. She warns that the proposals not only have potential unlawfulness but also threaten the free speech of millions of people in the UK, ultimately reflecting the government’s lack of attention to detail in drafting the legislation.

Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia’s Potential Withdrawal from the UK

The proposed legislation has triggered a fierce backlash, with notable critics such as the Wikimedia Foundation stating that they may withdraw Wikipedia from the UK if the rules are implemented. The Wikimedia Foundation, which supports the popular online encyclopedia, refuses to comply with any age verification checks introduced by the bill, risking the potential blocking of the platform.

Lord Allan of Hallam, a British politician with a background at Facebook, has stated that the enforcement of the rules could lead to Wikipedia and similar services feeling they can no longer operate in the UK. Some lawmakers have called for exemptions for public goods services like Wikipedia. However, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, expressed his preference to “rip this bill up and start over from scratch,” as he described the legislation as a “travesty of justice” that would make the internet in the UK less safe.

Aside from concerns about freedom of expression, Wales is also apprehensive about the threat posed to encryption. Messaging apps like Signal warn that plans to access end-to-end encrypted messages could compromise privacy and safety. Element, another communication platform, goes a step further and claims that the legislation is not an Online Safety Bill but rather an Online Surveillance Bill.

In summary, while the British government’s aim to protect users from illegal and harmful content online is admirable, the proposed Online Safety Bill has raised substantial concerns regarding its potential unlawfulness and threats to freedom of expression. Critics argue that the legislation requires a more nuanced approach that takes into account the intricate balance between safety and personal rights. As the situation unfolds, the fate of platforms like Wikipedia and the overall impact on the UK internet landscape remain uncertain.

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