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Oi! Have a Speech License? UK Watchdog Ofcom to Police Social Media

The British government may be free from Europe thanks to Brexit, but it appears to be sliding into authoritarianism as it drafts regulations to crack down on freedom of speech.

Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s media watchdog, according to Forbes’ Feb. 12 coverage, “is to be given the power to regulate social media companies, holding them to account for harmful content.”

The UK has already reportedly threatened to begin jailing tech executives for not policing their own platforms enough. An April press release had established an Orwellian “duty of care,” which requires “companies to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services.” Forbes wrote that Digital media and culture secretary Nicky Morgan is introducing measures based on a government white paper launched in April last year. The “duty of care” concept is mentioned in its pages no less than 53 times.

This “Online Harms White Paper,” which was first released last April, also includes references to a similar German regulation “Network Enforcement Act (‘NetzDG’),” which can fine social media companies for up to 50 million Euros for failing to remove hate speech in compliance with German laws.

One revealing admission made by this government document is that it describes “online hate” as being targeted at groups “including ethnic minorities and women.”

It specifically cited the growing use of artificial intelligence (“AI”) in moderating platforms, which seems to reflect a pattern with the British government. One such project, “HateLab,” funded by the Obama-era government and United Kingdom, uses artificial intelligence to scan users’ social media for “grossly offensive” anti-PC speech and attempted to predict when people will commit “hate crime[s].” In short, the AI was meant to scan social media history for “pre-crime” purposes.

Morgan, quoted by Forbes, said she espoused “We will give the regulator the powers it needs to lead the fight for an internet that remains vibrant and open but with the protections, accountability and transparency people deserve.”

The “Internet Association” was critical of the legislation, and represents the interests of Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Amazon and Google. It was cited by PCMag as warning that these new regulations could “hurt the British tech sector, worsen the quality of internet services for ordinary consumers, undermine privacy, and produce a chilling effect on freedom of speech.”

Free speech advocates may feel betrayed by groups they considered to be allies. The more conservative Tory Party under prime minister Boris Johnson, which helped bring about Brexit, said, “We will legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online — protecting children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content, and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online,” according to the Jerusalem Post.

Even the Northern Irish DUP’s Carla Lockhart has condemned “anonymous accounts.” She commented: “For too long the world of social media has been like an online Wild West, with no regard for what little rules exist.” She remarked that “A token slap on the wrist will not be enough to protect users,” and said that going forward, “it is vital that regulators are empowered with the ability to impose serious fines and penalties on social media companies.”

Perhaps American tech companies should honor their home country, and acknowledge that an internet of the “Wild West” is ultimately what is best for liberty.

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