Tackle government and internet company ‘censorship-by-proxy’ in Online Safety Bill

22 February 2022 | Team Full Fact

Our new report, out today, warns of government ‘censorship-by-proxy’ tactics through internet companies during the pandemic. 

Government press releases, ministerial comments, and media briefings show regular collaboration with internet companies to limit or take down content. 

In an open and democratic society, the government should not be resorting to ‘censorship-by-proxy’ tactics with no independent oversight.

The draft Online Safety Bill does not set out a credible plan to tackle the harms from online misinformation and disinformation. Today we’ve published a ten point plan for countering bad information with good information and protecting free speech, by promoting media literacy, challenging deceptive behaviour online, and enforcing transparency of government and internet company measures.

Read the Full Fact Report 2022

Tackling Online Misinformation in an Open Society: the Full Fact Report 2022, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, calls for Parliament to step in to protect free speech and properly address harm from misinformation and disinformation in the upcoming Online Safety Bill. 

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Full Fact’s ten point plan to improve the Bill and tackle online harms includes:

  • Improve media literacy - Full Fact research shows that one in three adults find it hard to distinguish true information from false information
  • Restrict content as a last resort - earlier and stronger commitment to share good, reliable information reduces need to resolve through takedowns - for example, it would have limited the spread of 5G conspiracy theories
  • Introduce legal rules to enforce government transparency - Parliament should know when government is pressuring internet companies to remove content.

Evidence that the government currently can and does seek to limit speech online by lobbying internet companies includes:

  • A 2020 government press release, stating that “up to 70 incidents a week, often false narratives containing multiple misleading claims, are being identified and resolved” - it did not define ‘resolved’
  • Home Secretary Priti Patel’s comments to Parliament in February 2021 that “all action is taken to remove harmful disinformation”
  • Reports by the BBC that the culture secretary “is to order social media companies to be more aggressive in their response to conspiracy theories linking 5G networks to the coronavirus pandemic”
  • Refusal to disclose the number of content reports made to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube for anti-vaccine disinformation by the government’s Rapid Response Unit in response to parliamentary questions

Tackling Online Misinformation in an Open Society: the Full Fact Report 2022 sets out ten ways that the Online Safety Bill can take proportionate and effective measures to address harm, while strengthening freedom of expression. 

  1. Create stronger media literacy as the first line of defence: build the resilience to misinformation and disinformation of all UK citizens with media and information literacy at the scale needed. Full Fact research shows that one in three adults find it hard to distinguish true information from false information. Ofcom have found that 40% of UK adult internet users do not have the skills to critically assess online content. Just 2% of children have the critical thinking skills to tell fact from fiction online. 
  2. Prioritise promoting good information over restricting content: restrict information only as a last resort. Freedom of expression includes the freedom to be wrong. An open society should aim to inform people's decisions, not control them. 
  3. Make Ofcom responsible for understanding harms caused by misinformation and disinformation: the regulator should fill knowledge gaps with an enhanced research responsibility and an additional evidence centre should be established. To be able to implement and regulate the new Online Safety regime, Ofcom requires the best possible evidence and intelligence and must be granted a remit to research harms caused by misinformation and disinformation.  
  4. Actively look for harmful information vacuums and fill them: ensure reliable information from authoritative sources is available. A lack of good, reliable information, made available early, contributed to the spread of 5G conspiracy theories, and false claims about the Covid-19 vaccines. 
  5. Identify and coordinate responses to information incidents openly: emergency procedures should be open and transparent. The Online Safety Bill is not yet clear enough about how regulators and other services should work together in the face of dangerous information incidents, such as terror attacks, threats to elections, or public health emergencies. 
  6. Prioritise tackling specific harmful deceptive behaviour over restricting content: amend the draft Online Safety Bill to cover regulated content and activity. Full Fact believes targeting specific behaviour is more likely to produce proportionate responses to harmful false information than seeking to control what content anyone can see and share.
  7. Make government interventions in content moderation transparent: limit ‘censorship-by-proxy’ where government pressures internet companies to restrict content that parliament would not. The government can and does seek to limit speech online by lobbying internet companies. The Bill must end unnecessary secrecy in this work, and ensure government attempts to influence online content are made public and accountable.
  8. Require independent testing of algorithms which restrict or promote what people can see and share: the Online Safety Bill should grant Ofcom powers and independent researchers access to algorithms. Content moderation algorithms can do real good if they work well, and if they malfunction, they can cause real harm.
  9. Secure public confidence in how elections are protected through transparency: the Online Safety Bill must strengthen democracy and a public protocol put in place for elections. Given how vulnerable elections are to interference, we do not believe it is right that the national security and other implications of disinformation campaigns during UK elections are out of the scope of the Online Safety Bill.
  10. Continue to ensure the supply of high quality news: the law should require a minimum supply of high quality news on Category 1 internet services. Access to news is part of a healthy society. As where people choose to access news diversifies, the law should require a minimum supply of high quality news, as it does on public service television.

Read the full report

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Full Fact's press team on 07950 114013 / press@fullfact.org

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