Brits enjoy the most internet freedoms. But for how long?

It was designed to be the public square of Planet Earth. Intended as a free and lively forum for the exchange of goods, services and ideas, life on the World Wide Web has become more difficult recently, with internet freedom increasingly restricted by online censorship and the siloing of data by national governments. That trend is not limited to autocracies like China and Russia. Data localization laws that prevent the flow of information across national borders are also increasingly being adopted by democracies, deepening divisions in an already fractured global internet landscape.

One nation apparently bucking that trend, however, is Britain. A recent analysis by Proxyrack places it at the top of the global rankings for nations with the least internet restrictions, followed by Japan, Germany, France and the United States. The company’s analysis is based on a range of factors, from levels of censorship to social media restrictions, as well as the proportion of internet users. Based on these criteria, Proxyrack described the UK as the world leader for “freedom to access the internet”, considering it “the most fundamental right when it comes to internet freedom”.

The UK’s high score in Proxyrack’s reports can partly be attributed to an analysis by Freedom House regarding the relative maturity of its internet landscape compared to the rest of the world. According to its latest country report, Britain scored high in global rankings for the limited scale of government control over internet infrastructure, the diversity of its online information landscape, and the ability of civil society groups to organize online, among other factors. Unlike many other nations, according to Freedom House, Britain “does not routinely restrict connectivity”, while residents can go online and “mobilise, form communities and campaign, particularly on political and social issues”.

These freedoms are supported by the infrastructure that allows the UK to have a much higher proportion of people able to access the internet, per capita. Much of this is due to concerted efforts to bridge the digital divide between urban and rural areas, as the government recently launched a large-scale digital infrastructure project last year called “Project Gigabit.” How widespread Internet access translates into benefits for the economy is also clear. According to the Office for National Statistics, e-commerce sales by UK businesses in 2019 totaled £668.9bn, an increase from £639.7bn in 2018.

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Internet freedom in the UK

The relatively liberal way in which Britain has run its corner of the internet, however, has recently come under new pressures. One was the role that Chinese telecom giants perceived it to play in upgrading their internet and mobile communications infrastructure. Amid widespread fears across Europe and North America that such collaborations remain a security risk, Britain has banned Huawei from further involvement in building new 5G networks in the country. Additionally, the UK’s Telecommunications Security Act came into effect last month, requiring enhanced security for the internal operations and supply chains of internet service providers, with fines set at up to £100,000 per day, or 10% of the company’s turnover until the problems are resolved. .

New content regulations are also challenging the liberal reputation the UK has so far enjoyed when it comes to internet governance. While its government was relatively laissez-faire so far in issuing takedown requests to social media firms compared to other democracies – the UK issued only 16,544 such orders to Google, Twitter and Facebook as of 2020, compared to 18,345 from Germany and 19,881 from South Korea – the regime for content moderation is set to tighten dramatically with the passage of the Internet Security Bill (OSB.)

Introduced by the government last year in May, the OSB is the UK government’s attempt to strengthen the legal responsibilities of social media and other companies in controlling illegal, violent and dangerous content hosted on their platforms. Basically, the bill is set to introduce a “proactive technology” requirement on social media platforms to quickly identify and remove content deemed “legal but harmful” to underage users, which could include content related to self-harm, eating disorders and misogyny.

The focus on underage users, rather than consumers of all ages, came as a result of a recent government crackdown responding to criticism that the measures would severely impact freedom of expression for millions of British citizens. “It’s something we’ve been advocating for a long time along with other partners in our coalition like Big Brother Watch and the Censorship Index,” says Chantal Joris, legal officer at the charity Article 19. However, says Joris, it’s not complete. . victory The activist believes that social media platforms will take a low-risk approach by removing anything that could be considered illegal or harmful content, leaving open the possibility of indiscriminate and unaccountable content takedowns.

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“Social media platforms will err on the side of caution,” she says. “They won’t want to be liable for fines that could be a high percentage of their turnover, so they’ll take a low-risk approach and only remove content that could be controversial.”

It’s not the only annoying thing. The OSB also proposes to weaken the encryption standards of messaging platforms such as WhatsApp to better allow law enforcement agencies to investigate criminal activity, while enforcing automated content moderation solutions such as client-side scanning to control the flow of illegal material through these communications networks. For activists like Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, such measures are an unacceptable intrusion by the government into the inherent personal freedoms of all users of these platforms (although there is a healthy and ongoing debate about the extent to which those freedoms would go). . be compromised.) As such, argues Killock, “The privacy of 40 million chat users is threatened by this bill.”

Freedom to bully

Although there is no set date for the renewed consideration of the bill by the House of Commons, it is widely believed that it will be discussed again before Christmas. But while legal experts and free speech campaigners continue to debate complex regulations, some argue that further delays to the bill will be disastrous for those who receive illegal and harmful content online.

The extent of this epidemic was exposed in a recent study by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the University of Sheffield, which, according to its authors, revealed “a crisis of online violence against women journalists”. A sentiment analysis of some 75,000 tweets directed at BBC disinformation reporter Marianna Spring, for example, found that 55% intended to discredit her as a journalist, while 27% were viewed as sexist and misogynistic (the rest were classified as generally violent. ) a textbook case of how online violence can bleed into the physical world, a stalker even went so far as to leave a threatening message for the journalist on a notice board at her local train station.

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Therefore, says Kalina Bontcheva, one of the authors of the report and a professor of computer science, the “quick approval of the draft law on Internet Security is of the utmost importance, not only for journalistic safety reasons, but also to limit exposure to Internet harm. for children. , minorities, public figures, and all British citizens.” Dr Julie Posetti agrees. Social media platforms must be held accountable for their role as vectors of harmful content online, argues the ICFJ’s global director of research. “This is even more urgent in the context of the recent takeover of Twitter by a billionaire who has not signaled that he understands that protecting users from hate speech enables freedom of speech,” says Posetti.

Bereaved parents of children who recently lost their lives in part due to harmful content proliferating online are making similar demands. The father of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life after widely viewing social media content related to suicide, depression, self-harm and anxiety, said that “if we expect and chase perfection, we put young people at risk. especially who are exposed to harmful content.”

As these debates continue, Britain’s internet landscape is on the brink of a paradigm shift – one that could not only change the way millions of its citizens use the internet, but also jeopardize its reputation for liberal internet governance. Holding on to this rare accolade will depend entirely on what the government and the public decide in the coming months are the appropriate limits of freedom on the internet – in the marketplace, in social behavior and under the law.

Featured image by Myroslava Malovana / Shutterstock

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