Mumsnet debates 'could be silenced by web law'
10th July 2021

Web policing law could silence women on discussion forums such as Mumsnet, warn campaigners

  • Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet, urged Ministers to make changes to the proposed Online Safety Bill amid fears it could lead to ‘censorship’
  • Her call comes amid mounting concern from campaigners, lawyers and politicians that legislation will have catastrophic impact on free speech in UK
  • The draft Bill will impose a ‘duty of care’ on tech giants including Facebook, Twitter and Google to remove content that could cause ‘psychological harm’

A proposed law for policing the internet could silence debate on discussion forums including the popular parenting website Mumsnet, its founder warned last night.

Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet, urged Ministers to make changes to the proposed Online Safety Bill amid fears it could lead to ‘censorship’.

Her call comes amid mounting concern from campaigners, lawyers and politicians that the legislation will have a catastrophic impact on free speech in the UK.

The draft Bill will impose a so-called ‘duty of care’ on tech giants including Facebook, Twitter and Google to remove any content that could cause ‘psychological harm’.

The new system will be policed by the regulator Ofcom, which will have the power to impose fines of up to £18 million on firms. 


A proposed law for policing the internet could silence debate on discussion forums including the popular parenting website Mumsnet, its founder warned last night. Justine Roberts (left), CEO of Mumsnet, urged Ministers to make changes to the proposed Online Safety Bill amid fears it could lead to ‘censorship’

But critics warn the definition of ‘harmful’ is too vague and that faced with the prospect of fines, tech firms could design algorithms that will simply erase comments that could be deemed controversial or offensive.

People could be prevented from commenting on a range of issues – from transgender rights to Brexit – because under the legislation, the tech giants policing the internet could delete them.

Mumsnet has already been targeted by activists. The Mail on Sunday revealed in 2019 how margarine brand Flora stopped advertising on the platform after a ‘handful’ of transgender activists complained the site was transphobic.

Ms Roberts said the Government has told her that firms ‘using their best endeavours to protect users will not suffer ill effects’.

But she added: ‘However, it’s obviously a concern that we don’t yet know what will be defined as constituting “psychological harm” or other kinds of “legal but harmful” speech, and we urge the Government to bring forward their definitions before this legislation goes much further. 

The draft Bill will impose a so-called ‘duty of care’ on tech giants including Facebook, Twitter and Google to remove any content that could cause ‘psychological harm’. The new system will be policed by the regulator Ofcom, which will have the power to impose fines of up to £18million on firms

‘If they don’t, there’s a risk that litigants will feel emboldened to force platforms such as Mumsnet to censor perfectly valid freedom of expression.’ 

One Mumsnet user described the Bill as ‘legislation designed to shut women up’.

It comes as the MoS can reveal the influence of Scottish charity Carnegie UK Trust in drawing up the measures. 

For three years William Perrin, a former adviser to Tony Blair and a board member of Carnegie, has been working on the proposals along with Professor Lorna Woods, of the University of Essex, and Maeve Walsh, a former senior civil servant once in charge of Digital Strategy at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. 

Earlier this year, Mr Perrin wrote that the Government’s proposals were ‘based upon principles and detailed work’ put forward by the trust. 

This work has been bankrolled by Luminate, an organisation founded by eBay creator Pierre Omidyar. Luminate gave Carnegie £264,000 to help ‘engage the expertise’ of Prof Woods and Ms Walsh.

Carnegie UK Trust defended its work, saying: ‘It has been endorsed by three parliamentary committees. None have suggested that a duty of care amounts to censorship.’

RUTH SMEETH: Silicon Valley robots must not be allowed to censor what we say online

It is hard to fault the motivations behind the Government’s Online Safety Bill. After all, no one wants to be unsafe online; no one wants to be a target of racism or sexism or abuse, says Ruth Smeeth (above)

By RUTH SMEETH, Chief Executive, Index On Censorship

It is hard to fault the motivations behind the Government’s Online Safety Bill. After all, no one wants to be unsafe online; no one wants to be a target of racism or sexism or abuse.

Tonight most of us will be rooting for Gareth Southgate and the England team, living and breathing every second of the match, but we all know that there will also be a handful of idiots who won’t be able to stop themselves from being vile about the team on social media.

The question is how do you fix it? And who should be given the responsibility of doing so? Personally, I’m not sure you can even legislate to change the way people behave online. 

This Bill doesn’t even give the police more resources to prosecute those who break the law. It doesn’t even state what is or isn’t acceptable behaviour online.

Rather, it sets in place a framework that will allow tech giants in Silicon Valley to sweep away content deemed by their censorious algorithms to be harmful. 

What those promoting the legislation seem blithely to overlook is the chilling effect this will have on free speech in the real world.

It means, for example, that comments made on lively and informative discussion forums such as Mumsnet and even in personal social-media messages could be deleted almost as soon as they’ve been typed on to a computer or mobile phone.

You might not agree with opinions expressed online about gender politics or Brexit, but would you prefer a world where those views are in effect outlawed by artificial intelligence from thousands of miles away?

This wholesale outsourcing of online safety to powerful global corporations – the very platforms that politicians have blamed for the systemic failure to combat hate online – is a fundamental failing of the Bill in its current form. 

This Bill doesn’t even give the police more resources to prosecute those who break the law. It doesn’t even state what is or isn’t acceptable behaviour online. Rather, it sets in place a framework that will allow tech giants in Silicon Valley to sweep away content deemed by their censorious algorithms to be harmful

It imposes a legal obligation on internet giants to proactively protect their users from ‘harm’ but is so vague that it fails to define properly what constitutes ‘harm’.

Furthermore, words or comments that would be perfectly legal to use in a conversation in a pub could be censored if the Silicon Valley algorithm decides they are ‘legal but harmful’. 

The threat of enormous fines – up to £18 million – administered by the communications regulator Ofcom will make the likes of Facebook and Google lean heavily on the side of caution and over-censorship. 

And this rush to erase will make some people less safe and could easily put them in personal jeopardy.

This issue is deeply personal for me. As a Jewish woman, occasionally in the public eye, I have almost become immune to the unpleasant and offensive comments thrown my way daily online. 

But among them – far more often than should be acceptable to anyone – are threats to my personal safety. 

The Online Safety Bill will mean those threats will be deleted, which sounds great, except that removing them will mean I have no way of knowing if someone wants to hurt me, and neither will the police. 

Not only will I be more vulnerable, we won’t be able to prosecute the criminals threatening me.

It cannot be right for our politicians to legislate away fundamental rights and protections of speech and of personal safety in the name of ‘online safety’.

This shoddy legislation serves no one well. There is still an opportunity for those pushing this Bill to draw breath and explore better ways to meet their well-intended objectives. I urge them to take it.

Source: Read Full Article