Online Safety Bill amendment will ‘help Russian disinformation’, experts warn

A group of campaigners have written to the Culture Secretary to urge a rethink over an amendment around press freedom.
A group of campaigners have written to the Culture Secretary to urge a rethink over an amendment around press freedom.

An amendment to the Online Safety Bill aimed at protecting press freedom would enable malicious people to spread disinformation on social media by posing as news publishers, campaigners have warned.

A collection of civil society groups and academics have written to Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, urging a Government rethink on the amendment.

Announced last week, the amendment proposes that the biggest social media platforms – such as Facebook and Twitter – would be required to notify news publishers and offer them a right of appeal before removing or moderating their content or taking action against their accounts, with articles remaining viewable and accessible even if they are under review.

The Government said it believes the change would reduce the risk of platforms taking what it called arbitrary moderation decisions against news publisher content, and also prevent any accidental takedowns.

But, in their letter, the campaigners have warned they believe the change to the Bill could make the UK a “disinformation laundromat” where the malicious could receive legal protections to spread hate and lies.

Signatories include Demos, Global Witness, Hacked Off and Fair Vote UK.

Kyle Taylor, director of Fair Vote UK and the organiser of the letter, said: “This latest amendment is an absolute shambles.

“Rather than making the internet safer or protecting media freedom, it would enable Putin’s cronies, conspiracy theorists and other extremists to spread harmful lies and disinformation.

“Boris Johnson promised no new policies whilst the Conservatives elect a new leader – pushing this amendment through parliament would be a clear breach of his word.”

The campaigners are also broadly critical of the Bill in their letter, claiming that as drafted “it is not safe for British children or for the country”.

“Rather than tackling the underlying product, design and business features that lead to algorithmic amplification of harmful material, the Bill encourages whack-a-mole content moderation but with exemptions for certain users and types of content – an approach that can be politicised, easy to get wrong, potentially disastrous for free speech and ineffective at tackling core issues like the rampant spread of disinformation or hate speech,” the letter says.

The Online Safety Bill is making its way through Parliament, with MPs expected to vote on amendments on Tuesday.