Internet security padlock

How to make the internet safe has been the subject of fraught debate in Britain for years. What might sound at first like a set of clear goals around the protection of children and prevention of crime quickly becomes entangled in questions around responsibility and what counts as “harmful content”. As New Humanist goes to print, the Online Safety Bill is passing through the House of Lords: a piece of legislation that has become so complex and bloated that it risks sneaking through changes that threaten our privacy and freedom of speech.

The bill would hold tech firms accountable for carrying harmful content such as revenge pornography or child sex abuse material, or selling illegal drugs or weapons. CEOs of online platforms like Facebook or TikTok could be fined, or even jailed, for failing in their duty of care.

This all sounds like progress, particularly as the key aim is to keep children safe online. The fly in the ointment is the argument that, if tech companies are to be responsible for hosting content, they must be able to access it. This isn’t such an issue for search engines like Google, but what about messaging services? A clause in the bill has mandated that tech companies provide the ability to scan end-to-end encrypted messaging for child sex abuse material, so that it can be reported to authorities. But those concerned with privacy have raised the alarm about the risk of eroding encryption.

We all feel that the only person reading our message should be its intended recipient. Popular messaging services like WhatsApp advertise themselves on this basis – but not all end-to-end encrypted services are equally secure. Clearly, putting in a backdoor is likely to weaken these protections further, and could be used well beyond its intended scope.

There is also a risk that the bill will erode freedom of expression. Worryingly, an amendment has been introduced that, in the words of culture secretary Michelle Donelan, prohibits “posting videos of people crossing the channel which shows that activity in a positive light”. This is a far cry from the original intention of the legislation. A photograph of a family in their lifejackets will not be the thing that persuades someone to flee conflict or persecution. Meanwhile, it could have a chilling effect on NGOs, and hamper the essential gathering of footage and information.

The internet is a fluid and rapidly evolving space, intimately bound up with our lives. And while legislation might be overdue, that’s no reason to rush through law that has unintended consequences. Safety online is vital, but it’s just as important that we get it right.

This piece is a preview from the New Humanist spring 2023 edition. Subscribe here.