With Strong Cross-Party Support, Is It Only a Matter of Time Before Net Neutrality in Britain Comes To An End?
[NOTICE: When the article mentions “Net Neutrality”, it is referring to the concept of free access to the act of uploading and downloading information and data, free from the control of any given government, not the idea of an ISP’s monopoly over people’s access to the internet.]
WILTSHIRE POLICE made headlines recently after they publicly posted a tweet denouncing people who promote “abuse from behind a computer screen”. The tweet inspired a vast amount of online criticism, from people calling it a “threat” and “Orwellian”, to others saying it was “out of control” and “shameful”. The tweet gathered over six and half thousand replies in the space of a couple of days.
The original tweet from Wiltshire Police was in response to a British television programme titled “999: What’s Your Emergency?”. The particular episode, aired on the July 24th, covered the topic of abuse; one of the specific cases regarded a case of racially-aggravated abuse aimed at a nine-year-old girl from Swindon.
A day later, on the 25th of July, Wiltshire Police issued the following official statement:
— Wiltshire Police (@wiltshirepolice) July 25, 2017
Rather than attempting to apologise to those concerned about the Force’s original tweet, the statement reinforced their original message, and even went as far to suggest the notion of criminal charges being made against those responding to their earlier tweet. The statement also made the comment, “We will ban anyone who is posting offensive or abusive material”, raising two questions: Who will decide what is or isn’t offensive material, and what do Wiltshire Police mean by “ban”? “Ban” from the particular site the suspect posted upon, or “ban” from the internet as a whole?
As it stands, British police forces have a wide variety of powers at their disposal to deal with “offensive or abusive material”. The Malicious Communications Act of 1988 makes it illegal in England and Wales to “send or deliver letters or other articles for the purpose of causing distress or anxiety“, and Section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003 does the exact same, albeit in a digital format.
Section 127 states:
“A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable—
(a) On conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine (or both);
(b) On summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or a fine (or both)”
In other words, convictions under this act will likely lead to a smaller prison sentence and/or a fine if the accused was convicted in a lower court, or a larger prison sentence and/or fine if the accused was convicted in a higher court.
Regardless, the punishments for such crimes are quite significant considering the amount of time it takes to commit the crime is only as long as it takes to write and post a “message which is indecent or grossly offensive”.
In an Interview with the Financial Times in 2014, then Security Minister, James Brokenshire, is quoted as saying “(the government should deal with material) that may not be illegal, but certainly is unsavoury, and may not be the sort of material that people would want to see or receive”. The conversation was in the wake of growing fears regarding increasing numbers of Britons becoming “radicalised” through content they had seen online. In a statement sent to Wired.co.uk, Brokenshire states:
“Terrorist propaganda online has a direct impact on the radicalisation of individuals and we work closely with the internet industry to remove terrorist material hosted in the UK or overseas,”
This wouldn’t be the first time a European country has found a way to get through these laws…
Unfortunately for the UK Government, forcing websites and internet providers to shut down or flag anything, be it deemed illegal or not, breaches Section 10.2 of the European Convention of Human Rights if they can’t provide a comprehensive reason behind the decision, however; this wouldn’t be the first time a European country has found a way to get through these laws. On June 30th, 2017, Germany passed a controversial law that would allow the government to impose heavy fines on social media companies that didn’t adhere to Germany’s strict hate speech laws.
The law, which comes into effect in October, will require companies such as Facebook and YouTube to remove materials deemed “hateful” by the German Bundestag, or face heavy penalties reaching into millions of Euros. German Justice Minister, Heiko Mass, said that the new mandate would guarantee that laws with jurisdiction offline would begin to have an effect online as well.
“With this law, we put an end to the verbal law of the jungle on the internet and protect the freedom of expression for all,” Mr. Maas said. “We are ensuring that everyone can express their opinion freely, without being insulted or threatened.”
“That is not a limitation, but a prerequisite for freedom of expression,”
Under the new law, “hateful” posts, images, or videos would have to be taken down by the hosting company within a week of a complaint being submitted.
Opponents of this legislature include both digital rights and human rights groups, as well the companies themselves, which run the risk of being given extremely heavy fines.
A similar proposal was suggested by a former GCHQ Deputy Director, Brian Lord, during the 2017 General Election campaign: “I think when you have large organisations who provide ostensibly a public service to almost a quarter of the globe, I think those companies have to recognise that comes with a set of social responsibilities and not just an issue of profit,” said Mr Lord.
“I think those companies have to recognise that (their public service) comes with a set of social responsibilities and not just an issue of profit”
This point was mirrored by Conservative Party leader, and Current Prime Minister, Theresa May, at the G7 Summit back in late May.
The Prime Minister, speaking with six other heads of state, was discussing the need for increased measures against online extremism in the wake of the Manchester Arena Bombing that same month. Her message also included a call for social media companies to do more in order to identify and remove material that is deemed extremist.
On August 1st, this point was pushed further when it was announced that the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, would meet with leaders of a number of tech giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, in order to ask for their increased assistance in the fight against online extremism. The meetings took place at the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism in Silicon Valley.
In an interview with the BBC, Amber Rudd repeated her message:
“They have to make sure that the material terrorists put up gets taken down or, even better, that it doesn’t get put up in the first place,”, and followed it with, “A lot of the stuff that is getting up there shouldn’t get up there at all – none of this stuff should be online. They need to take ownership of making sure it isn’t.”
This push from politicians towards social media companies to enforce their wishes isn’t unique to the Conservative party; Labour’s Sadiq Khan has called for YouTube to remove a series of “violent” videos. The gang-related videos, which were originally flagged by the Metropolitan Police back in December, showed, among other things, gang members describing how to use a knife in combat, and how to threaten and intimidate rivals.
“Google, YouTube and other platforms have a responsibility to the millions of young people using their sites every day”
In a statement, Sadiq Khan said that YouTube’s policies do not go far enough:
“Google, YouTube and other platforms have a responsibility to the millions of young people using their sites every day, and it is vital that they toughen up their guidelines, remove breaches immediately and work with partners to help ensure such horrific videos do not reappear. Lives could depend on it.”
Unlike some other members of the party, Jeremy Corbyn has stayed quite quiet on the subject of net neutrality, and when he has made comment, he has generally been against the concept of internet restrictions. In August 2016, Corbyn suggested a “People’s Charter of Digital Liberties” designed to protect the online rights of the individual, as well as to protect personal privacy.
As a culture of pushing for more internet control develops, and laws from the continent begin to crackdown on online “hate”, we may just well begin to see similar mandates start to emerge in the UK. If proposals are being drawn up, it could be several years before these laws are debated, and even if they were passed it would be a long time before those laws would come into effect, however; if mandates such as this were being considered, there is very little in the way of pre-existing legislature that would prevent such a law from being passed.
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