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MDX legal academic claims Online Safety Act will 'violate the rule of law'

The Online Safety Act could damage small businesses and stifle free speech, according to an MDX academic

Houses of Westminster

Tough new government laws to make the internet a safer place will “violate the rule of law” and could have a damaging impact on small businesses and free speech, a Middlesex University legal academic has claimed.

The new Online Safety Act, which became law in September last year, will force technology companies to take more responsibility for their content online or risk severe fines.

Platforms will have to show they are committed to removing harmful content such as child sex abuse, extreme sexual violence, promotion of suicide and self-harm, terrorism and animal cruelty, along with introducing age checks on pornography sites to prevent children viewing content.

In a new paper Dr Mariette Jones, a Senior Lecturer in Law, writes how the Index on Censorship estimates that 180,000 large or small companies will fall under the remit of the Online Safety Act, which “imposes legal requirements” on internet user-to-user services and internet search engines. Dr Jones fears the while major corporations can shoulder the cost of fines, estimated at 10% of global revenue, they could prove crippling for smaller businesses.

According to Dr Jones, the act introduces the rule of law principle of ‘Vicarious Liability’, which means that one party is responsible for the unlawful act of another party and is applied to companies and their employees.

“Internet platform don’t necessarily have the same kind of relationship with users as an employer does with an employee, and this is making them potentially liable for what users say,” said Dr Jones. “We’re asking companies to play the role of a judge and even for judges these kind of data protection and free speech issues are very complex to decide.

“‘Of course there are a lot of nasty things happening online and we have to shield children from such harmful content, but this needs to be balanced with protecting small businesses and not stifling free speech which is essential to any democracy.”

Dr Jones believes the Online Safety Act will lead to a marked increase in Artificial Technology (AI) and algorithms monitoring private conversations on messaging and internet platforms without oversight to block and filter out potentially harmful language and content.

In the paper, Dr Jones concluded: “What you can say now very much depends on who you are, what you are saying, and where you are saying it. Against this background, the Online Safety Act goes even further. Instead of the usual notice and takedown regime, corporations are placed in charge of, legally required, to proactively seek out and limit online content. The likely result of outsourcing public duties like this would be censorship by algorithm.

“Various established principles of the law are being stretched or outright violated. The proposed law will not operate in a transparent or accountable manner. It will be anti-democratic and it will violate the rule of law. We are at the stage now where, as far as online speech in the UK is concerned, the default position is that of regulated—not free speech.”

The paper - Regulation of Online Speech in the UK – has been peer reviewed and published in the journal, the University of the Pacific Law Review.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Find out more about studying Law at Middlesex University.

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