Britons enjoy the most freedoms on the Internet. But for how long?

It was designed to be Planet Earth’s public square. Aiming to be a free and vital forum for the exchange of goods, services and ideas, life on the World Wide Web has become increasingly difficult in recent times, with Internet freedom increasingly curtailed by Internet censorship and data isolation by national governments. This trend is not limited to authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia. Data localization laws that prevent the transfer of information outside national borders are increasingly being adopted by democracies as well, deepening divisions in an already fractured global internet landscape.

However, one country that seems to be bucking this trend is the United Kingdom. Recent analysis by Proxirac It places it in the top global rankings of countries with the least internet restrictions, followed by Japan, Germany, France and the United States. The company’s analysis is based on a range of factors, from levels of censorship to social media restrictions, as well as the percentage of internet users. Based on these criteria, Proxyrack described the UK as the world leader in “free internet access”, considering it the “fundamental right when it comes to internet freedom”.

The UK’s high score on Proxyrack reports can be attributed in part to Freedom House’s analysis regarding: relative maturity From her internet scene compared to the rest of the world. According to its latest country report, the UK scores highly in the world rankings when it comes to the limited scope of government control over internet infrastructure, the diversity of the online information landscape, and the ability of civil society groups to organize online, among other factors. Unlike many other countries, according to Freedom House, the UK “does not routinely restrict communication”, while residents are able to go online and “mobilize, form communities and campaign, particularly on political and social issues”.

These freedoms underpin the infrastructure that allows the UK to have a much higher proportion of people able to access the internet, per capita. Much of this is due to a concerted effort to bridge the digital divide between urban and rural areas, with the government recently launching a large-scale digital infrastructure project last year titled “Gigabit projectIt is also clear how widespread internet access translates into benefits for the economy National Statistics Officee-commerce sales by UK businesses in 2019 totaled £668.9 billion, an increase of £639.7 billion in 2018.

Internet freedom in the UK

However, the relatively liberal way in which the UK manages its internet corner has come under new pressure recently. One was the role the Chinese telecom giants realized they played in modernizing the mobile and internet infrastructure. Amid general concerns across Europe and North America that such cooperation remains a security risk, the UK has banned Huawei from further involvement in building new 5G networks in the country. In addition, the United Kingdom Communications Security Law It came into effect last month, imposing enhanced security for the internal operations and supply chains of internet service providers, with fines of up to £100,000 a day, or 10% of company sales until problems are resolved.

The new content regulations also challenge the liberal reputation the UK has enjoyed so far when it comes to Internet governance. While her government was relatively laissez-faire So far in issuing takedown orders to social media companies compared to other democracies – the UK has issued only 16,544 such orders to Google, Twitter and Facebook as of 2020, compared to 18,345 from Germany and 19,881 from South Korea – The content moderation system is set to tighten dramatically over time Internet Security Bill (OSB.)

Introduced last year in May by the UK government, it is an attempt by the UK government to toughen the legal responsibilities of social media companies and others for monitoring illegal, offensive and dangerous content hosted on their platforms. Crucially, the bill is set up to introduce a “proactive technology” requirement on social media platforms to identify and remove content deemed to be fast.Legal but harmfulFor underage users, which can include content related to self-harm, eating disorders, and misogyny.

The focus on underage users, rather than consumers of all ages, came as a result of the recent government pullback in response to criticism that these measures seriously affect freedom of expression For millions of UK citizens. “It’s something we’ve been championing for a long time with other partners in our alliance like Big Brother Watch and Index on Censorship,” says Chantal Juris, the charity’s legal officer at Article 19. win over. The activist believes that social media platforms will take a low-risk approach by removing anything that could be considered illegal or harmful content, leaving the door open to the possibility of removing random and unaccountable content.

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“Social media platforms will take the side of caution,” she says. “They won’t want to be held liable for fines that could represent a high percentage of their sales, so they’ll take a low-risk approach and only remove content that could be controversial.”

It is not the only malicious case. OSB is also proposing to weaken encryption standards for messaging platforms such as WhatsApp to better allow law enforcement agencies to investigate criminal activity, while enforcing automatic content moderation solutions such as client-side scanning to monitor the flow of illegal material over these communications networks. For activists like Jim Kellock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, such actions are an unacceptable interference by the government in the innate personal liberties of all users of these platforms (although there are An ongoing healthy discussion about how much these freedoms are at stake.) As such, Kellogg argues, “the privacy of 40 million chat users is threatened by this law.”

freedom of harassment

Although there is no set date for the bill to be considered again by the House of Commons, it is widely believed that it will be discussed again before Christmas. But as legal experts and free speech activists continue to debate the complex regulations, some argue that further delays in the bill would be disastrous for those receiving illegal and harmful content online.

The extent of this epidemic has recently been revealed study by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the University of Sheffield which, according to their authors, have revealed a “crisis of online violence towards women journalists”. For example, a sentiment analysis of about 75,000 tweets directed at the BBC’s Mariana Spring found that 55% intended to denigrate her as a journalist, while 27% considered her sexist and misogynistic (the rest were classified as generally offensive). A textbook case of how online violence can bleed into the physical world, a stalker even went so far as to leave a threatening message to a journalist on a notice board at the local train station.

Accordingly, Kalina Poncheva, one of the report’s authors and a professor of computer science, says, “The swift passage of the online security bill is of paramount importance, not only for reasons of safety for journalists, but also to limit exposure to online harms for children, minorities, and personalities. the general public and all UK citizens.” Dr. Julie Bussetti agrees. Social media platforms must be held accountable for their role as carriers of harmful online content, says the director of global research at the International Center for Journalists. “This is all the more urgent in the context of a billionaire’s recent acquisition of Twitter that hasn’t indicated that he understands that protecting users from hate speech enables freedom of expression,” Bosetti says.

Parents of bereaved children who recently lost their lives in part as a result of the spread of harmful content online are making similar demands. The father of 14-year-old Molly Russell who committed suicide after widely viewing social media content related to suicide, depression, self-harm and anxiety, He said That “if we wait and chase perfection, we are putting at risk young people in particular, who are exposed to harmful content.”

As these debates continue, the UK’s internet landscape is on the cusp of a paradigm shift – one that could not only change the way millions of its citizens use the internet, but also jeopardize its reputation for liberal internet governance. Clinging to this rare award will depend entirely on what the government and the public decide in the coming months, which are the appropriate limits to freedom on the Internet – in the marketplace, in social behavior, and by law.

Read more: The war on end-to-end encryption

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