A Censor’s Charter? The case against the Online Safety Bill

A Censor’s Charter? The case against the Online Safety Bill

  • As the Government weighs up its options on the Online Safety Bill, a new report from the Centre for Policy Studies urges ministers to fundamentally rethink the proposals
  • While having noble intentions, the OSB is a major threat to freedom of speech, as it will incentivise firms to remove much legitimate and legal content for fear of multi-billion-pound fines
  • The measures on encrypted communications also threaten the privacy of millions of Britons
  • There is also a danger of a chilling effect on tech investment, which is hardly in keeping with the pro-growth agenda of the new Government

The Online Safety Bill (OSB) is one of the most controversial pieces of legislation produced by Government in recent years. A new briefing paper from the Centre for Policy Studies outlines why it is likely to do far more harm than good in its current form, and should either be scrapped or seriously amended.

The report, ‘A Censor’s Charter?’, shows how the OSB incentivises firms to remove perfectly legal content from their platforms. Firms fearing huge fines of up to 10% of global revenue will become far more cautious about the content on their sites. This risks limiting free speech and creating a digital culture of embracing false positives at the price of compliance.

The report also shows that the countervailing protections on journalistic content and content of democratic importance will do little to prevent this, not least because they fail to reflect the reality of how people use social media.

The report – the first by Matthew Feeney, the think tank’s new Head of Tech and Innovation – argues that the Bill is a principled attempt to curb the spread of various online horrors. But MPs who have faced personal online abuse do not realise that this Bill is more likely to restrict their own speech than protect them from further harassment.

The report also warns of the social and economic consequences of introducing specific regulation around encrypted messaging services, and of the significant cost to online businesses. It argues that while the Bill is aimed at the tech giants, the wording of the legislation means that it would affect companies far across the tech ecosystem, stifling innovation and investment.


Matthew Feeney, report author and CPS Head of Tech & Innovation, said:

‘Rather than taking a stand for freedom of expression, this Bill would not only empower politicians across the spectrum to stifle expression but also damage innovation and growth in the technology sector. The cure is very much worse than the disease.’


Robert Colvile, CPS Director, said:

‘The CPS’s previous paper on this topic, ‘Safety Without Censorship’, argued that it was both dangerous and wrong for online and offline speech to subject to separate legal regimes – in particular via the creation of a nebulous category of ‘legal but harmful’ speech. Sadly, since then the Bill has got worse rather than better. We urge the Government to change course.’