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UK think tank proposes Online Safety Bill reviewer to keep tabs on Ofcom decisions

Even think tanks with close links to the UK’s Conservative government are now criticising the Online Safety Bill, with the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) describing it today as “a significant threat to freedom of speech, privacy and innovation.”

The IEA, which tends to side with free-market conservatives, said today that the controversial legislation needs an independent reviewer to prevent it (ironically) causing harms to people using the internet in Britain.

Comparing it to the existing Government Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation post, the IEA argued in a report titled “In Harm’s Way” that an online harms reviewer could monitor Ofcom’s social media censorship orders as well as scrutinising new codes of conduct and statutory instruments before they are passed into law by Parliament.

“The Reviewer would need to have both expertise and a clear mandate to promote freedom of speech, privacy and innovation, and thus be well placed to engage formally and informally with Ofcom to advise on issues within the Reviewer’s remit,” said the IEA report.

Such a post would hold the whip hand over Ofcom, the government’s preferred World Wide Web regulator, and potentially civil servants at the Department for Digital, Culture, Ministry and Sport as well.

Creating such a post could backfire against the IEA’s intentions of creating a free speech czar, however. The “Independent” Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation post was created by Tony Blair’s New Labour in 2001. Despite its name, both government and reviewers alike have seemingly used it as a proving ground for testing barristers’ political loyalty to the government before promoting them.

Current reviewer Jonathan Hall QC declared in a 2020 speech that safeguards around forced decryption laws should be watered down to help police. He was continuing a theme set by the previous reviewer, Max Hill QC.

In 2017 Hill strongly agreed with the government by saying encryption should be withheld from anonymous internet users. Coincidentally, he was promoted to Director of Public Prosecutions the following year. Previous reviewers included Alex Carlile and David Anderson, both of whom are now in the House of Lords.

It’s not hard to see how the IEA’s proposed “independent reviewer” could similarly find themselves agreeing with the powers that be. With the kind of powers proposed by the think tank, a censorious reviewer could cause even more harm than the Online Safety Bill.

Last week the Internet Society criticised the bill, while last year MPs tasked with scrutinising it instead issued a “manifesto” calling for more internet censorship.

Government attempts to create a “safety tech” sector based on the Online Safety Bill’s general principles have been patchy, with one firm coming close to breaking the criminal law.

The IEA report can be read on its website. ®