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UK’s bid to fight abuse online could censor LGBT+ sites

UK’s bid to fight abuse online could censor LGBT+ sites

  • UK promises to tackle ‘online harms’ but risks shutting down LGBT+ sites and discussion.
Man on laptop at sunset.

Beware the straights bearing gifts! Especially beware the straights in the most right-wing government this country has seen in decades who promise to “fix” the internet for the LGBT+ community.

Allow me to present the UK Government’s Online Harms project.

Both the title, and the rhetoric surrounding this proposal, are cleverly sugar-coated. This government appears to care little for business, refugee children or those with disability.

But when it comes to LGBT folk, they are desperate to imply they care. Oh yes: they really, really care.

Promise to make UK’s internet ‘safest in the world’

The government told those who attended the consultation sessions on this project it planned ‘to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online’.

To that end they would make companies more responsible for their users’ safety online. In particular, they promised to protect children – won’t someone please think of the children! – and ‘other vulnerable groups’.

They are therefore proposing a new statutory duty of care. This will make companies ‘take responsibility’ for user safety and ‘tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services’.

There will be a new regulator. Naturally, there will be a requirement for companies to take robust action to tackle child sexual abuse.

But there will also be a whole raft of ancillary goodies to back this up. We are promised codes of practice and standards for online providers and an expectation that these will work with law enforcement.

Moreover, there will be broad enforcement powers. These include civil fines, ‘improvement notices’, public notices, liability for senior managers, ISP blocking and the disruption of business activities.

Using extremes to justify extreme measures

So what’s not to like? After all, there can be hardly any prominent LGBT+ campaigner who has not suffered pressure online for the simple crime of being who we are.

To begin: the proposal brings together all manner of stuff, from child abuse to ‘disinformation’ – whatever that is! – into one single framework.

Experience suggests that is unlikely to work. Rather it will use the worst cases to justify measures that we would otherwise question more seriously.

Because, of course, the government is trying to tackle some very serious ‘harms’. These are the ones ‘with a clear definition’. They include child exploitation, terrorist content, organised crime and extreme porn.

That sounds admirable until one appreciates two issues. First, the vast bulk of this stuff does not come via the everyday internet. Instead it arrives via shadowy ‘virtual private networks’ and from ISPs overseas.

That is precisely why the government, back in 2008, passed specific laws criminalising people who possessed certain types of pornographic image. Because it declared itself incapable of regulating the ISPs.

If it is now saying it can regulate those ISPs, then 2020 would be a good time to revisit – and even repeal – existing legislation in that area.

Person on internet.
Can the UK really control foreign ISPs and VPNs? Tris Reid-Smith

Tackling abuse

But even leaving all that aside, this is a wholesale abdication of government responsibility. It is the sort of thing we’ve seen before, with long-term consequences for the public and for ordinary LGBT+ folk.

One widely held misapprehension is that existing laws can deal with people being openly abusive online.

Not so. For back in 2013, when Labour leadership hopeful Keir Starmer was director of public prosecutions, he declared that the bar when it came to Malicious Communication must be set very high indeed. Otherwise there would be so many cases the police would be swamped.

That is why I, along with Jess Phillips and online comedian Kate Smurthwaite, are still waiting for the Police to do anything about right-wing troll, Carl Benjamin who in the last few years has publicly described all of us as ‘not rapeable’. 

The problem is we have seen this mindset before. It happened with money laundering and a range of immigration offences.

Government pushes control onto companies

Back in the early 2000s, the government decided to clamp down on terrorists and organised crime using banking networks for nefarious purposes. So did they invest in extra resources? Did they clamp down?

A little. But far simpler, for government, was to regulate the provider.

Therefore, they introduced massive penalties for banks and other institutions that unwittingly provided support to bad people.

And what happened? To protect their backs, banks introduced a range of measures that involved suspecting everyone and made banking much harder all round.

For example, in the old days, you could simply switch your name on your account – very useful for trans people. Technically you can still do that under UK law, without ANY legal process whatsoever.

But in practice, it’s all become more bureaucratic. And that makes it harder for everyone and  hardest of all for those with few resources.

Online providers don’t know how to control LGBT+ content

Because that is what happens when businesses are forced to do the government’s work for them. They overreact.

And those groups least able to object – the most marginalised minorities – are the ones who usually end up on the receiving end.

People on laptops.
Straight companies do not know how to control LGBT+ content. Tris Reid-Smith

In part that is lack of understanding. In part, the usual nonsense when institutions are asked to police non-straight, non-cis spaces. That’s why the headline cases around porn over the last couple of decades have preferred to go after gay porn, rather than straight.

It is why large swathes of support network for young gay and trans folks on the internet have been shut down . Because providers are afraid they will be seen to be introducing children to non-standard lifestyles. And this, in turn, will see them tarred as enabling abuse.

It is why the last decade has seen a proliferation of filtering systems that overtly or, more worrying, implicitly block and de-select LGBT+ content.

And it is why a friend of mine was barred recently from Twitter for half a day. Because they were engaged in simple banter with a bunch of trans friends about trans stuff. And some random groups of haters descended with a mass report, designed to take them down. 

That is a big issue: online providers cannot afford to police content intelligently. So, instead, they resort increasingly to low-paid, low-skilled moderators and automated systems. These, in turn, make it easy to attack and shut down those people and those topics that the straights are less familiar with.

Censorship could be on the way

The Online Harms Bill has now passed its first reading in the UK’s House of Lords. This is just a formality. But nonetheless it’s an important step in getting this onto the statute books. That’s why campaigners must now prepare for a hard slog in the year ahead.

My own conclusion is based on years – decades – of dealing with government do-goodery in respect of the internet.

Do not fall for this.

At best it will do little to help. At worst, it will turn out to be a horror, silencing all but sanitised politically correct debate within the LGBT+ community. And over time it could open us to far worse abuse and censorship than anything we experience now.