June 1, 2020 Print

Big Brother Watch, an Atlas Network partner in the United Kingdom, has successfully worked with a coalition of allies to alter pending legislation that sought to censure online speech. The Online Harms White Paper mandated that tech companies remove “harmful” content from their platforms—a vague policy that not only infringes on free speech rights, censoring the lawful speech of millions of people, but also would have forced tech companies to closely monitor users with filtering technologies. In response to the bill, Big Brother Watch, along with Atlas Network partner Adam Smith Institute and other British NGOs, sent a comprehensive policy briefing to government officials, highlighting the need for free speech and the dangers of online censorship.

Big Brother Watch also worked to influence public opinion through a multifaceted media campaign through interviews and articles with some of the most prominent U.K. outlets, including The Guardian, Tech Crunch, BBC, and The Daily Mail. The Telegraph, a news outlet closely associated with the government that has campaigned in support of the Online Harms White Paper, released an article calling on the government not to undermine online free speech.

On the same day The Telegraph article was published, the U.K. Home Office and Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport published the Government’s Initial Consultation Response, altering their hard line on “harmful” content by removing the legal requirement for tech companies to remove objectionable content. This is a major policy shift from the former, more censorious iteration of plans, and will empower the tech companies to make decisions for themselves. 

The Online Harms White Paper was due to be introduced in Parliament shortly thereafter, but has been delayed indefinitely due to Brexit, parliamentary prorogation, the general election, and the COVID-19 crisis. In the meantime, Big Brother Watch plans to continue to advocate for a free and open internet service in the U.K. “At a time when the right to free speech faces unprecedented threats and internet policies directly mediate the rights of billions of people,” explained Big Brother Watch’s Silkie Carlo, “this work couldn't be more important."

Big Brother Watch has been active on issues related to tech freedom, and their efforts to roll back state surveillance and protect privacy rights is having an impact at the highest levels of government. In response to a complaint filed by Big Brother Watch, the Revenue & Customs Office deleted an unlawful database of 5.1 million biometric Voice IDs that were collected without consent. Big Brother Watch also contributed to the public pressure for the government to reduce the duration of the draconian Coronavirus Act from two years to six months.

Atlas Network supported Big Brother Watch’s free speech initiative with an Illiberalism Grant.