September 6, 2021 - 10:56am

Stories about censorship usually focus on the individuals prevented from publishing or saying something. But if we are to defend free expression from the new era of digital censorship, we need to focus much more closely on the censors themselves.

Few corporate actors are more powerful than social media companies and under the duress of political pressure, the power that they exercise over online discourse is slowly being melded to that of the state. Online speech standards based on maintaining corporate reputations have increasingly bent to political pressures and moral panics in recent years, often causing waves of online censorship in their wake.

In the UK, without any public clamour, this convergence has been occurring through the work of the Government’s opaque Counter Disinformation Cell. This opaque Government unit, Orwellian in name, is tasked with scouring social media platforms and flagging “disinformation” with the platforms themselves. The fact that a relatively unknown team of mandarins in Whitehall are tasked with the extra-judicial censorship of citizens’ speech, purely at the discretion of politicians and civil servants, is not only a violation of the right to freedom of speech but also an affront to democratic accountability and the rule of law.

This backroom relationship between the Government and the platforms is just a flavour of what we can expect to see in the future. The Government’s proposed Online Safety Bill will be the final culmination of this power convergence, where corporate terms & conditions and domestic law will be synonymous, and the platforms’ power will be consolidated by state legitimacy. Under the legislation, platforms will be compelled to fortify their terms of use and uphold them consistently in order to protect users against a state-issued concept of “harm”.

In a famous quote about power, the late Tony Benn devised a useful tool for measuring the legitimacy of authority. Benn’s five questions — “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” — should serve as the basis for scrutinising today’s arbiters of digital censorship.

Our new report, the State of Free Speech Online, attempts to navigate this swell of censorship. In documenting the impact upon ordinary people, we hope to send a warning about this censorial trajectory and the looming Online Safety Bill, which poses a greater threat to freedom of speech in the UK than any other law in living memory.

Mark Johnson is a Legal and Policy Officer at Big Brother Watch.

Mark Johnson is Advocacy Manager at Big Brother Watch.