by Mark Johnson
Monday, 6
September 2021
Explainer
10:56

The Government Censorship Unit you’ve never heard of

The "Counter Disinformation Cell" is monitoring your online statements
by Mark Johnson

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.

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Keith Jefferson
Keith Jefferson
9 months ago

I have a fundamental belief in free speech and public access to information (barring access to official secrets necessary for state security). But even if I did not have such a slightly libertarian view, I would question the tactics of Govt agencies clamping down on ‘disinformation’. I am guessing that the Govt wants to crack down on those peddling the grand conspiracies, such as QA, the Great Reset, the Great Replacement etc. I don’t buy into any of this. The problem is, though, that there are sometimes tiny little nuggets of truth upon which these wild theories flourish, which are often deliberately obscured from debate. A classic example given the article above is the lab leak theory – anyone discussing it this time last year would have been denounced as a Sinophobe or a lunatic. Other issues (amongst others) that don’t seem to be debated enough are the gradual erosion / restriction / impediments to cash transactions and the need to conduct everything online (which feeds into the Great Reset theory), the funding of UK mosques by the Saudis peddling their own version of Islam and the willingness to accept high levels of immigration despite a housing shortage (which feeds into the Great Replacement theory), let alone the net zero targets which are likely to result in air travel and car ownership being severely restricted for ordinary people (Great Reset again). Anyone trying to debate such issues risks being labelled a conspiracy theorist or a racist. 
Dissuading people from discussing such topics is counterproductive. The public is not so thick that exposure to such debate will draw them into the arms of the conspiracy theorists. But trying to censor such debate may well do. I read somewhere back in 2020 (and I’m pretty sure it was in the Sunday Times – I don’t read conspiracy websites) that the Counter Disinformation Cell was drawn from a Psyops unit trying to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan. How did that go?
The answer to the spread of disinformation is more free speech and open debate, not less. That’s one of the reasons I subscribe to Unherd – at least it leans in that direction.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
9 months ago

“. I am guessing that the Govt wants to crack down on those peddling the grand conspiracies, such as QA, the Great Reset, the Great Replacement etc. I don’t buy into any of this. The problem is, though, that there are sometimes tiny little nuggets of truth upon which these wild theories flourish,”

The Great Reset is TRUE. It is the position the World Economic Forum has taken, where you will own nothing, and be happy. Klaus Schwab says it, he says that. The Great Replacement? How about Blair and ‘Rubbing the Right’s Nose in It’ (google if you do not know it). I am from London, left in the 1970s. My old parts are not really British anymore – all my old friends gone, they could not afford their homes they grew up in – they were ‘Replaced’, as were most of the folk from then. How about Biden and the Border?????

Anyway, be a good sheep and think truths are Conspiracies. WWG1WGA, has a good nugget in it too.

Peta Seel
Peta Seel
9 months ago

It isn’t only disinformation on social media that needs looking at. The MSM are guilty of disseminating it as well, often at the behest of the government as we have learned, especially since March 2020. So the question: “To whom are you accountable” is probably the most pertinent.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
9 months ago

This is indeed quite worrying. Yet, it seems that a complete absence of regulation would mean free rein to systematic disinformation campaigns from foreign intelligence services (China, Russia, …), uncontrolled platform companies, and political and economical interest groups groups, quite apart from systematic harassment campaigns (from either side) to force out anyone you do not like. A transparent set of rules might be a lesser evil, but even that is scarily vulnerable to woke capture.

Does anyone have a practical proposal to how this might be done?

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
9 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

The systematic harassment campaigns flourish anyway, largely as a result of social media. As for the rest, the answer is to leave it to the good sense of the public. These censorship rules always seem to presume that some civil servant somewhere knows better than we do what is good for us, and that we will all become flat earthers if they don’t protect us. This is patronising and dangerous nonsense.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
9 months ago
Reply to  Hosias Kermode

I have observed within the commenting area of Substack that some viewpoints are attacked by creating threads of excessive size. Their comment threading, similar to Unherd then become unwieldy and drowns out some points. It’s related to page layout but a campaign to “shove out” will work. Back in Usenet days that worked to limit postings within, at the time, limited thread lengths.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
9 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Seems to me that the public has a lot of innate common sense and is perfectly capable of making its own considered judgement without censorship from big brother. It is vital to allow the free competition of ideas in the marketplace. Some may be wrong, but others that may be considered wrong and misinformation at the time by the powers that be may be proved to be correct later on. An obvious example is the orchestrated dismissal of the lab theory origin of the Wuhan virus and regarding everybody who supported this as a loon conspiracy theorist. Yet, the lab origin was always the most likely explanation given that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was located right in the middle of Wuhan, that they had a massive collection of bat corona viruses, and they were know to be conducting experiments in which viruses were passaged through humanized mice. The same is true for the orchestrated campaign together with the taking down/censorship of youtube videos, facebook posts and tweets, related to the potential use of ivermectin, vitamin D, zinc and even hydroxychloroquine, and the latter only because Trump touted it. Now, none of these things may actually work but they are harmless with a very long track records and billions of doses administered since their introduction so there is nothing to lose. One might conclude that there is a lot of conflict of interest involving the government-pharmaceutical complex coupled with pandemic profiteering to only allow the introduction of new, untested, unproven and of course super-expensive approaches from fancy drugs such as remdesivir which were later on shown to be useless, to booster and double booster (now being advocated in Israel) shots of the vaccines. i.e. the powers that be instead of hitting the brakes for a bit of reflection and just pushing on without thought and doubling down on stupid.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
9 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Yes – get the gov out of free speech. Then make Social media either be ‘publishers’, or the ‘town square’ – NOT Both as the wind blows.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
9 months ago

‘in order to protect users against a state-issued concept of “harm”.’ Which, fundamentally, is the role of government e.g. laws against murder, theft, rape, et al.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

I don’t think you quite grasp the difference between murder and free speech!

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
9 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

As Oliver Wendell Holmes observed in Schenck v. United States, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic…”
Sometimes the exercise of free speech can cause a significant threat of harm to people.

L Walker
L Walker
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Mike, we need more people like you repeating that hoary old Supreme Court nonsense. We used to believe in free speech in the USA, but them days is gone, probably forever. Dystopia, here we are.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

‘Significant Threat’.

Like people dieing in a stampede from the fire shout. Not feelings hurt by saying Women have XX Chromosomes, and men XY.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

That restriction issue involves action – causing a stampede. Stick & stones vs words on a page. One can harm the other can’t.

Diana Durham
Diana Durham
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Not the role of government, but the law and law courts.