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.

Join the discussion


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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