Closed petition Do not restrict our right to freedom of expression online.

We believe the Government's draft Online Safety Bill poses one of the greatest threats to free speech of any law in the UK in living memory. We are calling on the Government to remove provisions within the Bill which specifically target lawful expression.

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The right to free expression is the foundation of our democracy in the UK. The Online Safety Bill does nothing to help police deal with crime online but will force social media companies to act on lawful speech of any type that Ministers choose. The Government has a duty under human rights law to protect free speech and must remove requirements that specifically target lawful speech from the Bill.

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Government responded

This response was given on 27 January 2022

The Government is committed to protecting free speech. The Bill contains strong protections for freedom of expression and will not prevent adults from accessing or posting legal content.

Read the response in full

Freedom of expression and the media are essential qualities of a flourishing democracy. The Government is committed to maintaining a free and open internet, in line with our democratic values.

One of the overarching principles of our Online Safety framework is to ensure that freedom of expression is protected online. These laws will usher in a new era of accountability for tech companies that will uphold free expression and pluralism online.

Safeguards for freedom of expression have been built in throughout the framework. All in-scope companies will need to consider and implement safeguards for freedom of expression when fulfilling their duties.

Nothing in the Bill requires companies to remove specific lawful content accessed by adults. We recognise that adults have the right to upload and access content that some may find offensive or upsetting. The largest and riskiest services, Category 1 services, will be required to clearly set out how they will deal with legal but harmful content. They must consistently enforce these rules, meaning that they will no longer be able to arbitrarily remove content. Users will have access to effective mechanisms to appeal if they believe that content has been removed unfairly.

Category 1 services will have additional duties to protect democratic and journalistic content. They must consider whether the public interest in seeing some types of content outweighs the potential harm it could cause. They will need to set clear policies up front for how they will treat such content and enforce these consistently.

Category 1 services will also have duties to assess the impact of their safety policies on freedom of expression and to demonstrate the steps they are taking to mitigate this impact. They will need to assess the impact on freedom of expression both when deciding on, and after they have adopted, their safety policies.

The regulator, Ofcom, as a public body, has an obligation under the Human Rights Act not to act in a way which is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression when carrying out its duties. This protects against Ofcom putting in place unnecessary or disproportionate measures that restrict users’ freedom of expression.

If platforms don’t comply with their duties, including their freedom of expression duties, Ofcom can take enforcement action and fine the relevant company up to £18 million or 10% of their global annual revenue.

The Online Safety Bill will reduce the prevalence of illegal content and activity online and create a safer environment in which users feel more able to express their views. This issue was also highlighted by the Joint Committee for Scrutiny of the Online Safety Bill and we are considering if there is anything further that can be done within the Online Safety Bill to support this. There are existing legal frameworks to support police in the identification of online offenders and the criminal justice system will continue to bring criminals to justice.

The government has also invested in specialist investigation teams at regional and national level to provide the relevant knowledge, skills and capabilities for enforcement online. This includes our funding for a Police Online Hate Crime Hub to improve the police response to victims of online hate crime, and our existing Social Media Hub, which brings together a dedicated team of police officers and staff to take action against online material.

Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Other parliamentary business

Report on the draft Online Safety Bill to be debated by MPs

On Thursday 13 January, MPs will debate a report published by the Committee set up to consider the Government's draft Online Safety Bill, which will place new legal duties on social media and other online service providers to tackle harmful content on their platforms.

Watch the debate on Thursday: https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/3e3fee3d-f56b-4866-8de4-8ee26cdace33

You can also read a transcript of the debate a few hours after it has finished: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2022-01-13

The debate will begin after a debate on ongoing detention of Bahraini political prisoners.

This will be a general debate. General debates allow MPs to debate important issues, however they do not end in a vote nor can they change the law.

Find out more about how Parliamentary debates work:
https://www.parliament.uk/about/how/business/debates/

Find out more about the Online Safety Bill

The Online Safety Bill is a proposed new law which will establish a regulatory framework to tackle harmful content online. A draft version of the Bill was published in May 2021, and Parliament is due to begin considering the final version of the Bill in the coming months.

Find out more about the draft Bill on the Government's website: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/landmark-laws-to-keep-children-safe-stop-racial-hate-and-protect-democracy-online-published

Read the draft Bill and related documents: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/draft-online-safety-bill

What is the Joint Committee on the Online Safety Bill?

The Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee) has been appointed to consider the Government's draft Online Safety Bill. It's a cross-party committee made up of members from the House of Commons and House of Lords, and is independent of the Government.

Find out more about the Committee's work on their website: https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/534/draft-online-safety-bill-joint-committee/

You can get updates on their work by following the Committee on Twitter: https://twitter.com/OnlineSafetyCom

This is a ‘Joint Committee’. Find out how Joint Committees work: https://www.parliament.uk/about/how/committees/joint/

Find out more about the Committee's report

The Joint Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill published its report looking at the Government's draft Bill on 14 December 2021. The report recommends several changes to the Bill.

Find out more about the report, including a comment from Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Committee: https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/534/draft-online-safety-bill-joint-committee/news/159784/no-longer-the-land-of-the-lawless-joint-committee-reports/

Read the full report: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt5802/jtselect/jtonlinesafety/129/12902.htm

The Government now must respond to the Committee's report.

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Petitions Committee publishes report on tackling online abuse and announces debate

On Tuesday 1 February, the Petitions Committee published a new report on Tackling Online Abuse, which examines what the Government can do to help protect social media users from abuse online.

The report is the result of an inquiry by the Committee, in which it heard from petition creators, campaign groups, social media companies, and experts on social media regulation.

Read a summary of the report and its key recommendations to the Government:
https://ukparliament.shorthandstories.com/tackling-online-abuse-petitions-report/index.html

The Committee has also scheduled a debate in Parliament on the two petitions which prompted its inquiry, which will take place on Monday 28 February.

Find out more, including comment from Petitions Committee Chair Catherine McKinnell MP:
https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/326/petitions-committee/news/160612/failure-to-prevent-repeated-online-abuse-should-lead-to-fines-for-social-media-companies-say-mps

About the Committee's report

The report looks at how the Government and social media companies can better respond to abusive behaviour taking place online, and address the harm abuse can cause to people who receive it, and their families.

It looks at new laws the Government is planning to introduce in the Online Safety Bill, which the Government has said will help to tackle online abuse.

The report also considers how to ensure people abusing others online are held accountable for their actions, including changes to the criminal law to punish this behaviour, and whether social media users should be required to link their account to a real world identity document.

The report calls on the Government to take action including:

  • Fining social media companies that fail to prevent people who have been banned from the platform for abusive behaviour from setting up new accounts
  • Requiring social media companies to give their users the option to link their account to verified ID and block interactions with unverified users
  • Strengthening the protections for adults in the Online Safety Bill against the risk of facing abuse on social media, in particular for groups of users who are more likely to receive abuse.

Read the full report (HTML): https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5802/cmselect/cmpetitions/766/report.html
Read the full report (PDF): https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/8669/documents/89002/default/

What happens next?

The Petitions Committee has submitted the report to the Government for their consideration. The Government is expected to respond to the Committee's report within two months. Once it’s been received, the Committee will publish the Government’s response on its website and notify petitioners.

Follow the Committee on Twitter for updates on its work: https://twitter.com/hocpetitions

The Government is expected to introduce the Online Safety Bill in Parliament later this year. Once it has been presented in Parliament you'll be able to read the Bill and follow its progress here: https://bills.parliament.uk/

Westminster Hall debate

The Committee has also scheduled a debate on the following petitions relating to online abuse which have received more than 830,000 signatures in total:

The debate will take place on Monday 28 February from 4:30pm, and will last for up to 3 hours. You will be able to watch the debate on Parliament's YouTube channel here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_eyMIEc564&feature=youtu.be

The debate will be opened by Catherine McKinnell MP, the Chair of the Petitions Committee. The Government will send a Minister to respond.

New online safety laws start their journey through Parliament

On Thursday 17 March, the Government's Online Safety Bill was introduced in the House of Commons. This is the first stage of a Bill's passage through the House of Commons and takes place without debate. The Bill now has to go through other stages in Parliament before it becomes law.

The Bill aims to protect the safety of internet users. It proposes that social media companies and other platforms should be legally required to tackle illegal and harmful content and behaviour online. This includes online abuse.

Read the Government's press release:
https://www.gov.uk/government/news/world-first-online-safety-laws-introduced-in-parliament

To coincide with the Bill's introduction, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries MP gave a written statement to the House of Commons.

Read the Minister's statement:
https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-statements/detail/2022-03-17/hcws691

About the Bill

The Bill introduces new legal rules, which will apply to online platforms that allow users to post content or interact with each other. It will require platforms to remove illegal material and protect children from encountering harmful content.

The largest platforms, including the most popular social media websites, will also have to say whether they will remove or limit access to some types of content that is legal but harmful to adults. The Government will set out what types of content this will involve once the Bill has become law. It's likely that this will include online abuse.

Ofcom will act as a new online safety regulator and will be able to fine these platforms if they do not meet their new obligations - for example, if they fail to remove abusive content where they have promised to do so.

The Bill also introduces new requirements on platforms to protect users’ freedom of expression, and to give users the ability to appeal if content they have posted is removed without good reason.

Read a factsheet about the Bill:
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/online-safety-bill-supporting-documents/online-safety-bill-factsheet

Petitions Committee Chair response to Online Safety Bill

The Bill's introduction follows the publication in February of the Petitions Committee’s report into Tackling Online Abuse. The Committee called on the Government to strengthen protections for social media users against online abuse.

The Chair of the Committee, Catherine McKinnell MP, has welcomed the Bill's publication but pointed to areas where it could still go further, in line with the Committee's recommendations in its report.

Read the response from the Committee Chair:
https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/326/petitions-committee/news/164923/chair-responds-to-publication-of-the-governments-online-safety-bill/

Next steps

A date for the Bill's Second Reading - a debate on the general principles of the Bill - will be announced in due course.

You can keep up to date with the Bill's progress and read a copy of the Bill here:
https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/3137

You can find out more about how a Bill becomes law here:
https://www.parliament.uk/about/how/laws/passage-bill/

MPs to begin debating the Online Safety Bill

MPs will debate the Government's Online Safety Bill on Tuesday 19 April in the main House of Commons chamber. The debate should start sometime after 3:30pm, following any ministerial statements or urgent questions and the introduction of a Ten Minute Rule Bill.

You can watch the debate here:
https://www.parliamentlive.tv/Commons

You'll be able to read a transcript of the debate a few hours after it ends:
https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2022-04-19

This is a Second Reading debate, where MPs discuss the general principles of the Bill. It is the first opportunity for MPs to formally debate the proposals included in the Bill. At the end of the debate, MPs will decide whether the Bill can progress to the next stage in the process of becoming law.

Find out more about what happens at Second Reading debates:
https://www.parliament.uk/about/how/laws/passage-bill/commons/coms-commons-second-reading/

About the Online Safety Bill

The Government has said that the Bill will help to protect the safety of internet users, while defending free speech online.

The Bill would create new legal requirements on social media companies and other platforms to address illegal and harmful content and behaviour online. It would also place new requirements on platforms to protect users’ freedom of expression, and to give users the ability to appeal if content they have posted is removed without good reason.

The Bill would also repeal existing laws relating to malicious and harmful communications online, and proposes new offences to replace them.

Read a Government factsheet about the Bill:
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/online-safety-bill-supporting-documents/online-safety-bill-factsheet

Read the House of Commons Library analysis of the Bill:
https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9506/

You can keep up to date with the Bill's progress and read a copy of the Bill here:
https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/3137

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