Any measure taken to protect the safety of children could be considered an important and worthy cause. No reasonable person would ever support harm to a child in any way. When governments pass laws regarding virtual crime and children, it’s likely that they’re doing so with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, the methods they often use are less effective than the methods parents should be using to keep their own children safe.
The latest example of this potential failing is the new UK online safety bill. This bill is designed not to enforce its own laws, but to do so by holding other platforms accountable for their compliance if they wish to operate within the United Kingdom. It’s clunky, impossible to navigate, and may only be satisfied through the use of thorough blanket restrictions that require less manpower for manual oversight.
What’s in the Bill?
The bill aims to curb the spread of child sexual exploitation and terrorism. That’s not problematic in any way. Governments have a responsibility to protect their population from things that are harmful 100% of the time. Terrorism and child sexual exploitation are harmful, bottom line. There are no exceptions to these circumstances.
It targets social media platforms and search engines. They’re responsible for identifying and removing content that falls under the categories of child sexual exploitation and terrorism. The bill does nothing to combat things like financial cybercrimes. It’s specifically focused on these two types of content.
So what’s the problem? It seems as though every level headed sane person would want to see terrorism and child exploitation eradicated. You won’t encounter any objections from law abiding citizens. They’d love a world where people are safe and children aren’t being harmed.
The problem lies in the use of the bill’s term “ordinary sensibilities”. This may not seem like a problem until you contemplate what censoring things that are harmful to “ordinary sensibilities” may mean. The short answer? Literally anything.
The “Ordinary Sensibilities” Issue
Vague wording is the enemy of the law, and the vagaries in the UK online safety bill are its most troubling aspect. The issue comes in the following suggestion: “[…] reasonably identify as having a material risk of an adverse physical or psychological impact on a child or adult of ‘ordinary sensibilities'”
The term “ordinary sensibilities” can mean a lot of things. If someone is religious, content that is atheistic in nature could have an adverse psychological impact on their “ordinary sensibilities”. Horror films, content containing nudity or drug use, or even stand up comedy written and performed for an adult can have an adverse psychological impact on a child of “ordinary sensibilities”.
With language so lax, the harm bill could theoretically wipe archived Richard Pryor or George Carlin performances from the internet. These aren’t things that reasonable people would consider necessary to abolish, but they’re technically eligible for censorship.
While it’s perfectly reasonable for a government to prioritize keeping children safe online and to consider the abuse of children a crime, they need to do a better job at defining what abuse of children is. A responsible twelve year old might enjoy watching classic horror movies, but if a film like The Shining were deemed to pose a risk of adverse psychological impact on their “ordinary sensibilities”, someone could be censored for sharing it online.
This doesn’t mean that the UK will censor this content, but it means they have the option to. They’re the ones who ultimately decide what “ordinary sensibilities” are. If parents are concerned with what their children may be viewing online, the best course of action is for parents to use parental controls or to limit device time. It isn’t up to the government to decide and enforce limits.
The only thing explicitly protected from “ordinary sensibilities” is political opinions and journalism. These are great things to protect, but they aren’t the only forms of speech that need further protection.
The Consequences for Companies
The bill, enforced by the UK’s Office of Communications (OfCom) includes penalties of 10% of a platforms global turnover if they fail to comply with censorship or removal requests that violate this bill. This is a classic example of a government pushing a private company to act as law enforcement when they’re not equipped to do so. It isn’t the responsibility of a website like Twitter to assure that tweets won’t offend the “ordinary sensibilities” of a person living in the UK, whatever those may be.
Social media platforms can’t afford to pull out of large markets. When governments place restrictions on them, they feel compelled to comply. If they don’t, they’ll lose millions of users. The biggest problem with these restrictions is that they often go above and beyond what these platforms are already capable of doing. Of course social media platforms forbid child exploitation and terrorism. It’s in their terms of service. Of course they turn over information about users who violate the restrictions and the law by posting this content.
Imposing fines on them for not catching violations quickly enough can have unintended consequences for users and platforms. The only thing that they can realistically do is apply blanket censors that will reduce the risk of accidental noncompliance.
Your Sensibilities Are Your Sensibilities
Keeping children safe on the internet and immobilizing terrorists is important, but it shouldn’t be done in a way that punishes law abiding people from accessing harmless content that they enjoy.
If you ever have concerns that the movies you watch or comedy you enjoy may be offensive to “ordinary sensibilities”, your best option is to use a VPN. VPNs like TorGuard completely anonymize you online. Your browsing history cannot be viewed by or censored by anyone. If you want to search for something “offensive to sensibilities”, TorGuard will keep your search safe and private.
They can also work to bypass region specific censors on social media platforms. If social media platforms take things too far in an effort to appease OfCom, you can make your traffic appear to come from a different country where those restrictions aren’t imposed.