The UK’s Online Safety Bill is a “hostage-taking” law. That should terrify you.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
UK policy
Pakkin Leung, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Last week there was a lot of attention paid to the managerial liability provisions in the Online Safety Bill. This came in the context of the Minister’s appearance at the Joint Committee, which, um, escalated quickly:

As I wrote in my previous post, the mask slipped that the provisions were anything other than an obsessive vendetta about two specific people:

I’ve explained at length before about how this obsession around legislating to “get” a handful of specific people, and the ensuing Bill that has been drafted around it, will sweep in and take down completely innocent UK tech sector workers as collateral damage. I’ve also explained how our political establishment doesn’t want to hear that uncomfortable truth. Only witch-hunts, arrests, and show trials of billionaire celebrities and political enemies will satisfy them. I’m actually getting quite tired of having to repeat these points.

My personal frustration aside, I’m aware that I have now been living in this Bill process for two and a half years, but most people have only heard about it in the past month. Many of them are raising great questions around the managerial liability provisions as they wrap their heads around three hundred pages of legalese:

This post is going to explain that latter question: if the UK government is determined to arrest people – somebody, anybody – to make their point, how exactly are they going to go about that?

In the simplest terms, the Online Safety Bill is an example of what academics and policy people refer to as a “hostage-taking law”. I believe the term was coined by Jason Pielemeier of the GNI.

What is a hostage-taking law? This is a trend happening across the board, in global internet regulation, which essentially works like this: internet companies which have a substantial presence in a country, which is typically defined by a number of users or a financial turnover threshold, are required to appoint an in-country person to be that company’s representative to that country’s government.

This, however, is not so the in-country representative can be invited to the ribbon cutting ceremony at the new company offices.

This is so the in-country representative can be that very person, as pondered in the question above, who the government can call in, scream at, threaten with arrest, threaten with criminal charges, throw into a police car, and prosecute in a show trial, in the event that the company is not moderating content to that government’s wishes.

I want you to think about that sentence very carefully while I explain the three terrifying recriminations of hostage-taking laws as a form of internet regulation, because you need to remember that this Bill is not (despite what the government’s disinformation may have left you believing) a piece of social media, tech giant, or platform regulation. It’s free speech regulation. And it will impact virtually any business worldwide with an online presence, including yours.

The first recrimination of mandating a hostage-taking content moderation law, as I explained in my previous capacity, is that you have a job that no one in their right mind would want to take. That person’s job is not to run a good company, improve products and services, or make the internet safe. That person’s job is to spend every minute of the day shitting themselves about potentially being arrested for something that some user of their service, somewhere in the country, said or did, in a manner which someone somewhere in the government found unacceptable.

If that was your job, what would you do? You would err on the side of caution and engage in what is known as collateral censorship. That means that you would instigate a company-wide policy in the country of taking down everything and anything that might potentially offend someone, even if it’s fully legal speech, rather than live in fear of personal prosecution.

In other words, it is content moderation through terror.

The second recrimination is around the word “hostage”. That mandatory in-country representative is essentially serving as the proxy for the tech billionaire whom the government is actually targeting. Whatever is thrown at them – threats, arrests, criminal penalties, show trials – is meant to send a message to the celebrity billionaire. The idea is that the billionaire will either break, and do the government’s bidding, or will – in the wildest wild west sheriff fantasies of some of our politicians – fly out to the country to trade themselves for the hostage. Either way, governments which draft hostage-taking laws are proving the point I made about their willingness to take innocent people down as collateral damage.

And the third recrimination, as should be obvious, is the precedent which hostage-taking laws establish for countries even more corrupt and authoritarian than the post-Brexit UK. Imagine how a hostage-taking law would work in countries where it is illegal to question the government, or to fail to venerate Dear Leader, or to offend the state religion, or to represent the opposition, or to be gay. It would work by forcing internet companies to be the eyes, ears, and censors of the government, at the threat of personal arrest and prosecution for those who fail to do the government’s bidding.

And not only would a hostage-taking law in an authoritarian country work that way, it would succeed, because these countries will be able to say: Look, the UK has made this a law too! The Mother of Parliaments says this kind of law is good policy! If the UK is doing it, so can we.

The world’s opinion, however, will differ.

“I was convicted of a crime that didn’t exist for a story I didn’t write, edit, or supervise. While I and a former colleague were found guilty, our company was not.”Maria Ressa, speaking on the Lawfare Podcast

Now we need to pause, and take a deep breath here, and reflect on the implications of using hostage-taking laws to force internet companies to assist governments in the persecution of their political opponents. Because no matter how much you might happen to dislike the guy, that is exactly what is already happening, right now, here, with the UK’s Online Safety Bill, whose backers – as we saw in last week’s committee hearing – count “getting” a former political opponent as one of their explicit objectives for the Bill.

The question you need to ask, in the context of this British government, is where does it go after that, and to whom?

Right now, the UK is heading down a very dangerous path by turning the Online Safety Bill into a “world-leading” precedent for enacting hostage-taking laws as a form of brute force content moderation. We need some adults in the room – whether that’s representatives of civil society, academia, or law – to nudge the debate away from playing the man and back to playing the ball. We need to make sure this law, and any regulation purporting to address online harms, is centred around system design and company liability, and not around using personal threats against tech workers to silence us all.

And I regret to inform you that isn’t going to happen as long as we have Ministers, Joint Committee members, and Parliamentarians who spend so much time fantasising about the things they’d like to do to Mark Zuckerberg that they occasionally have to excuse themselves to a quiet room and drop their trousers.

Header image: Pakkin Leung, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.