Fifty-seven organisations from nearly every continent on Earth have signed onto a letter urging the UK Government to scrap the exemptions, exceptions and exclusions in the Online Safety Bill.
Instead of exempting certain actors, we want to see robust protections for freedom of expression and other human rights applied equally. The letter also condemns the vast powers given to the Secretary of State under the bill’s framework, and urges the bill to include provisions enabling civil society and researchers to access data in order to assess the true nature and scale of harm online.
We are concerned about the global impacts of the bill, including the potential for it to turn the UK into the world’s “disinformation laundromat” by exempting some of the biggest proponents of disinformation from any sort of oversight – all while regulating the speech of regular people. As written, the bill risks making people less safe online than they are currently, and jeopardises freedom of speech by creating a two-tiered hierarchical internet.
Getting it right is more important than getting it done. The bill must be amended.
Fair Vote UK has written to the Culture Secretary alongside 15 other civil society organisations to warn the government that their Online Safety Bill is “on the verge of being unworkable“. This letter lays out the big problems with the bill – and our “menu” of amendments for a robust, rights-protecting framework for digital regulation.
The signatory organisations include.
The Online Safety Bill is a major piece of legislation that has significant potential to change the way we communicate online for the better. It could be the UK’s answer to the EU’s Digital Services Act, reigning in the damage to democracy, social well-being, and public discourse that big tech platforms have allowed to continue for years. However, in its current form it falls far short of that mark.
A central issue is that the bill’s provisions to protect freedom of expression are simply not strong enough. In its current form, the bill depends on a number of regulatory exemptions that would give free reign to some of the most pervasive types of harmful content – leaving paid advertising, media and news publisher content, and content of “democratic importance” completely out of scope. This is a non-solution, and means freedom of expression safeguards are not operating on a level playing field – that already privileged entities, such as the press and politicians, are likely to be afforded greater freedoms by platforms than ordinary people. These exemptions could actually mean that the OSB makes the bill less safe than before. Instead, general protections for freedom of speech should be strengthened greatly and applied equally to all users.
Read the full briefing we’ve prepared with Demos on these measures here:
It’s been one month since Russia invaded Ukraine. Putin’s autocratic government is violating international law in an imperialist attempt to conquer a sovereign nation, with catastrophic consequences for the Ukrainian people and their democratic rights. This invasion comes on top of previous Russian imperialist military action, including the annexation of Crimea in 2014. As the war carries on, the US and others have officially accused Putin of committing war crimes. Those who believe in democracy, peace, and human rights have an obligation to stand up for the people of Ukraine and their right to self-determination.
Putin’s politics are oligarchic, plutocratic and fundamentally opposed to democracy and public trust. Indeed, Putin cracks down on his own citizens for dissenting against his government’s violation of international law. It was recently announced that Russian universities would no longer teach sociology, cultural studies or political science classes, which are key incubators of political thought and activism in any nation. Their elections are rigged and Putin’s political opponents are tossed in jail and poisoned. This is why, importantly, we must remember that it’s the Russian leadership who are culpable, and not the Russian people writ large.
Putin’s disinformation tactics substantiate calls for a robust Online Safety Bill, and the connections between Putin-aligned oligarchs and UK politics are one major reason why we’re pushing for the Elections Bill to crack down on dark money. In our current era of global democratic backsliding, it’s imperative that we unite and fight for democracy wherever possible.
We not only need to show solidarity with democracies in peril, such as Ukraine’s, but to strengthen our own democratic systems and institutions, making them resilient to the influence of autocrats and standing as a testament to the importance of public trust and equality.
Yesterday, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy called for worldwide protest against Russia’s invasion. He urged people everywhere to “make yourself visible and heard” and to tell our governments that people matter, that freedom matters, and that peace matters.
We’ll be marching in solidarity with Ukraine alongside the European Movement, the Mayor of London, and many others tomorrow to show our support. We stand with Ukraine.
We’d love to see you there – you can sign up here.
Next Wednesday, the 23rd of February, the Elections Bill will go to the House of Lords for Second Reading. Despite the hard work of the Democracy Defence Coalition, a broad working group of civil society organisations and academics opposing the bill, it left the Commons with all of its dangerous provisions intact. It’s up to peers now to realise the terrible consequences that this bill could have if passed in current form.
The government is framing this bill as “common sense” policy, a natural continuation of electoral reform that is administrative and not political. We’ve seen the evidence. We know that’s not the case.
It’s quite clear to any paying attention what this Government is about: eschewing accountability, rejecting transparency, and looking out for themselves. They’re not interested in electoral integrity, they’re interested in power consolidation.
Nonetheless, the Government’s dishonest framing proved effective in the Commons, despite opposition parties’ forceful arguments against the bill. Ignoring the overwhelming evidence that Voter ID, a partisan Electoral Commission, limited campaigning for charities, and an expansion of FPTP are all disastrous ideas for improving the state of our electoral system, Conservative MPs towed the party line.
Now it’s up to the Lords. Ironically, this unelected wing of Parliament may be democracy’s saving grace by forcing a U-turn on this bill at 2nd reading. Even if they don’t halt the bill, they may be able to defeat the Government on amendments, chipping away at harmful provisions like Voter ID. Indeed, this is what happened with the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, when the Lords stood up to authoritarian protest restrictions and defeated the Government on 14 different amendments.
Why is this ironic? Because the House of Lords itself isn’t democratic. In the words of Electoral Reform Society, the House of Lords is a fully-unelected “private member’s club“, and “the only time the public is allowed into the House of Lords is to pay the bill”.
LSE’s Democratic Audit Team summed it up nicely in their report on the House of Lords:
“The growth in Lords membership and costs is unsustainable, its territorial representation is lamentable, the UK’s fourth-largest party is boycotting it, and the current members lack all democratic accountability and legitimacy.”
In our efforts to reach peers as part of our campaign against the Elections Bill, we found that many peers do not have publicly listed contact information. It’s an opaque remnant of a hierarchical and aristocratic system of governance that looks nothing like a modern democracy.
And yet here we are, relying on a wholly unelected second chamber to protect the UK from the authoritarian whims of this government. We believe many peers will do the right thing, just as they did for the PCSC bill, but the irony cannot be understated.
What this situation tells us is that the UK desperately needs real democratic reform and not a partisan elections bill.
Let’s listen to the experts, civil society, and the public when they say they want proportional representation, better regulation of campaign finance, automatic voter registration, and an end to unelected officials making policy with no democratic mandate.
It’s time we rebuild our democracy into something fit for the 21st century.
In a functioning democracy, the state represents the public will. Representatives follow the rule of law, and exercise transparency and accountability. The state’s powers are so extensive as to only be trusted in the hands of those who embody the informed choices of the public. The instant our leaders hide behind opaque bureaucratic processes, lie to manipulate the public, or put themselves above the rule of law, democracy is in jeopardy. Once leaders demonstrate a lack of respect for democratic accountability, nothing they do is trustworthy. In these moments, the public needs to remember that their government works for them, and remind their leaders that true democracy means accepting nothing less than honest, transparent and accountable governance.
The UK has been existing in such a moment for years now, and yet as the scandals continue, accountability is nowhere to be found.
The sheer number of scandals churning out of this government on a weekly basis is eye-watering. More than that, it inundates the public with upsetting information, causing a sensory overload effect that lasts until the next scandal breaks and the cycle repeats. Reminiscent of Donald Trump’s never-ending string of scandals during his time in the White House, the scandal floodgates are open and the public can’t keep up.
The current UK administration is currently mired in “Partygate“, referring to a string of large gatherings held during COVID-19 lockdown while the rest of the country was isolating. Sue Gray is expected to release a report shortly and the Metropolitan police is now involved with investigations as well. This is by no means the first major scandal under this administration. To list a few other highlights from just the past couple of years:
Consistently, this Government has obfuscated, lied and deflected in order to maintain power without addressing the fact that they broke the rules. They place themselves above the rule of law and therefore above the public, eschewing the fundamental democratic idea that the government works for the people. These scandals impede important conversations about policy and governance. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Trump’s politics in the states, in which lies, obfuscation and distraction techniques were constantly deployed to detract from obvious unlawful behaviour that in previous years would be career-ending.
The problems we’re facing are much deeper than the personal scandals of our representatives. Their lack of accountability mirrors larger trends in UK politics. Creating a more democratic political culture of accountability, transparency, and good governance will necessitate contending with these issues.
For one thing, British politics is becoming “Americanised“, with large shadowy campaign donations playing an increasingly central role. As Stephen Kinnock MP, the Chair of the APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency, notes: “That is a very dangerous place to be. We have been complacent about our democracy. We thought it would just look after itself.” Liam Byrne MP, in parliamentary debate over the Elections Bill, emphasised the importance of “clean[ing] up the laundromat of British politics, which is now awash with dark money from dubious sources”. Deidre Brock MP, in the same debate, brought up Unincorporated Associations, which “can be set up with the sole purpose of siphoning money to political campaigns” without scrutiny. The Committee on Standards in Public Life acknowledged the importance of contending with dark money in their report on regulating election finance, and yet the Government’s Elections Bill makes no attempt to address this issue. Dark money calls the accountability of our representatives into question because we don’t know where all of their funding came from and what political priorities may be associated with huge and underhanded influxes of cash into their campaigns.
Disinformation, conspiracy theories, and digital platforms inability to regulate themselves plays a role here as well, much as it did in Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns. Creating chaos and undermining trust, shady actors have used conspiracy theories such as QAnon and the Great Replacement theory, as well as disinformation about democratic systems and political issues like climate change and vaccines, to undermine trust and entrench extremist viewpoints that often skew into the anti-democratic. The Cambridge Analytica scandal saw political campaigns deploy big-data analysis to target digital platform users and manipulate them into voting a certain way. Data-harvesting and targeting allows campaigns to send tailored messages to specific groups, obfuscating the campaign’s real intentions and allowing them to pretend to be whoever they need to be to win a vote. This also calls accountability into question, because again, the priorities of the campaign and the representative don’t have to align with what the public actually wants, but what they’re told through micro-targeted advertising. This is why we’re working on the Online Safety Bill and encouraging a systems approach to digital platform regulation that will stop legal but harmful content from manipulating the public will with targeted half-truths and lies. For more reading about this incredibly pertinent phenomenon, check out Shoshanna Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism and Kyle Taylor’s Little Black Book of Data and Democracy.
A myriad of other problems have been pointed out as well, including our First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) voting system that enshrines minority rule and suppresses political diversity, the lack of power and independence given to our elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, the rise in corporate power over government, and much more.
British politics desperately needs large-scale electoral and digital reform to solve these problems. Strong proposals exist for proportional representation, votes at 16, automatic voter registration, and more, yet constantly get shut down in Parliament. There is some hope for a decent Online Safety Bill assuming the Joint Committee on the bill’s recommendations are heeded. On the whole though, this government is putting forward a number of bills that, just like their personal conduct, are unprincipled, undemocratic and unethical.
While the government suffered amendment defeats in the House of Lords to its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which threatened to crack down on the democratic right to protest, the Elections Bill made it through the Commons with all of its dangerous provisions in tact. This bill moves us further away from where we need to be heading. Voter ID, partisan control of the Electoral Commission, restrictions on third party campaigning, expansion of FPTP voting are not solutions to any of our problems, but new problems in and of themselves.
The Elections Bill does not address the serious challenges facing our democracy because this government does not care about fairness, accountability, or the rule of law. It is trying to entrench its own power and enshrine minority rule by making it harder to vote and undermining electoral enforcement mechanisms. Instead of focusing on the individual scandals of this administration and inundating ourselves with outrage to their benefit, we need to fight for real electoral reform and digital platform regulation. Our democracy is in a truly precarious place. Join us in fighting for its future.
The Government’s recent attempt to politicise how the behaviour of MPs is policed by changing the standards rules when they implicated a member of their own party has caused outrage both in the media and across the country. The Elections Bill will give the Government unprecedented power over how elections are run in our country. It’s a dangerous move that puts democracy at risk and, so far, it’s been rushed through Parliament with next to no consultation or scrutiny.
The all-party Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s recently issued report into the Elections Bill has urged the government to stop the passage of the bill and conduct a more thorough consultation. The Conservative Chair of the Committee, William Wragg MP said, “We feel that the elections bill proposals lack a sufficient evidence base, timely consultation, and transparency, all of which should be addressed before it makes any further progress. We cannot risk any reduction of trust in UK elections, which is why the majority of the committee is calling for the bill to be paused to give time for more work to be done to ensure the measures are fit for purpose.”
Fair Vote UK, in accordance with the Democracy Defence Coalition (DDC) encourages support for the following amendments and new clauses at the Elections Bill’s report stage on Monday, 17 January, 2021.
Support Amendment 1 to remove Voter ID provisions
Justification: Large numbers of eligible voters without the right photo ID could be excluded from our democracy – they are disproportionately likely to be young people, people with disabilities and the very old.
When photo ID was trialled in 10 areas holding local elections in 2019, over 2,000 people were turned away from the polls. The Government has refused to give any estimate of how many eligible voters could be turned away in a General Election due to a lack of a photo ID. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s report into the Elections Bill found that voter turnout dropped by 2.3% in 2003 Northern Ireland “as a direct consequence” of Voter ID – translated to UK elections, that could mean over a million eligible voters losing their vote.
The Government has announced that a free voter ID scheme will be run by councils at a cost of up to £180 million across ten years – but have provided no details of how that scheme will work – when people need to apply by, what documents they will need to provide or whether they will have to travel to council offices.
Support Amendment 9 to remove clause 13
Support Amendment 10 to remove clause 14, the “Electoral Commission’s duty to have regard to strategy and policy statement”
Justification: The Government is proposing to undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission by allowing its strategy and policy to be set by the Government and then monitored by a Government-dominated committee. Supporting amendments 9 and 10 will stop this from happening.
Mr Pullinger, the Chair of the Electoral Commission, expressed his concerns thus: “If the Bill is passed in its current form, it will be harder to demonstrate independence and for the public to be confident of independence…”
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report on the Elections Bill concluded that “the Government has not provided sufficient evidence to justify why the proposed measures are both necessary and proportionate.”
Third party campaigning:
Support Amendment 11 to remove clause 23, which restricts which third parties may incur controlled expenditure
Support Amendment 12 to remove clause 24, which allows the current Secretary of State to amend the list of which organisations can campaign.
Justification: Clauses 23 and 24 mean Ministers can decide to exclude a type of organisation or a category of individuals from spending more than £700 on election campaigning during the 365 days prior to election day (the regulated period). Because there are no fixed terms for Parliamentary elections, this can become a permanent restriction. For example, if a General Election is called in May 2022, then the regulated period would run back to May 2021 – so effectively charities will have to act as if they are always in a regulated period. This will have a huge chilling effect on democracy and elections.
Support New Clause 9 to require permissible donors to be based in the United Kingdom.
Member’s explanatory note: This new clause makes requirements for individual and company donors to be based in the United Kingdom and makes persons running companies liable for donation restriction evasion offences committed by those companies.
Support Amendment 125, which would require donors to be based in the UK.
Member’s explanatory note: This amendment would exclude non-UK-resident individuals from the definition of “permissible donor” for the purposes of the rules permitting donations to political parties.
Justification: Both of the above would ensure that only people resident in the United Kingdom can donate to a political party, safeguarding against foreign money flooding into UK democracy.
Support New Clause 3 to establish a citizens’ assembly representative of the population aged 16 and over to consider electoral systems in the United Kingdom.
Support New Clause 13 to introduce proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons.
Justification: Both of these new clauses would make the UK’s election system more representative of the electorate.
The Joint Committee on the Online Safety Bill has published an extensive report, recommending a number of legislative changes that will change the bill’s focus from content to systems.
This is critically important. The draft bill, as it currently stands, focuses more on content – this leads to unproductive conversations about legality and illegality of such content, when the important issue is the underlying algorithms and data-driven targeting systems that manipulate what people see online based purely on clicks and ad revenues.
We, alongside many other civil society campaigners and whistleblowers like Frances Haugen, have driven this point home for months – and the Committee has listened. The Online Safety Bill is an incredibly important piece of legislation for democracy, and, if well executed, could set the stage globally for a new era of digital regulation that protects democracy by reducing social division and disinformation. The Committee’s recommendations, if incorporated into the legislation, would ensure the bill does just that.
Importantly, the recommendations put “safety by design” at the core of digital intervention, seeking to require platforms to mitigate harm risks that stems from the design of the platform itself. Slowing down the speed at which content spreads, requiring more human moderation of large social media groups, limiting “one-click shares”, and mandating special arrangements for elections and other “periods of heightened risk”, are sensible interventions that strike at the core of the problem instead of scrambling to address the symptoms.
They echo what we and other campaigners have said about anonymity, calling for a right to anyone to verify their identity on social media and a right to filter out content from verified or unverified users. They endorse the Law Commission’s recommendations for new criminal communications offences. They support restraining the Secretary of State’s powers over the digital world included in the draft bill. They support strong protections for freedom of speech, and address grey areas in the original bill that grant regulatory exemption for “citizen journalists” and “democratically important” content, replacing it with “content where there are reasonable grounds to believe it will be in the public interest”.
The recommendations are best taken collectively, working together to turn the bill into a truly systems-oriented and harm-reductive framework for digital regulation. This bill could usher in a new dawn of democracy-protecting digital intervention – it’s imperative that the recommended changes be made.
Read our full overview of the Joint Committee’s report below:
The Government has yet again become entangled in an embarrassing corruption scandal, culminating in another U-turn from the PM on Thursday.
After an extensive report found (now former) MP Owen Paterson guilty of “egregious” violations of lobbying rules, the PM and many others in his party voted to do away with established ethics rules and block his 30-day suspension in order to cover for him.
When opposition leaders boycotted the new Conservative-led Committee to create new ethics rules and public outrage came to a head, the plan disintegrated. The PM has since called for a new vote to effectively undo the entire ordeal, scheduled for next week. Owen Paterson has resigned, yet still proclaims his innocence.
This is by no means the first public corruption scandal (or U-turn) of this calibre under this administration. The PM’s eye-watering disregard for any semblance of ethical governance has held much of civil society and the public in nearly perpetual shock over the last couple of years.
This administration’s brash and unapologetic rejection of established norms, as well as its knee-jerk inclination to protect its own, signals to the public that fairness and decency are not a part of its agenda. Unfortunately, this current of corruption isn’t just limited to its managing of scandals, but infests all of its political operations.
Unfairness is a cornerstone of this Government’s political strategy; it’s aiming to silence opposition by rigging the system in its favour. This is abundantly clear from the legislation we’ve seen put forward since 2019.
The Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, currently in Committee Stage in the House of Lords, would impede citizen’s rights to protest peacefully and grant authoritarian stop and search powers which will disproportionately affect people of colour.
The Judicial Review and Courts Bill, making its way through the Commons, would limit access to justice for many by removing their right to hold lawmakers accountable.
The Nationality and Borders Bill, also in the Commons, would make arriving in the UK without permission a criminal offence, with the Government aiming to “abdicate its commitments to international law”.
The common thread in both the PM’s conduct and the legislation put forward by ministers is that this Government refuses to be held accountable and will do everything it can to rig the system in its favour. Ethical principles have been tossed aside, viewed as barriers to power consolidation.
This brings us to the Elections Bill.
While the Government’s narrative around this bill has been one of “common sense” paired with a vague concern for non-existent voter fraud (perfectly mirroring one of Donald Trump’s famous campaign strategies), such a motive flies in the face of everything we’ve seen this Government willing to do to consolidate power. They’ve publicly demonstrated disdain for human rights, apathy towards regular Britons, and a prioritisation of their own political power above all else.
What have they done to give us any reason to believe those intentions, even for a second?
That narrative does not hold an ounce of water when you look at what’s actually in this bill.
They’d have us believe it’s simply a coincidence that the type of IDs accepted under the new voter identification scheme the bill introduces happen to belong to strong Conservative demographics.
They want you to think there’s an actual reason to limit postal and proxy voting, outside of sheer Trumpian anti-democratic power consolidation.
They hope you’ll just trust them on the Bill’s politicisation of the Electoral Commission, forcing the most important democratic institution in this country under their partisan control.
Do not trust their narrative when the real story has been in plain sight for years. Don’t listen when they tell you to ignore the evidence of your own eyes and ears.
With all the talk of “sleaze,” let’s recognise that there is a deeper and far more sinister underlying intent, evident in both the shameful and unending string of political scandals and the actual legislative agenda of this Government.
The intent is to rig the system in its favour, step on opposition, and consolidate as much power as possible.
This goes against everything modern Britain stands for and undermines the hard-earned achievements of past generations before us in establishing a democratic and free society.
Let’s pause and re-think whether this is truly what we want for our country.