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Tory peers say social media firms must not be forced to remove ‘legal but harmful content’

The Online Safety Bill must strip out curbs on “legal but harmful” content to protect free speech on social media, say Conservative peers.

Lord Frost, the former Brexit minister, welcomed promises by ministers to “tweak” what he claimed was a “frighteningly illiberal” bill but said that must include “at the bare minimum” removing the plans forcing social media firms to take down “legal but harmful” content.

Backed by Lords Moylan, Strathcarron and Baroness Stowell, the former Cabinet minister, Lord Frost said: “As things stand, the Bill would see companies like Meta enforcing dangerously vague requirements to remove harmful content on their platforms.

“It would also hand the Secretary of State the power to designate what constitutes such material in future, with only minimal parliamentary involvement.

“The Bill needs to protect the concept that most people think is self-evident, that if you can say something in the real world you should be able to say it online too. If it is legal to say then it must be legal to type.”

The peers fear that free speech could be curbed as social media firms could censor content through “woke” prejudices or algorithms.

Freedom of speech

Their warning, backed by former supreme court judge Lord Sumption, comes as Index on Censorship, an organisation that campaigns for free speech, has set out a series of amendments to protect free speech.

As well as removing the Bill’s clause 13 – which combats “legal but harmful” content – Index on Censorship also proposes narrowing the definition of “illegal” to safeguard against algorithms censoring content that could compromise freedom of speech.

It has also proposed protections for end-to-end encrypted communications as they say any monitoring of private messaging could leave users exposed to hacking by the backdoor and leave the UK vulnerable to cyber attacks.

Lord Sumption said: “This is a serious and constructive proposal for changing the more objectionable parts of this controversial Bill. The government would do well to take note.”

Lord Moylan said: “It needs radical revision to ensure that it does not create any new limitations on freedom of expression or give power to large unsupervised corporations.”

Baroness Stowell said: “It’s vital that the Online Safety Bill is amended so that we can introduce speedily the much-needed online protections for our children without jeopardising the principle of freedom of speech for adults.”

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