The safety of regulating online harms

Will government regulations addressing online harms make it less safe to be online?

That is what the heads of a number of messaging apps have told the UK government. A recent article on reports that executives from WhatsApp, Signal, Viber, Element, OPTF, Threema, and Wire have signed an open letter calling on the UK to rethink its Online Harms bill (that I have discussed previously).

“The UK Government must urgently rethink the Bill, revising it to encourage companies to offer more privacy and security to its residents, not less.”

The companies warned that as “currently drafted, the Bill could break end-to-end encryption, opening the door to routine, general and indiscriminate surveillance of personal messages of friends, family members, employees, executives, journalists, human rights activists and even politicians themselves, which would fundamentally undermine everyone’s ability to communicate securely.”

Writing about various states’ legislative bills aimed at protecting your from harms on social media, Ben Sperry of the International Center for Law & Economics opined, “It’s understandable that legislators would seek solutions to address the perceived harm that social-media usage may cause, especially for teen girls. But where these proposals go wrong is in substituting lawmakers’ own preferences for the decisions of parents and teens on how and when to best use social media.” Sperry says the predictable result would be for social media platforms to invest more in excluding teens from their platforms altogether, rather than investing in creating safe spaces for them to connect and learn online. “This may even be the goal of some legislators, but it’s not beneficial to teens, parents, or society in long run.”

Similar to what we have seen with digital legislation in Canada, the UK’s review of the Online Harms bill has been deeply polarizing. The author of the article is pretty clear about his views on the legislation. “Given the degree of technological and ethical illiteracy shown in the drafting of this bill and its passage through the House of Commons, there seems little hope that the Lords will understand what’s at stake. But we’d be delighted to be proved wrong and cross our fingers that the Bill is returned to the government with lots of red ink on it.”

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