This post is the second part of two posts on the draft Online Safety Bill. In my first post, here, I detailed the mechanics of the proposed bill in detail. This post will summarise some of the civil society responses since the publication of the draft bill, attempting an evaluation of how reasonable those responses are in light of the available information.
Does the bill go too far?
A recent report on freedom of expression online from the House of Lords, ‘Free for All? Freedom of Expression in the Digital Age’ (found here), recommends that the draft bill drops the duty to protect adults from contentious “legal but harmful” content. As detailed in the previous post, “category 1” services would have a duty under the draft bill to identify how their systems could cause adults to come into contact with user-generated content that is legal but nonetheless considered harmful. Further to that duty, they would be required to take steps to proportionately mitigate against the risk of exposure to that harmful content. Given the possibility to adverse impacts on freedom of expression, especially from the potential of overzealous policing of this provision by category 1 services to avoid liability, this has become one of the most controversial elements of the current draft bill.
The House of Lords report recommends that s. 11, implementing the adult safety duty, be dropped from the draft bill. As things stand, there are two ways in which content can be caught by the adult safety duty. Under s.46(2), the relevant secretary of state can designate by regulation certain types of content as “priority content”. Second, under s.46(3 – 5), content for which there is a “material risk” of having “significant adverse physical or psychological impact on an adult of ordinary sensibilities” is also considered “content that is harmful to adults”. Category 1 services must take steps to proportionately mitigate against the likelihood of adults using their service to come into contact with these types of content.
On 22 December 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) published a Grand Chamber decision against Turkey, requiring the immediate release of the pro-Kurdish opposition leader Selahattin Demirtaş from pre-trial detention (Selahattin Demirtaş v Turkey, Application no. 14305/17). The ECtHR said that Mr Demirtaş’ detention went against “the very core of the concept of a democratic society” and was in breach of Articles 5, 10, 18 and Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the “Convention”).
The decision is particularly significant given Mr Demirtaş’ high profile status and the numerous cases against Turkey that the ECtHR is now hearing, following the attempted coup in July 2016 and the government’s subsequent crackdown on civil society. Shortly after publication of the judgment, the ECtHR website was subject to a cyber-attack and rendered temporarily inaccessible. A group of pro-Turkish hackers claimed responsibility for the attack via a Twitter post.
On 3 October 2019 the European Court of Human Rights dismissed an application by former NDP leader Udo Pastörs that his criminal conviction in Germany for making a “qualified Auschwitz denial” in a parliamentary speech infringed his right to freedom of speech under Article 10 ECHR. The Court held that, although interferences over statements made in parliament must be closely scrutinised, they deserve little, if any, protection if their content is at odds with the democratic values of the ECHR system.
This is the most recent in the long series of legal steps touching on the violent career of Ben Butler, recently convicted of the murder of his daughter, Ellie.
Butler was convicted for Grievous Bodily Harm, and then cleared on appeal. Care proceedings were commenced at the end of which Ellie was ordered to be returned to her parents by Hogg J in October 2012. A year later, on 28 October 2013, Ellie was found dead.
C, the subject of this appeal, is Ellie’s younger sister. In June 2014, Eleanor King J, in the family courts, found that Butler had caused Ellie’s death, Ellie’s mother (Jennie Gray) had failed to protect her from Butler, and C had been the victim of physical and emotional abuse. This judgment had been the subject of reporting restrictions.
Immediately after Butler’s conviction in June 2016, media organisations applied for the release of Eleanor King J’s judgment to Pauffley J in the family court. Pauffley J dismissed this application. Her decision was roundly reversed in this decision of the Court of Appeal.
The human rights clash is the familiar one of freedom of expression under Article 10 versus the right to a fair trial under Article 6 ECHR.
The European Parliament has awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Saudi Arabian blogger, Raif Badawi. The Prize, named after Andrei Sakharov who spoke out publicly against the nuclear arms race during the Cold War and criticised Soviet society, is awarded to those who “have made an exceptional contribution to the fight for human rights across the globe, drawing attention to human rights violations as well as supporting the laureates and their cause.” Continue reading →
Guardian: James Rhodes and friends including Benedict Cumberbatch outside Court
James Rhodes v OPO (by his Litigation Friend BHM) and another,  UKSC 32
The Supreme Court has handed down its judgment in an appeal by the celebrated concert pianist, James Rhodes. You can read the judgment here and watch Lord Toulson’s summary here.
The case considered whether Mr Rhodes could be prevented from publishing his memoir on the basis that to do so would constitute the tort of intentionally causing harm. Those acting on behalf of Mr Rhodes’ son were particularly concerned about the effect upon him of learning of details of his father’s sexual abuse as a child.
Traveller Movement v Ofcom and Channel 4,  EWHC 406 (Admin), 20 February 2015 – read judgment
One of the nation’s great televisual fascinations last week became the unlikely subject of an Administrative Court judgment that demonstrates the limits of common law standards of fairness, as well as the lightness of touch applied by the courts when reviewing the decision-making of the media regulator.
JX MX (by her mother and litigation friend AX MX) v. Dartford & Gravesham NHS Trust  EWCA Civ 96, 17 February 2015 – read judgment
Elizabeth Anne Gumbel QC and Henry Whitcomb of 1COR (instructed by Mark Bowman of Fieldfisher) all appeared pro bono for the successful appellant in this case. They have played no part in the writing of this post.
For some years there has been debate between the judges about whether anonymity orders should be made when very seriously injured people’s claims are settled and the court is asked to approve the settlement. This welcome decision of the Court of Appeal means that anonymity orders will normally be made in cases involving protected parties.
Keynote speech by Lord Neuberger at 5 RB Conference on the Internet, 30 September 2014
The President of the Supreme Court has delivered a very interesting address on the protections that should be afforded to what might be termed the “new Fourth Estate” – journalism on the internet. The following summary does not do justice to his speech but is meant to act as a taster – download the full text of his talk here.
Lord Neuberger explores the interrelationship of privacy and freedom of expression, particularly in the light of developments in IT, and especially the internet. He recalls a colourful eighteenth century figure who contributed a series of letters to a widely disseminated journal under the pseudonym of “Junius”. He managed to make such effective attacks on public figures he brought about the resignation of the Prime Minister, the Duke of Grafton, in 1770. Because of his anonymity this character was able to make criticisms of the powerful for which others of his time faced prosecution.
Junius offered a voice of firm if sometimes scurrilous criticism, prompting both political and legal change. He is rightly remembered as one of the greatest political writers in an age dominated by great figures, yet his identity [still] remains a mystery.
And it is this lack of traceability that links Junius with today’s bloggers. Print journalists are – with the exception of writers for The Economist – known figures. But forty percent of the world’s population use the internet, and despite initial expectations that bloggers and tweeters could hide behind pseudonyms, it has turned out to be extremely difficult for internet writers to maintain their anonymity. The public and the courts increasingly recognise the press’ interest in publishing the names of individuals in appropriate circumstances. Continue reading →
Merlin Entertainments LPC, Chessington World of Adventures Operations and others v Peter Cave  EWHC 3036 (QB) 25 September 2014 – read judgment
This case explores the extent to which a campaign of criticism, conducted by internet and email, can merit restraint by the civil courts. As the judge says, whatever the aims of the campaign in question, its supporters may, in the course of their activities, annoy, irritate, and upset companies and individuals. But should the courts interfere, before the question whether the campaign is justified has been decided? And to what extent is such a campaign a criminal offence?
This particular dispute concerned a series of communications by the defendant to the general public about the inadequacy of safety measures and other shortcomings of the claimants’ amusement parks. The claimants contended that Dr Cave’s communications with the public and with their employees were defamatory, and in breach of confidence, and that they were thereby entitled to stop him, before any trial, by relying on the statutory tort of harassment. They therefore applied for an interim injunction restraining the defendant from setting up websites and sending mass emails regarding the issue of safety in theme parks. The question before the judge was whether they should wait until they had established defamation and/or breach of confidence, before the court granted a remedy. Continue reading →
A (Respondent) v British Broadcasting Corporation (Appellant) (Scotland) UKSC 25 – read judgment
This appeal related to whether the Scottish Courts took the correct approach to prohibit the publication of a name or other matter in connection with court proceedings under section 11 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, and whether the court’s discretion was properly exercised in this case. The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the appeal by the BBC.
The following report is based on the Supreme Court’s Press Summary. References in square brackets are to paragraphs in the judgment.
A, a foreign national, arrived in the UK in 1991. He was later granted indefinite leave to remain, but in 1996 was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for sexual offences against a child. In 1998, he was served by the Home Secretary with a notice to make a deportation order . He appealed against the decision and protracted proceedings followed in which A cited risks due to his status as a known sex offender of death or ill-treatment (contrary to Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights should he be deported. A’s identity was withheld in the proceedings from 2001 onwards -. Continue reading →
Ashworth and others v the Royal National Theatre  1176 – read judgment
Anyone who saw one of the early performances of War Horse in its first season at the National Theatre will remember how profoundly moving was the live music, with the musicians visible along the sides of the theatre above the stage. Since that highly successful (and profitable) first season the role of the orchestra had been radically reduced, and now looks as if it is about to vanish altogether.
War Horse opened at the Olivier Theatre in 2007, but since 2009 it has played at the New London Theatre. The claimants were engaged in March 2009 to play their instruments in the new production, as a small company of wind players accompanying recorded music. Productions of War Horse in other parts of the world have relied wholly on recorded music. In light of that, and because both the co-director of War Horse and the composer concluded that it was better for accuracy and impact to deliver the score through recorded music. The National Theatre sent the claimants letters giving notice of termination of their contracts to expire on 15 March 2014. In the letters the National Theatre stated that the grounds were redundancy.
The claimants sought an order from the court, prior to the trial of the main action, to require the National Theatre to continue to engage them in the production of War Horse until the trial of their claim. They also relied upon the right to artistic expression protected by Article 10 of the human rights Convention. Continue reading →
For many years, the beautiful beach upon which Ms Paltrow was seen in Shakespeare in Love (my pic) has been a haven for naturists, even on the chilliest of days when the wind whips in from the north-east. However, things have changed this year. Initially, naturism was banned from the beach completely. The ban has now been lifted for the area of sand below the mean high water mark, but remains in place for the sand dunes.
Gough v. Director of Public Prosecution  EWHC 3267 – read judgment
Mr Gough wishes to walk up and down the UK naked. Others do not approve of this, so his progress has been somewhat stop-start. This appeal concerns a brief and inglorious autumnal outing in Halifax. He was released from the local nick at 11.30 am on 25 October 2012, wearing only walking boots, socks, a hat, a rucksack and a compass on a lanyard around his neck. “He was otherwise naked and his genitalia were on plain view.” He then walked through Halifax town centre for about 15 minutes.
In the words of the judgment, he received a “mixed reaction” from its inhabitants. At least one female member of the public veered out of his way. Evidence from two women was to the effect that they were “alarmed and distressed” and “disgusted” at seeing him naked. One of the women was with a number of children at least one of whom, 12 years old, she reported as “shocked and disgusted”. The district judge found that it caused one of the women to feel at risk, and, further, based on the evidence, that it caused alarm or distress.
Fagan, R (on the application of) v Times Newspapers Ltd and others  EWCA Civ 1275 – read judgment
Only “clear and cogent evidence” that it was strictly necessary to keep an offender’s identity confidential would lead a court to derogate from the principle of open justice. The possibility of a media campaign that might affect the offender’s resettlement could not work as a justification for banning reporting about that offender, even though a prominent and inaccurate report about him had already led to harassment of his family.
This was an appeal by a serving prisoner, SF, against the dismissal of his application for anonymity and reporting restrictions in judicial review proceedings. Continue reading →
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