The dust has settled since the government released its draft Online Safety Bill. Now is therefore a good time to evaluate its aims, methods, and potential impacts, which we will do so in this two-part post. The first post will have a look at the overall architecture of the bill, discussing what it is trying to do and how it is trying to do it. The second post will survey responses to the bill from academics and civil society campaigners, discussing whether the bill does too much or not enough.
The general strategy of the Online Harms Bill is to place duties on “regulated services”, requiring them to identify and mitigate system level risks of harm to their users. This post will focus on the meaning of “regulated services”, and the various duties that the Online Harms Bill places them under. As things stand, the bill would give significant powers to Ofcom, which would act as a regulator and enforcer of the various duties created under the bill. This first post will conclude with a look at the new powers that would be given to OFCOM under the bill.
The bill would apply to “regulated services”. The definition of regulated services is found in section 3: regulated services are either “user-to-user services” or “search services” which “have links to the United Kingdom” and which are not exempt.
The first important thing to note is the broadness in the drafting of all these definitions. A service has links to the UK if it has a significant number of users in the UK, if UK users are a target market, or if there are “reasonable grounds to believe that there is a material risk of significant harm to individuals in the UK” using the service. Thus, territorially, a very wide number of online services could be caught.
A “user-to-user service” (since publication of the draft bill generally called a ‘U2U’ service in commentary), defined in section 2, is a service which allows users to share user generated content with other users. The definition excludes content generated by the site itself, and content shared by those employed by the service.
This is a widely defined provision. Obviously intended to catch large social media organisations like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, it is nonetheless drafted broadly enough to also include smaller blogs, websites for shopping, online gaming sites and other categories of online platform which hosts user generated content.
However, the exact nature of how those sites will be regulated will be dependent on their classification by OFCOM as category 1 or 2A/2B services. Category 1 is reserved for services with greater functionality and larger user bases, and services classified as such are subject to stricter duties, which will be explained in the duties section; machinery for classification is currently found in Schedule 4 of the bill.
Some exceptions apply, but these are tightly drafted. Functions such as email and SMS/MMS services, limited functionality services (such as services where users can only comment on site generated content), internal services such as intranets, and public bodies in the exercise of a public function are exempt. Exemptions can be found in Schedule 1; per s.3(8), the Secretary of State can amend the exempt services found there.
“Search services” are defined as services providing an internet search engine that are not U2U services. Much of the same duties apply to search and U2U services, so these will be largely dealt with together.
The Federal Court of Justice in Germany (the Bundesgerichtshof, or BGH) has ruled against the social network provider that deleted posts and suspended accounts amid allegations of “hate speech”.
The ruling was handed down on the 29th of July (Bundesgerichtshof, Urteile vom 29. Juli 2021 – III ZR 179/20 und III ZR 192/20) and at the time of writing this post, the full judgment had not been published. The following summary is based upon the Bundesgerichtshof’s press release. NB the quotes from the plaintiff’s Facebook entries are in the judgment, i.e. the public domain, in other words no offence is intended by repeating them here.
Judgments of July 29, 2021 – III ZR 179/20 and III ZR 192/20
The III Civil Senate of the German Federal Court of Justice has ruled that Facebook’s terms and conditions of April 19, 2018 for the deletion of user posts and account blocking in the event of violations of the communication standards set out in the terms and conditions are invalid. This was because the defendant provider had not undertaken to inform the user about the removal of his post at least subsequently and about an intended blocking of his user account in advance, had not informed them of the reason for this and had not given them an opportunity to respond with a subsequent new decision. If, due to the invalid terms and conditions of the provider’s contract, a user’s contribution was deleted and their account temporarily subject to a partial blocking, the user should be able to claim the activation of the deleted contribution and, an undertaking that there would be no further account blocking or deletion of the contribution upon its renewed posting.
The parties disputed the legality of a temporary partial blocking of the plaintiffs’ Facebook user accounts and the deletion of their comments by the defendant.
The plaintiffs each maintained a user account for a worldwide social network operated by the defendant’s parent company, whose provider and contractual partner for users based in Germany was the defendant. They claimed against the defendant – to the extent still relevant for the appeal proceedings – in respect of activation of the posts published by them on the network and deleted by the defendant, for an injunction against renewed blocking of their user accounts and deletion of their posts, and – in one of the appeal proceedings – for information about a company commissioned to implement the account blocking.
IR(Ben-Dor & Ors) v The University of Southampton  EWHC 953 (Admin) (read judgment)
Mrs Justice Whipple dismissed one claim for judicial review, and refused permission to bring a further claim, in respect of decisions made by Southampton University regarding a proposed conference on the legality of the existence of Israel under international law. She held that the University had lawfully withdrawn its permission to hold the conference in April 2015, and refused permission to challenge the University’s subsequent decision to require the conference organisers to meet the conference’s security costs as a condition of allowing the conference to take place at a later date. The conference organisers had claimed that both decisions represented an unlawful interference with their Article 10 right to free expression and Article 11 right to free assembly. Continue reading →
Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.
(Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī , 13th Century Persian Islamic scholar and poet)
These words were the last in the ruling by DJ McNally in the Belfast county court, acquitting Pastor McConnell of grossly offending Muslims in a sermon that had been delivered in church but also transmitted over the internet. The Pastor had declared from the pulpit the there were more and more Muslims “putting the Koran’s hatred of Christians and Jews alike into practice”, and the sermon had continued in a similar vein. Continue reading →
On Tuesday the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment on David Miranda’s detention under the Terrorism Act 2000 and, while upholding the lawfulness of the detention in the immediate case, ruled that the stop powers under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act lack sufficient legal safeguards to be in line with Article 10.
Mr Miranda, the spouse of then-Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was stopped and detained by the Metropolitan Police at Heathrow Airport on 18 August 2013 under paragraph 2(1) of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. He was questioned and items in his possession were taken by police, including encrypted material provided by Edward Snowden. Mr Miranda was detained for nine hours, the maximum period permitted at the time (since reduced to six hours). Continue reading →
Geller and another, R (on the application of) v The Secretary of State for the Home Department  EWCA Civ – read judgment
This short case involves the old dilemma of public order law: whether it is right to shut down speech when the speaker himself does not intend to incite violence, but whose presence it is said may lead third parties to commit violence. Indeed the facts of this particular case go further than that , because the applicants had no plans to make any public address during their proposed visit to Britain. It was their presence alone which was feared would inflame “community tensions”.
The applicants were two well-known US writers whose critical views of Islam led to them being prevented from entering the country in May 2013, to speak at a rally in the aftermath of the terrorist murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. An exclusion order was issued against them on grounds of public order, of which they sought judicial review. This was their appeal against the Immigration Tribunal’s refusal to allow them to proceed with the judicial review claim. Continue reading →
R (on the application of Lord Carlile of Berriew QC and others) (Appellants) v Secretary of State for the Home Department (Respondent)  UKSC 60 – read judgment
The exclusion of a dissident Iranian from the UK, on grounds that her presence would have a damaging impact on our interests in relation to Iran, has been upheld by the Supreme Court. (My post on the Court of Appeal’s ruling is here).
At the heart of the case lies the question of institutional competence of the executive to determine the balance between the relative significance of national security and freedom of speech. The exclusion order was imposed and maintained because the Home Office is is concerned with the actual consequences of Mrs Rajavi’s admission, not with the democratic credentials of those responsible for bringing them about. The decision-maker is not required by the Convention or anything else to ignore or downplay real risks to national security where they originate from people acting for motives which are contrary to the values of this country.
The following summary of the facts is partly based on the Court’s press release. References in square brackets are to the paragraphs in the judgment. Continue reading →
Manchester Ship Canal Developments v Persons Unknown  EWHC 645 (Ch) – read judgment
The High Court has ruled that Convention rights may be engaged in disputes between private landowners and trespassers, thereby making it incumbent on the court under Section 6 of the Human Rights Act to balance the trespassers’ rights under Article 8 against the landowner’s rights under Article 1 Protocol 1.
The claimants, who owned land adjacent to a single track road surrounded by farmland, sought a possession order against the defendant activists who had set up camp close to the road in protest at the drilling program being undertaken by a company to whom the claimants had granted a licence. The protest, which obstructed the road on a number of occasions, was intended to deter the controversial fracking process which the activists feared would ensue. Continue reading →
David Miranda v Secretary of State for the Home Department, the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis and three interveners  EWHC 255 (Admin) – read judgment
The High Court has rejected all the arguments supporting David Miranda’s application for judicial review of his detention at Heathrow Airport in August last year. In a highly readable and pungent judgment, Laws LJ has some robust things to say about the vaunting of journalistic interests over public security in the guise of Article 10, and the ‘mission creep’ of requirements demanded by the courts for state action to be considered “proportionate”.
This is the long-awaited conclusion to the substantive hearing since judicial review proceedings were initiated seven months ago; see our posts on previous stages of this saga here, here and here. It will be remembered that Mr Miranda was detained and questioned by police officers under the Terrorism Act 2000, and various items in his possession, notably encrypted storage devices, were taken from him. Miranda claims that all this was done without any legal authority.
The claim, which was supported by numerous civil liberties interveners, raised three questions:
Did paragraph 2(1) of Schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000 empower the police to stop and question the claimant for the purpose of determining whether he appeared to be “concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism”?
Even if it did, was the use of the power proportionate to the legitimate aim?
Is the paragraph 2(1) power repugnant to the right of freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 10 of the ECHR?
Laws LJ, giving judgment for the three judge panel, answered the first two in the affirmative, and said a firm “no” to last.
The claimant is a Brazilian citizen and the spouse of Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who at the material time was working for the Guardian newspaper. Some months after an initial contact made in late 2012 Mr Greenwald met Edward Snowden, who provided him with encrypted data which had been stolen from the National Security Agency of the United States. The data included UK intelligence material. Some of it formed the basis of articles in the Guardian on 6 and 7 June 2013 and on later dates. On 12 August 2013 the claimant travelled from Rio de Janeiro to Berlin in order to meet the other journalist involved, Laura Poitras. He was carrying encrypted material derived from the data obtained by Mr Snowden and he was travelling to collect computer drives containing further such material to assist in the journalistic activity of Mr Greenwald. He was stopped at 0805 on Sunday 18 August 2013 at Heathrow on his way back to Rio de Janeiro.
A series of Port Circulation Sheets (PCS) were circulated to counter-terrorism police alerting them that the claimant was “likely to be involved in espionage activity which has the potential to act against the interests of UK national security”, and requesting them to establish the nature of his activity, assess the risk that he posed to UK national security and to mitigate as appropriate. A PCS essentially triggers the powers of the police under certain circumstances to carry out a ports stop against a named individual.
The claimant was detained for approximately 9 hours. According to a statement from the Intelligence, Security and Resilience in the Cabinet Office, the encrypted data contained in the external hard drive taken from the claimant contained approximately 58,000 highly classified UK intelligence documents. Many were classified SECRET or TOP SECRET.
Judicial review proceedings started shortly afterwards, and in November 2013, after various interlocutory hearings, the substantive hearing came before the High Court.
The Court’s Decision: Improper purpose
The Schedule 7 purpose – determining whether [the subject] appears to be a person who “has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism” – must be the purpose for which the officers execute the stop if it is to be lawful. It doesn’t make the stop unlawful if there is a subsidiary purpose – “killing two birds with one stone” – but the permitted purpose must be the “true and dominant purpose behind the act” (R v Southwark Crown Court ex p. Bowles  AC 641,  UKHL 16].
The fact that the police officers in question had not been given sufficient information about the intelligence did not mean that they had not executed their instructions in good faith:
Given the context – the possible apprehension of terrorism – Parliament must have enacted Schedule 7 in the knowledge that there might be very good reasons why the examining officers … should not be privy to the whole story. (para 21)
The purpose of the stop thus disclosed was to “ascertain the nature of the material which the claimant was carrying and if on examination it proved to be as was feared, to neutralise the effects of its release (or further release) or dissemination”. Moreover, the proper exercise of the Schedule 7 power did not require that the examining officer have any grounds whatever for suspecting that a person was connected with terrorism within Act’s definition. The Schedule 7 purpose was not to determine whether the subject is, but only whether he “appears to be” a terrorist. The Schedule 7 power was created by Parliament in order to provide “a reasonable but limited opportunity for the ascertainment of a possibility: the possibility that a traveller at a port may be involved (“concerned” – s.40(1)(b)), directly or indirectly, in any of a range of activities enumerated in s.1(2)”.
Given the facts stated in the last PCS and the National Security Justification, Laws LJ for the Court concluded that the purpose of the stop – to ascertain the nature of the material which the claimant was carrying and if on examination it proved to be as was feared, to neutralise the effects of its release (or further release) or dissemination – “fell properly within Schedule 7 of the 2000 Act on the latter’s true construction.”
The classic three step proportionality test – was the objective important enough to justify limiting a right, was the measure connected to that objective, and was the measure no more intrusive than other necessary – has been elaborated over the past decade, most recently by Lord Sumption in Bank Mellat v Her Majesty’s Treasury (No 2) 3 WLR 170,  UKSC 39. This adds a fourth question, which is to ask whether, even if the measure in question is not particularly intrusive, did it nevertheless fail to strike a fair balance has been struck between the rights of the individual and the interests of the community? Laws LJ pondered on the implications of such a requirement, and found it not to his liking:
It appears to require the court, in a case where the impugned measure passes muster on points (i) – (iii), to decide whether the measure, though it has a justified purpose and is no more intrusive than necessary, is nevertheless offensive because it fails to strike the right balance between private right and public interest; and the court is the judge of where the balance should lie. I think there is real difficulty in distinguishing this from a political question to be decided by the elected arm of government. If it is properly within the judicial sphere, it must be on the footing that there is a plain case.
Free Speech and the Protection of Journalistic Expression
Laws LJ commenced his consideration of this element of the claim with a brisk dismissal of all the Strasbourg case law on the matter. The idea of free speech has received sufficient emphasis in the law of England –
I do not therefore think it necessary, on this part of the case, to place any reliance on the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights; the common law is a sufficient arena for the debate.
In any event, much of the law on free speech in journalism was of no relevance here since it concerned protection of sources. No such issue arose here. The source was no secret: “Mr Snowden stole the material, and the claimant (however indirectly) got it from Mr Snowden.” (para 48).
Furthermore, the mistaken idea seems to have taken hold that the essential justification of free expression as a fundamental value is the promotion or betterment of democratic government. Freedom of speech may indeed be “the lifeblood of democracy”; but that is not the same thing.
The perception of free expression as a servant of democracy, however, would tend to devalue non-political speech and justify the prohibition or abridgement of speech advocating undemocratic government … This would fuel what is anyway one of exuberant democracy’s weaknesses, namely the intolerance of minorities. Everyone, even democracy’s enemy, must surely be allowed his say provided he advocates no crime nor violates the rights of others. The reason is that free thought, which is a condition of every man’s flourishing, needs free expression; and this is every person’s birthright, in whatever polity he has to live. There are of course undemocratic societies in which free speech is an idle hope. But free speech is not a creature of democracy; if anything, the converse. The critics of democracy may keep democracy on its toes. (para 45)
Turning to the matter in hand, Laws LJ observed that this privileging of political speech over other forms of expression has a distorting effect on the proportionality debate. The claimant, in other words, was seeking a heightened protection for himself, or at least the material he was carrying) on account of his association with the journalist Mr Greenwald. There was no basis for the court to extend such protection:
the application of requirement (iv) in the toll of proportionality – “whether… a fair balance has been struck between the rights of the individual and the interests of the community” – needs at least to be modified. The contrast is not between private right and public interest. The journalist enjoys no heightened protection for his own sake, but only for the sake of his readers or his audience. If there is a balance to be struck, it is between two aspects of the public interest.
The sting of the claimant’s challenge was that the defendants did not believe that the claimant’s possession of the material presented any real danger to national security or risk of loss of life. Whilst acknowledging the limits of evidence not cross-examined, Laws LJ could find “no perceptible foundation” for such a suggestion. The truth of it was that the claimant’s broader argument on proportionality – that the use of Schedule 7 was in any event unjustified – did not in fact depend on the categorisation of the GCHQ documents as journalistic material. The claimant was trying to make out a case that he had been assisting in the conduct of responsible journalism, and the law’s duty to protect that activity meant that interference with it by the summary and unsupervised process of Schedule 7 was disproportionate and unlawful whether or not any intercepted documents strictly fell within the statutory definition of “journalistic material”:
… given the substantial, often insuperable, difficulty a journalist faces in seeking to determine what classified material may be safely published and what may not (paragraph 58 above), the notion of “responsible journalism” throws little light on the proportionality issue.
The claimant’s essential argument rested on three propositions:
Journalists, “like judges”, have a role in a democratic State to scrutinise action by government.
The function of the free press is inhibited by an insistence that anything (in the security field) which the journalist seeks to publish must be stifled because it may be part of the “jigsaw” from which a knowing terrorist may draw harmful inferences.
There is a balance to be struck, again in the security field, between the responsibility of government and the responsibility of journalists.
But nobody had satisfied the court that there was any constitutional basis for any of these propositions, which would confer on the journalists’ profession a constitutional status which it does not possess:
They suggest … that journalists share with government the responsibility of measuring what is required by way of withholding publication for the protection of national security. Journalists have no such constitutional responsibility. They have, of course, a professional responsibility to take care so far as they are able to see that the public interest, including the security of the State and the lives of other people, is not endangered by what they publish. But that is not an adequate safeguard for lives and security, because of the “jigsaw” quality of intelligence information, and because the journalist will have his own take or focus on what serves the public interest, for which he is not answerable to the public through Parliament. The constitutional responsibility for the protection of national security lies with elected government: see, amongst much other authority, Binyam Mohamed QB 218per Lord Neuberger MR at paragraph 131.
He concluded, therefore, that the Schedule 7 stop was a proportionate measure in the circumstances. Its objective was not only legitimate, but “very pressing”.
In a press freedom case, the fourth requirement in the catalogue of proportionality involves as I have said the striking of a balance between two aspects of the public interest: press freedom itself on one hand, and on the other whatever is sought to justify the interference: here national security. On the facts of this case, the balance is plainly in favour of the latter. (para 73)
For similar reasons the Court rejected the claimant’s and intervenors’ related submission, that the Schedule 7 power is over-broad or arbitrary, and for that reason not “prescribed by law” under Article 10(2).
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J19 and Another v Facebook Ireland  NIQB 113 – read judgment
The High Court in Northern Ireland has chosen to depart from the “robust” Strasbourg approach to service providers and their liability for comments hosted on their sites. Such liability, said the judge, was not consonant with the EC Directive on E-Commerce.
This was an application on behalf of the defendant to vary and discharge orders of injunction dated 27 September 2013 made in the case of both plaintiffs. One of the injunctions restrained “the defendant from placing on its website photographs of the plaintiff, his name, address or any like personal details until further order.” These interim injunctions were awarded pursuant to writs issued by the plaintiffs for damages by reason of the publication of photographs, information and comments on the Facebook webpages entitled “Irish Blessings”, “Ardoyne under Siege” and “Irish Banter” on 11 September 2013 and on subsequent dates. Continue reading →
R (on the application of London Christian Radio Ltd & Christian Communications Partnerships) v Radio Advertising Clearance Centre (Respondent) & Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Interested Party)  EWCA Civ 1495 – read judgment
The ban on Christian Radio’s proposed advert seeking data on the “marginalisation of Christians” in the workplace was lawful and did not constitute an interference with free speech, the Court of Appeal has ruled. When determining whether a radio or television advertisement was “political” fur the purposes of Section 321(2)(b) of the Communications Act 2003 the court should consider the text objectively; the motives of the advertiser were irrelevant.
This was an appeal against a ruling by Silber J ( EWHC 1043 (Admin)) that a proposed radio advertisement was directed towards a political end, and therefore fell foul of the prohibition on political advertising which meant that it could not be given clearance for broadcast (see my previous post on this decision). Continue reading →
Delfi AS v Estonia (Application no. 64569/09) 10 October 2013 – read judgment
This case concerned the liability of an Internet news portal for offensive comments that were posted by readers below one of its online news articles. The following summary is based on the Strasbourg Court’s press release.
The applicant company owns one of the largest internet news sites in Estonia. In January 2006, Delfi published an article on its webpage about a ferry company. It discussed the company’s decision to change the route its ferries took to certain islands. This had caused ice to break where ice roads could have been made in the near future. As a result, the opening of these roads – a cheaper and faster connection to the islands compared to the ferry services – was postponed for several weeks. Below the article, readers were able to access the comments of other users of the site. Many readers had written highly offensive or threatening posts about the ferry operator and its owner. Continue reading →
R (on the application of) Lord Carlile of Berriew and others v Secretary of State for the Home Department 20 March 2013  EWCA Civ 199 – read judgment
Last year the Divisional Court upheld the Home Secretary’s decision to prevent a dissident Iranian politician coming to the United Kingdom to address the Palace of Westminster: see that decision here and my post discussing the “Politics of Fear” here.
In this appeal, the parliamentarians contended that the Divisional Court had failed to consider the proportionality of the exclusion decision with sufficient scrutiny, and, by giving precedence to the possibility of unlawful actions by the Iranian regime, had given inadequate weight to the rule of law. It was perverse, they said, to justify the exclusion decisions by reference to risks to local staff and British government property in Tehran. Furthermore they argued that there had been unfairness in failing to consult the Parliamentary appellants. Continue reading →
Eon v France, no. 26118/10 14 March 2013- read judgment (in French only)
The applicant, Hervé Eon, is a French national, a socialist and anti-GM activist living Laval (France). The case concerned his conviction for insulting President Sarkozy.
During a visit by the President to the département of Mayenne on 28 August 2008, Mr Eon had waved a placard reading “Casse toi pov’con” (“Get lost, you sad prick”), a phrase uttered by the President himself several months previously when a farmer had refused to shake his hand at the International Agricultural Show. The utterance was widely disseminated in the media and on the internet, attaining the status of a slogan. Continue reading →
Print Media South Africa v Minister of Home Affairs ( ZACC 22) – read judgment.
In a “momentous” ruling on freedom of speech, the Constitutional Court has struck down a legislative provision on prior restraint, “based on vague and overly broad criteria”, as offensive to the right to freedom of expression.
As the attorney for the amicus curiae Dario Milo explains in the Weekly Mail and Guardian (reposted on Inforrm), the court went even further than the relief contended for by the applicants, by striking down the entire provision as unconstitutional, rather than allowing certain criteria to be clarified in accordance with the Bill of Rights.
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