British Labour Party MP, Lucy Powell, has introduced a bill into parliament which seeks to outlaw ‘secret’ online social media groups.
The basis of the proposal is that these hidden groups are fertile ground for unchecked hate speech, bigotry and what has become known as ‘fake news’.
The bill also seeks to ensure social media administrators and moderators are legally responsible for unlawful content published on their pages by others, including illegal hate speech and defamatory material.
Several members of parliament who have been the subject of online harassment and abuse are reported to be supporting the bill, which could lead to it being passed into law.
But civil rights advocates have expressed concerns that such a law would unjustifiably curtail freedom of speech and privacy – likening secret groups to private physical gatherings, which are out of view from the general public.
The proposal to make those who ‘manage’ social media pages legally responsible for the content published by others has also been criticised as unfair and unjustified, as it imposes the same level of accountability on ordinary people – who may only check their pages from time-to-time – as it does on professional broadcasters such as mainstream media outlets.
Such a law, critics argue, also assumes social media juggernauts such as Facebook are unable to monitor and delete offending material, when in fact these companies have developed software which does just that.
Currently in some European countries, such as Germany, Facebook is notified of content that is likely to be illegal and the company can incur hefty fines if it fails to remove the material within 24 hours.
What are ‘secret groups?’
Facebook allows three types of groups to operate on its platform.
The first are public – which anyone can view and join. The second are closed groups, which can be joined by invitation only. These groups minus the posts of their members can be seen. The third are secret groups, which are joined by invitation only, and hidden from view.
People set up ‘secret groups’ for various reasons – the overriding one, of course, being they wish to communicate in private. Members may share photos, anecdotes and memories with extended family, close friends or former work colleagues. They may organise social gatherings, such as group outings, school reunions or surprise birthday parties.
There may be secret groups for people who suffer specific diseases, who are experiencing certain problems, or who share social, religious or political views.
And while there certainly are ‘hate’, ‘extremist’’, and ‘fake news’ groups, Facebook can monitor and ban these at any time.
Scope of the bill
The proposed law would not extend to all secret groups – only those with more than 500 members.
However, there are concerns that if the bill is passed, it could represent a ‘slippery slope’ whereby lawmakers could impose stricter rules such as reducing the threshold.
Blanket laws such as these may start with good intentions – to make the world ‘safer’ from dangerous people, but ultimately it is the ordinary every day users who end up suffering the consequences through the erosion of civil liberties in favour of state control.
Erosion of liberties
In 2015, Australia became the only developed country to implement mass ‘meta-data retention laws’ – which require service providers to store a whole host of user data for up to two years and surrender that information to Australian police and law enforcement agencies without them even having to obtain a warrant.
The laws were justified on the basis of a need to protect against terrorist attacks, but it was revealed a little more than 12 months later that at least 60 Government agencies including the Australian Taxation Office, Department of Human Services, and even local councils had accessed citizens’ meta-data.
Police have also admitted using meta-data to hunt down government whistleblowers and investigate doctors who were critical of human rights abuses in detention centres.
And currently, the federal government is trying to impose new legislation to monitor our mobile phone communications, empowering agencies such as ASIO and the Australian Federal Police to force telecommunications and technology companies to unlock the encrypted data of phone users.
In these laws alone, based on examples of what has already occurred with meta-data, there is a high risk of intrusion into privacy without sufficient justification. .
There’s a good chance that if the UK bull is passed, our government will consider introducing similar laws – adding to its control of citizens at the expense of privacy and free speech.