As the UK’s Online Safety Bill moves through negotiations in the House of Lords, EFF, Open Rights Group, Wikimedia UK, and Index on Censorship have submitted a briefing urging the Lords to uphold the right to private messaging, and protect against prior restraint of lawful speech.

Clause 110 of the bill requires websites and apps to proactively prevent harmful content from appearing on messaging services. This will mandate the screening of all user content, all the time. It’s not compatible with encryption, or our right to privacy. When our words, personal photos, and videos are screened for compliance with state-mandated criteria, this interferes with our rights to free speech online. And where screening is done by algorithms, the decision to remove content will be taken without context.

The briefing states:

One particular concern relates to a requirement to “prevent” users seeing or engaging with illegal content. In this context, algorithmic screening would be carried out prior to the content being uploaded. Put simply, as the user begins to upload their content, the system would sweep in and check it out, and potentially remove it before it has been communicated. This is a modern, 21st century form of prior restraint. With regard to online speech, it means banning speech, text, images, or videos, before being published or posted. The overall outcome would have a chilling effect on public debate.

Throughout the UK legislative process, EFF has stressed that mandated scanning obligations will lead to  censorship of lawful and valuable expression. The Online Safety Bill also threatens another basic human right: our right to have a private conversation. That’s why we have called for action to make sure that users’ rights to private messaging and end-to-end encryption are safeguarded, not abandoned.

We remain committed to collaborate with the Lords during the Committee stage deliberations to ensure that amendments are made that strike the right balance between freedom of expression and other fundamental rights, including privacy, security, and the rights of children.