By John Glover reporter Scottish Daily Express
4 NOV 2022
Campaigners have warned that Scotland faces becoming the most-censored part of the United Kingdom’s internet space as the UK Government plans to amend its online safety bill to protect free expression.
The Scottish Government’s controversial Hate Crime and Public Order Act was passed at Holyrood last year. It will apply to comments made on websites and on social media, although it has not yet been implemented.
Campaign group Free to Disagree warned that the bill could lead to “malicious reporting and unjust court cases” involving the ‘stirring up of hatred’, especially around the toxic debates around trans issues.
The group called for the government to remove the ‘stirring up hatred’ clause to the bill warning that it would lead to many Scottish citizens self-censoring their opinion on contentious issues of political or cultural debate for fear of falling foul of the law.
The Free to Disagree campaign is supported by the likes of the Adam Smith Institute, former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars and Dr Stuart Waiton, sociologist, Abertay University.
This week, The Sun reported that UK Ministers will drop controversial “legal but harmful” provisions from the Online Safety Bill after civil liberties groups warned they would hand tech companies huge censorship powers.
Critics warned that platforms would classify unpopular or heterodox opinions as “harmful” and take steps to remove associated content, undermining the right of UK citizens to state their views online.
If the UK Government has stripped out the problem provisions, people’s right to express themselves in the online world would remain the same in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but not north of the border.
A spokesman for the Free to Disagree campaign, which spearheaded opposition to the plans, stressed that people in Scotland could face a more censorious online atmosphere than the rest of the UK if it is.
They said: “The UK Government appears to have bowed to pressure to remove vague provisions from the Online Safety Bill that could seriously undermine free expression. This is good news for people in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland but will be less welcome to Scots, who still have the threat of the controversial Hate Crime Act hanging over their heads.
“Scottish Ministers have not set a date for the commencement of this legislation yet, given outstanding problems.
“Police officers are struggling to know how to understand and apply the law. There is a real risk of malicious reporting and unjust court cases involving the ‘stirring up of hatred’. Especially given febrile debates such as the one centring on trans issues.
“It is clear from the backlash against both the Hate Crime Act and the Online Safety Bill that broad legislation targeting citizens’ speech is both deeply unpopular, and highly problematic. We believe the right path forward for the Scottish Government is to scrap the contentious ‘stirring up’ offences it has sought to introduce. It risks a number of bad outcomes if not.
“If Ministers do forge ahead, Scottish citizens could become the most-censored people online in the UK. This would include self-censorship – a decision not to air one’s opinion on a contentious aspect of political or cultural debate for fear of falling foul of the law. This would be a huge step backwards for our country, steeped in Enlightenment values.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Regulation of the internet is a reserved matter and falls to the UK Government. In March 2022 the UK Government introduced their Online Safety Bill and we will continue to engage with them as it’s developed.
“The Scottish Government unequivocally condemns any form of hatred or prejudice. Our new Hate Crime Strategy will set out our priorities for tackling hate crime in Scotland and will support implementation of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021.
“Hate crime legislation sends a message to victims, perpetrators and wider society that hate crime is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Once in force the Act will build on and strengthen existing protections.
“The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act doesn’t make any specific provisions in regards to online hate crime.”