The UK will treat online images of immigrants crossing the Channel as a criminal offence
On 17 January, the United Kingdom (UK) government announced that online platforms will have to proactively remove images of immigrants crossing the Channel in small boats under a new amendment to be tabled to the Online Safety Bill. The announcement, intended to bolster the UK’s hostile immigration policy, has been met with concern among the British public and charities working with people on the move.
On 17 January, the United Kingdom (UK) government announced that online platforms will have to proactively remove images of immigrants crossing the Channel in small boats under a new amendment to be tabled to the Online Safety Bill. The announcement, intended to bolster the UK’s hostile immigration policy, has been met with concern among the British public and charities working with people on the move . However, it does helpfully confirm the way that this Bill could be manoeuvred to political ends.
How will the new amendment be enforced?
In fact, the proposed amendment says nothing about small boats crossing the Channel. It supports an existing provision in the Bill under the heading of “Assisting Illegal Immigration” Schedule 7 (22). It relies on the interpretation of an obscure text from a 1971 law, and on an opaque requirement for online platforms to “prevent users encountering” this content.
The amendment is to be tabled by the government in the House of Lords. in response to a politically-motivated amendment proposed by 24 Conservative Party members of Parliament (MPs), and led by the MP for Dover, Nathalie Elphicke.
Mrs Elphicke’s amendment called for the removal of “content that may result in serious harm or death to a child while crossing the English Channel with the aim of entering the United Kingdom in a vessel unsuited or unsafe for those purposes.”
It was positioned within a provision about content harmful to children. Despite the clumsy drafting, the intention was clear and it won sufficient support to force the government to re-draft it.
As a result, the government’s proposal will amend the illegal content provisions in the Bill.
The content to be removed under these provisions is defined by a list of 33 criminal offences. The government wants to add a new offence under Section 24 of the 1971 Immigration Act, which is about unlawful entry to the UK. The amendment will support the reference to Section 25 of the 1971 Act that is already in the Bill.
In order to force providers to remove the content, the government is relying on “Inchoate offences”. These include aiding and abetting those offences. The government argues that aiding and abetting would include posting videos of people crossing the Channel from France to the UK in small, over-crowded boats. It would also include videos of people trying to enter the UK by climbing aboard lorries.
What does this mean for social media platforms?
As Secretary of State, Michelle Donelan’s statement has confirmed, social media platforms will have to look for these posts and remove them. The language in the Bill requires them to “prevent users encountering” the content, which could imply an upload filter. This is a form of interception and characteristic of prior restraint.
The UK government is spinning this amendment for its own political ends, but in the process has revealed its real intentions. It’s not clear yet how many similar scenarios could be hidden in the Online Safety Bill. However, this amendment demonstrates a worrying way in which democratic discourse could be suppressed.