By Guest author

Freedom of expression campaigners, human rights groups and legal experts are raising concerns that proposed new counter-terrorism legislation in the United Kingdom would restrict freedom of expression and limit access to information online.

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The UK Parliament is currently considering the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which could become law within a few months. The government aims to build on existing laws to fill gaps and close perceived loopholes. However, in doing so, the bill goes very far, including restricting online activity, which undermines fundamental rights to freedom of expression.

For example, the bill would make it a crime to view online content that is likely to be useful for terrorism, even if you have no terrorist intent (and even if you are watching over someone else’s shoulder). The crime would carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years. It would make the work of investigative journalists and academic researchers difficult and risky – as mistakenly landing on an offending page could have major consequences. The first version of this clause required a person to access the wrong content three times, but the government has amended this to become a “one-click rule” rather than the original “three-click rule”.

The bill would criminalise publishing (for example, posting on social media) a picture or video clip of clothes or a flag in a way that raises “reasonable suspicion” that the person doing it is a member or supporter of a terrorist organisation. Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended that this clause be withdrawn or amended because it “risks a huge swathe of publications being caught, including historical images and journalistic articles” and because of its potentially very wide reach and interference with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The government has not taken this recommendation into account.

United Nations special rapporteur Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin has expressed concerns that the proposed clause “runs the risk of criminalizing a broad range of legitimate behaviour, including reporting by journalists, civil society organizations or human rights activists as well as academic and other research activity”. She has expressed concerns about several parts of the bill and emphasised that it should be brought in line with the UK’s obligations under international human rights law.

EDRi member Index on Censorship believes that the bill is not fit for purpose and should go back to the drawing board. It would significantly impact freedom of expression online, damage journalism and academic research, and signal the wrong direction for future online regulation in the UK.

Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill 2017-19
https://services.parliament.uk/Bills/2017-19/counterterrorismandbordersecurity.html

“Reckless” counter-terror bill a threat to academic research (17.09.2018)
https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2018/09/reckless-counter-terror-bill-a-threat-to-academic-research/

Joint Committee on Human Rights Legislative Scrutiny: Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill – Ninth Report of Session 2017–19
https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201719/jtselect/jtrights/1208/1208.pdf

Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and
fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (17.07.2018)
https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Terrorism/SR/OL-GBR-7-2018.pdf

Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill not fit for purpose (10.09.2018)
https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2018/09/counter-terrorism-and-border-security-bill-not-fit-for-purpose/

(Contribution by Joy Hyvarinen, EDRi observer Index on Censorship, the United Kingdom)

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