Updated: Dec 16, 2021
As the UK government aims to curb anti-vaccination content online a new bill is about to come into law.
The Online Harms Bill will be a first-of-its-kind law pitched at protecting vulnerable individuals, particularly children, from harmful content on websites and social media platforms. The government has already appointed Ofcom as the regulator which will have the power to levy unprecedented fines of up to £18m or 10% of global turnover. Ofcom may also block services from the UK entirely.
While few would dispute the need to regulate illegal, malicious and obscene content, especially aimed at children and the vulnerable, the bill goes far beyond this remit into muddier legal waters.
Legal but 'harmful' content
From the outset, the government has identified two types of “harm” they wish to tackle: illegal content and what they describe as “legal but harmful” content. It is the second category that is cause for concern.
Amongst those so-called legal harms identified is "anti-vaccination" content and "disinformation" relating to the pandemic. An "expert working group" is to be established that will decide how best to tackle this content, although it's unclear exactly what or who gets to define 'disinformation'. Undoubtedly this law will impact opposing narratives and limit freedom of expression.
The UK government is effectively legislating to act as an arbiter of online information. This will injure perfectly legal, even factual, points of view which could be completely removed from the online space. Platforms and publishers will also face crushing fines for refusals to comply, from which some may never recover.
Controlling the narrative over vaccination and the pandemic
One of the main targets of this Bill relates not just to any misinformation or disinformation but specifically content that questions vaccines. The bill states:
"the legislation will also address dangerous misinformation spreading lies about vaccines... misinformation that could cause harm to individuals, such as anti-vaccination content."
This is alarming for many reasons. The bill will provide a legal basis, upon which, to prosecute publishers for any information that disputes vaccine claims made by the state, pharmaceutical companies and other official agencies. This law will undoubtedly take the pronouncements of these authorities and companies as indisputable, backed up by the 'expert working group'. Information that contradicts these agencies, no matter if factual and legal, may fall foul of this law and be punished accordingly.
It's clear that the government is desperate to silence those drawing attention to the shortcomings of the Covid vaccination programme. Almost all critics exist online and outside of the mainstream media and press. To ask questions about the efficacy and safety of these vaccines will shortly land skeptics with a large fine or much worse.
As far as this bill is concerned there is only one type of 'legitimate' vaccine information and that's pro-vaccination.