Freedom to Seek: Collateral Damage of Online Safety?
The freedom to seek and receive, information and ideas, has been the one of the greatest achievements of the internet. Today it is under threat globally, as governments seek to delegate further the moderation of harmful content to online services. Regulation like the draft UK Online Safety Bill understandably targetted at social media, could result in huge collateral damage to online search. Mojeek a small independent search engine calls for more careful consideration of search services in this Bill and warn of the dangers of ceding more power to Google and Microsoft.
MPs and their families are harassed online. Football players miss penalties and get abused. Anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protests grow. What should be done? Who is going to save us and them?
Big Tech? Or your government with its Online Safety/Harms Bill? Well both apparently. Yes, governments and Big Tech are going to fix the internet for us all. What are the chances of that?
Across the world steps are afoot to fix the internet for us. For them perhaps, but quite possibly not for you. India and Australia have already passed bills, with the former applying aggressive enforcement. Canada is rushing through their version and the EU plods forward. Some say reform of section 230 in the US is needed and will save us all; from the tyranny of Facebook and their like. Meanwhile the UK government thinks it can take the lead and become the home of online safety tech.
Let’s take a closer look. Not at the hope of reforms to social media. But instead at search; an aspect of the UK draft Bill which has had little scrutiny. You see the Online Safety Bill proposes regulation of “user-to-user services” and “search services”. The main targets are, without much doubt, platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But Google search is also in the crosshairs. Virtually all attention in government studies and consultations, and in the press has been about social media (which come under “user-to-user services”). But almost nobody is writing or thinking about search.
There are many concerns about the Bill. There is an exemption for recognised news publishers; the threat to end-to-end encryption; age verification; the very threat it poses to human rights. But what about our freedom to seek information, navigate across and discover content on the internet? Rights expressed in Article 19 of the UN Declaration. Our rights to search, to seek information are under serious threat.
Do Google care? Those who have noticed a rise in search censorship may agree they do not. Like Facebook, they probably welcome this draft Bill. Regulation will almost certainly strengthen their market power. How can that be?
Well, services provided by a company of any size will be required to perform the same duties; the same duties as Big Tech. Mojeek a small independent search engine, and ironically a UK company, can expect to be regulated, by the UK government, in the same way as Google. Many other smaller UK online services like Mumsnet and Element will also find another barrier put in their way. Another barrier for UK companies who seek to challenge the monopolies of Big Tech.
What about Bing and DuckDuckGo? Bing – yes, that’s a fair question; but remember that’s a service from another US behemoth Microsoft. DuckDuckGo? Nope, the Bill largely doesn’t apply to them. DuckDuckGo, like Ecosia is a search syndication partner of Microsoft; they both display Bing results and Bing ads.
The Bill would allow search engines, notably Google, to effectively police and censor classes of information Ofcom define and they judge is “harmful to children” content. Social media will have to do the same for “harmful to adults” content too. With the threat from Ofcom of large penalties and personal convictions for transgressors of the regulations, there will be an inevitable slide towards more censorship.
In this future alternative search engines then become even more important; and yet the Bill will hit small rivals like Mojeek hard. Mojeek found that the draft Bill is largely based on evidence relating to social media; in an open letter they wrote to DCMS to point out their concerns about this and also provided constructive suggestions for improving online safety for everybody.
Will the UK government, with this Bill, forge a positive and considered path to fix the internet? Or will it rather create another massive crack in the splinternet? As the Bill stands we can be fairly sure that it will strengthen the power of Google and Microsoft over search upstarts and indeed over entire countries.