Small Boats and Silent Protest: Prior Restraint in the Online Safety Bill

Under new rules created by the Online Safety Bill, all illegal content must be removed from social media platforms. The government position is clear that this content ‘has to go’, but the way the platforms will do it creates a new and dangerous threat to free speech.

What is Prior Restraint?

It’s about blocking the words before they have been published. Preventing other people from hearing what users have to say. Stopping people from viewing videos by making sure they don’t get uploaded onto the platform.

This is what we believe is a form of prior restraint: a particularly draconian form of censorship that implements a ban before publication, and importantly, before a court has made a judgement that it is illegal.

It’s the opposite of the take down process, where social media companies check the content on their platforms and remove content that they believe does not comply with their rules or with the law. User will know this when they get a notification saying ‘Your content has been removed because it does not comply‘ with either the platform rules or national law.

Censoring Content

The worry about prior restraint is that social media posts would be intercepted and removed while they are being uploaded before they reach the platform. It is sometimes referred to as an “upload filter”. The instruction in the Bill is that social media companies should “prevent users” from encountering – reading, hearing or viewing – illegal content.

There would be no evidence that the

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