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Life Line

On the Online Safety Bill

There is currently a bill going through the UK's parliament, titled the "Online Safety Bill". It is a far going piece of legislation with countless stifling effects. I have written the following letter to my MP, Tulip Siddiq. Please feel free to use this as a template when you write to your own MP about this topic.

Dear Tulip Siddiq MP,

In the last several years I have been following the various different versions of the UK's new Online Safety Bill, and have grave concerns. It is a far-reaching bill that fundamentally changes the UK's approach to the internet, including the suppression of speech.

I have been working with internet related things for nearly 25 years now, and I can see massive things wrong with the big tech platforms, most notably the proliferation and promotion of disinformation which has put a dent in the trust in science and research, including new vaccines, and politics.

However, the bill does not only apply to the big tech firms (Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc.), but to all sites with user generated content. And there is virtually nobody talking about anything besides just Facebook, to be honest.

With this letter I would like to highlight a few of the larger problems with this bill, when applied to smaller sites with user generated content. If the current draft bill becomes law, then these smaller sites and businesses would come under severe duress, and might have to close to UK citizens, or fully.

I would like to introduce two examples here, with which I have direct involvement.

In the past 6 years I have written, maintained, and hosted It is a website where users can keep notes about which whiskies they like, with tasting notes and photos. It is primarily used by me and a few friends, and has around a dozen active users. It is open to the public, but most definitely a niche site. It does not promote anything, but it does talk about adult content (alcohol).

In the past 20+ years I have been an active contributor to PHP (, a computer language that powers more than 75% 1 of all the websites on the internet, including (through WordPress) your own, The PHP language is a volunteer project and organises itself primarily through asynchronous communication methods such as e-mail lists and on-line chat rooms, which are all open to the public to read and write to. These are also user-generated content sites that the bill captures.

The Online Safety Bill (OSB) is a complex bill, with many provisions. It almost feels like every pressure group has their own personal agenda. Let me discuss a few of these with the above two projects in mind.

First of all, the OSB has provisions about "legal but harmful" content, argued by the bill's proponents to "protect the children". This is content that is not illegal, but could be considered harmful to other people. The bill does not define clearly what harmful is, and leaves this definition to the regulator (OFCOM), at the whims of the culture secretary (currently, Nadine Dorries). Although the bill's proponents often argue that when something is illegal off-line, it should also be illegal on-line, the provisions in the bill go further. The definition of harmful is so wide that basically any content that could be seen as harmful to anybody else, is liable for content control (i.e., removal, or tagged as such).

Checking for this content requires active moderation. Active moderation on a large scale, such as with Facebook, is hard to do because there is so much content created that it is impossible to do by humans. I would argue that it is also impossible to do through automation. Although algorithms can be constructed to aid in this, they will never be able to be accurate enough to:

  1. Flag or block all possible harmful content;

  2. Not flag or block non-harmful content. (Example: the ban by TikTok of "Charles Dickens" 2 because it has a naughty word in it).

In the chat rooms and mailing lists of the PHP Open Source project a lot of content is generated every day. This can not realistically be pre-cleared by moderators. Doing so is not wanted either. It is a large international project where developers should be able to speak their mind. At times, it certainly gets heated, and red lines get crossed sometimes, including in the form of personal attacks. Although this hampers the technical discussions, the PHP project should be in charge to regulate their community, and not OFCON, and certainly not minister Dorries. The discussion platforms that the PHP project uses will fall under the provisions of the OSB. In order to not fall foul of a law, it can be easily argued by the PHP project's leadership that it is not worth opening themselves up to the punishments as set out in the OSB. A likely scenario could be that they decide that the easiest way around it would be to block UK residents and locations from being able to participate. This in turn will dampen innovation, and also directly affects my livelihood, and negatively affects the internet industry in the UK.

For sites such as my hobby project,, which sees little content added, I could review all content personally. Because it deals with commentary about alcohol products, it can be argued that no children should ever see this content (harmful, but legal), and that it should therefore be limited to visitors aged 18 and older, which brings me to the next point.

The bill includes provisions to require age verification for any harmful (to children) content. Age verification is usually done by checking against a credit card or uploading a passport, or something similar. Either to a site directly, or through a third party provider. Large(r) sites such as Facebook can spend time and money to create something for themselves, albeit at a cost. A small site such as my personal project does not have the money, or does not want to spend money, on setting up that infrastructure. They would have to use a third party to provide these age verification checks to comply with this provision, at a cost. Many large international Open Source projects such as the PHP language don't even have any money to spend on this, as it is run by volunteers.

This would likely mean that I would have to close down to not be caught up by the OSB. And the PHP project might have to decide to not allow British citizens and residents to participate in discussions again.

There is also a problem with these third party providers with regards to security. Many adult entertainment businesses are on the front line to provide these services, as they're well placed to provide this (they had to historically). They also have been keenly lobbying the authors of the bill to include age verification requirements as this adds to their bottom line. Do we really want adult entertainment businesses to hold our credit card numbers, or even worse, our personal passport details? I would find this too much of a security risk. Personally, I have no intention to provide any of my own details to third party age verification providers. It is even up to OFCON to "certify" verification check systems for use.

There are two more issues that are a little harder to describe, and are more legal changes. First of all, the bill changes the liability of the content (cat videos, comments about news articles) that is being generated. Currently, many sites benefit from provisions in the Defamation Act 2013 3 that posted content by users does not create liability by the publication (website) that publishes this content. The OSB changes this by making the publishers (websites) liable for what their users post. Although it can be reasonably argued that website's (read: Facebook's) promotion algorithms should be held liable for the items it suggests (as that is not user generated content), making publishers liable for what their users post goes much further.

The bill also tries to redefine the different meaning of Duty of Care 4, a mechanism in Tort law where companies can be held liable for negligence. The bill redefines as Duty of Care from just between company (publisher) and their customers (content generating users), to also include the interactions between their customers (people writing whisky tasting notes, or technical arguments for including or not, features in the PHP languages). By introducing such a liability, website operators will be forced to be on the safe side, and likely over block and prematurely remove (legal) content, to not fall foul of these provisions. Or if they don't have the resources to screen for such content they might decide that it is not worth it to continue serving Brits. Again, that won't probably be companies the size of Facebook, but it's going to be detrimental to smaller projects.

Lastly, the bill does make provisions for journalistic and editorial content, but does not clearly define what journalistic content is as part of a "regulated news publisher" (see Section 16 (8, 14), Section 49 and 50). It is probably clear that websites such as the Guardian and Telegraph will fall in this category, but unlikely that websites such as Wembley Matters 5 are, even though they do provide a democratic task to hold politicians to account. Not having exceptions for this kind of journalistic expression is again limiting rights.

I hope by writing this letter that I have highlighted some of the problems that I see with this bill. There is a large possibility for the restriction of expression, both by being unclear what journalistic content is, but also requiring pretty much every website that allows for user generated content to have to be a lot more restrictive of what they can allow to be posted. Even though this content is legal, the extra burdens being put on smaller operators are of such chilling nature that we will very likely see them having to be closed, or not being made available to British citizens. I would hate to see this being the collateral damage from this huge and not well thought out bill.

With kind regards, Derick Rethans

Please write to your own MP if you share similar concerns, and feel free to copy parts of this letter and adapt them to your own examples. You can find out how to contact your elected officals on WriteToThem. I also have copied this letter to Lord Clement-Jones, the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson on Digital.


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