Britain proposes 'super-complaints' to help keep the internet safe

More Online Safety Act shenanigans as it urges nation to think of the children ... and free speech groups

The UK government has unveiled a proposal aimed at creating a "super-complaint" to allow concerns over free speech and online safety to be raised directly with Ofcom.

The proposal is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the government cites the example of a social media platform removing legal content that its terms don't prohibit, thus attracting the ire of free-speech advocates. On the other hand, a super-complaint might also be used to flag up social media features that some groups feel expose users – and children – to harmful content.

Element's head of policy and compliance, Denise Almeida, told The Register that the approach was sensible when it came to monitoring and reacting to illegal content without breaking encryption and implementing blanket surveillance.

She added: "However, we do need to ensure the process will not be used to delay the implementation of important security features. Or even worse, allow certain people or organizations given the right to submit 'super-complaints' an excuse to attack end-to-end-encryption again.

"Whether or not Ofcom has the bandwidth to react to the amount of super-complaints that are submitted is another question."

Almeida's point is valid. Part of the consultation is to gather views on the criteria for who can actually make a super-complaint, its format and conditions, and how Ofcom should respond.

Michelle Donelan, UK secretary of state for the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said: "The super-complaints process will allow organizations to make Ofcom aware of new challenges quickly and efficiently, making sure the ambition and promise of the Online Safety Act can keep pace with evolving trends, protecting people online for decades to come."

The Online Safety Act was signed off at the end of October with the aim of making Blighty "the safest place in the world to be online." Companies such as Element and Signal have expressed alarm at some of the clauses within, notably section 122 [PDF] that allows Ofcom to scan for suspect content using "accredited technology."

How that squares with encrypted communication has yet to be tested. Hopefully, as Almeida said, not with a super-complaint.

Gill Whitehead, Ofcom's Online Safety Group director, trotted out the think-of-the-children justification for the new online safety laws along with protecting free speech. She said: "We've assembled a world-class team so we can keep a close eye on issues as they emerge, and we've already set out our first blueprint for what tech firms need to do to tackle illegal harms."

The consultation is set to close on January 11, 2024, and will deal with defining an eligible entity and the procedure for Online Safety Act super-complaints. The draft criteria include requirements around impartiality, integrity, experience, and competence in representing groups in the UK. ®

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