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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Who decides what is harmful?

24 June 2021

I've written a few columns recently about the way we're losing the right to freedom of speech.

This trend to stifle free speech using organs of the state is a global one and has become prolific throughtout the Western world. In fact, change is happening at a rate that is quite frightening.

In the latest such move, the UK is moving towards creating a new act of parliament that would require social media firms and other online platforms to take responsibility for protecting their users from "harmful" or illegal content.

Can you see where this is going?

The draft Online Safety Bill would require online publishers to ensure that this "harmful" or illegal content was removed or blocked from their websites and other online services or they would face stiff legal penalties.

The problem is that although it is pretty clear when something is illegal, who gets to decide what is "harmful", this being a far more subjective determination.

There is clearly a risk, given that significant penalties could be applied against any publisher found in breach of such an act of parliament, many publishers would opt to play it safe and take an extremely conservative approach. Such a situation would likely see many people's postings blocked or deleted despite them being quite legal.

This is the very antithesis of free speech. Stopping someone from voicing an opinion or belief simply because you don't agree with it or for some other specious reason is totally unacceptable in a free society.

We are already seeing this sort of thing happening on popular platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter where many people have lost their entire accounts for simply voicing opinions that run contrary to the ideologies of the platforms concerned. In such cases the justification is "it's our platform, we make the rules and we are not bound by the US constitition's right to free speech" which, it must be acknowledged, is a valid stance.

However, when it's a government saying "no free speech" by way of a law, that is an entirely different thing.

When a government manipulates social media by using the highly subjective term "harmful", all sorts of problems appear.

Would a left-leaning government consider that pro-right-wing comments are "harmful"?

Would a government embarrassed by the leak of certain incriminating or unflattering information consider that to be "harmful"?

Drinking is harmful, Smoking is harmful. Even driving can be very harmful. So why separate the people's rights to voice an opinion or belief as being unacceptable while all these other "harms" are quite okay?

I am sorry but whilst I fully support the blocking of illegal material such as kiddy-porn, incitements to violence, etc... I think we take a huge risk if we start censoring opinions and beliefs on the basis that *someone* thinks they might be harmful.

What do readers think?

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