Government anti-extremism head voices fears over Online Harms Bill

Sara Khan says Jewish organisations have warned her they fear legislation could be 'watered-down'


The government's own expert on extremism has voiced fears that legislation designed to ensure social media giants properly crack down on antisemitic and other harmful content on their platforms could end up being watered down and could lack sufficient clarity.

Sara Khan, Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism, admitted she had "two main concerns" about the Online Harms Bill, currently the subject of much discussion among Jewish organisations alarmed at the growth of extremist material online. 

The 40-year-old campaigner said it was now "critical" that the government recognised the role her own commission should play in assessing extremist online material.

Ms Khan questioned the ability and suitability of the broadcasting regulator Ofcom to act as the judge in such matters, as the government appears to believe it should.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has previously told the JC that the legislation would make the social media giants "put protections in place to ensure that racist antisemitism cannot fester and flourish on their sites.”

But Ms Khan said: "The aspiration set out by the government in the Online Harms Bill is clearly something I welcome - but I suppose I have got two main concerns.

"The first is that online extremist content hasn't been defined in that White Paper so there is little detail or clarity on what type of online extremist material Ofcom, if it is Ofcom, will regulate  - and how it will also come to those assessments while ensuring freedom of speech.

"I can tell you this is a genuinely complex area - and you need expertise in this area. Ofcom are clearly experts in broadcasting, but they are not experts in extremism, unlike the commission, for example.''

Ms Khan, who took part in a conversation on Zoom with Antisemitism Policy Trust chief executive Danny Stone, also raised concerns about the ability of Ofcom to deal with the sheer scale of online extremism, an issue she described as being "one of the biggest of our time."

She said the quantity of online extremism - which included very real threats of violence against Jews and synagogues - was "eye watering".

She said she feared it would be "very tempting" for Ofcom to put the issue of online extremism into the "too difficult box", which she said was a historic problem among those looking to tackle the problem.

Ms Khan added: “Over the last few months a lot of stakeholders, and particularly Jewish organisations, have been very clear to me that they think we are going to end up seeing what is a watered-down bill - and that's the last thing any of us want to see."

She said she believed it was "critical" that the government look to her own commission and appoint it on an "independent statutory basis" to develop a new "clear and transparent system for assessing online extremism."

Ms Khan said these assessments would then be delivered to Ofcom, which has the power to enforce them. "What I would like to see is the government recognising the role the commission could play here," she added.

The Bradford-born campaigner also expressed concern about an overuse of the term "extremist", suggesting it was frequently being used in the wrong context.

"Calling JK Rowling an extremist is just absurd," she said. "And the whole Brexit debate - I remember MPs calling each other extremist because they didn't like their views on Brexit.

"That's just blatantly wrong. On one hand we recognise terrorists are extremists, but on the other hand we are using that same word to call other MPs, whose democratic views on Brexit we don't like, extreme. That's ridiculous."

Ms Khan called for a clear and concise definition of what  actually is extremism - and crucially, what the boundaries are. Asked for her thoughts on debates around the definition of antisemitism she praised the effectiveness of the IHRA definition on the issue.

She also spoke of her concern that "certain Islamist groups" which had "hijacked the anti-racist movement and cause... and go around calling anybody who critiques the Islamist ideology Islamophobias."

Addressing the criticism she has faced - particularly from sections of the British Muslim community - over her senior role on advising the government on extremism, Ms Khan said: “There are people who simply do not like what I stand for.

"Throughout my life I have countered antisemitism, I have spoken out against homophobia, I have campaigned for gender equality, I have spoken out about Islamophobia and Islamic extremism.

"You don't gain a lot of friends when you speak out about those things. But you do get a lot of enemies. But that's something I've lived with all my life. But so be it."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive