Ruth Smeeth sounds free speech warning over Online Harms Bill

EX- Labour MP, who received death threats via social media,warns says we risk turning Facebook into 'dancing cats' forum


In her new role as the chief executive of the free expression group Index On Censorship, Ruth Smeeth has used a panel at the Labour Party’s annual conference to question the effectiveness of using legislation to tackle antisemitism and other hatred online.

The former Labour MP, who was herself targeted with vicious online death threats and taunts after she spoke out about anti-Jewish racism in her party, appeared alongside Shadow Justice Minister David Lammy and Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds at an event hosted by the Board of Deputies.

Introducing Monday’s event, Board President Marie van der Zyl had outlined her organisation’s call for the government to include in its proposed Online Harms Bill heavy fines for those not clamping down on hatred online, and the requirement for social media companies to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism and increase the number of moderators.

While Mr Lammy and Mr Thomas-Symonds both supported the Board’s call, Ms Smeeth expressed fears that legislation could have a damaging effect on free speech, warning: “We could end up in a position where Facebook especially is turned into a forum just for dancing cats.”

Ms Smeeth’s intervention in the debate over tackling online antisemitism, misogyny and racism was particularly significant given, as she noted at the start, she had received around 25,000 messages online after her confrontation with hard-left activist Mark Wadsworth at the launch of the Chakrabarti Inquiry.

She told the panel - chaired by the Board’s Chief Executive Gilliam Merron - that some of the threats she received were death threats, and that she has since been unable to use the Apple watch she was wearing at the time because of the memories it brings back.

Despite this, the former Stoke on Trent North MP, who became Index on Censorship’s  CEO in June, said: “It should surprise nobody that I am going to come up with a free speech line on the Online Harms Bill.

“I come at this from knowing there is a problem online, and there very much is a problem to deal with. My concern is how we legislate for cultural change.”

Ms Smeeth said she recognised that self-regulation had not been effective – but added that the medium was “brand new” compared to more established newspapers and other means of communication.

And she stressed that legislation should not be discussed without also discussing the need for education.

Ms Smeeth added: ”If I wanted every racist, and I still do, thrown out of the Labour Party, that doesn’t answer the question that those people are still racist.

“From my perspective, this shouldn’t just be a piece of legislation for Twitter and Facebook. Actually we are just as concerned about terrorism and extremist language on Parlor, Telegram  - and other horrible platforms most of us wouldn’t use.

“There is a free speech element to this – about how we are using social media.”

The Jewish Labour Movement’s vice-chair also warned that the government’s proposed legislation also risked stopping social media being a place where young people feel they can open up about their problems.

“Think about the young people who have not been able to access counselling services and  who self-harm during the last few months,” she said.

“They are using online forums to talk about their pain very explicitly, what they might have done to themselves,  through online support groups.

“They would not be able to do so under this legislation. We could end up in a position where Facebook especially is turned into a forum just for dancing cats.

“If we fine heavily, if we go after the directors specifically they will be so, small c, conservative over what they will allow on the platform that we will just have dancing cats.

“There is a balance here, a level of nuance that mean it should not be just a black and white issue.”

Ms Smeeth called for “intellectual rigour” to be applied to any move by the government to tackle online hate.

“I am concerned about the definition of ‘legal but harmful.’

“The idea the make something illegal on social media because we believe it to be harmful, when it isn’t illegal in real life makes very limited sense to me.”




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