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Protecting Freedom of Speech in an Internet Age

In September Facebook dismantled a small network of accounts and pages that were part of a Russian influencer operation – Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), a network close to the Russian government and accused of interference in the 2016 US election. Twitter joined them in suspending five accounts. It’s obvious to most when looking at international politics over the last 6 years that there is little we can do to stop Russia trying to have an influence on the West's politics. Evidence of their involvement in UK and US politics is frightening but we need to ask ourselves: is the Tech industry doing enough in their self-regulation? However, unlike us, our neighbours in the United Stated responded in 2017 with the creation of the FBI’s Foreign Influence Taskforce (FBI-FITF) aimed at protecting free speech for regular citizens.


Free speech is enshrined deeply into the core of the United States, with most citizens expressing it as a defining aspect of their patriotism. In fact, the very existence of FBI-FITF is believed to enhance citizens' First Amendment privilege owing to the fact it plays a protectionist role rather than an oppressive one. If the United States can get behind implementing such a taskforce, then the UK should too. We have given Facebook and Twitter enough time to respond to the ever-changing nature of foreign influence. But until the UK is fully behind the need to investigate instances of social media interference by foreign governments on our political discourse, then we cannot hold them accountable.


The Mueller Report found Russia’s interference into the 2016 US Presidential Election had been a yearlong plot far exceeding Facebook advertisements but extended to a detailed strategy of engagements creating a façade of huge political momentum. Including but limited to large volumes of accounts authoring their own posts, reaching out to politically active citizens, posing as supporters and organising rallies and events. Facebook said Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) may have reached around 126 million people while twitter confirmed around 1.4 million had engaged with IRA accounts. These were alarming figures and should have forced the UK into reflecting upon our own camp. We must wake up and recognise that in the modern age, we are at war with many invisible enemies and we need to have the proper defence mechanism in place – especially when it comes to protecting our democracy.


Newly elected President Biden could not have been clearer in the past few months - he intends to put an end to the United States’ isolationist policies and bring back international diplomacy. This should be welcome news for the West and encourage the UK to consider its own version of FBI-FITF to protect our shared values. While the UK has taken some measures in the past decade in attempts to keep up with the changing complexity of the virtual threats we face, it’s not comparable to the measures Washington has undertaken. Most notably our Defending Democracy Programme, run from the cabinet office, utilises the broad church of knowledge and strategy from across departments in combating intimidation, malign influence, and disinformation altering our political discourse.


However, the 2020 Russia Report confirmed on paper the Defending Democracy Programme does not go far enough in protecting our democracy and is in no way comparable to FBI-FITF. It showed we urgently require a task force fully equipped and up for the job in combating these democracy and security breaches if we are to fully protect citizens' right to free speech in the same way our allies do. The Report showed the government did little to assess the Kremlin’s attempts to influence the 2016 Brexit Referendum and the damning conclusion should have prompted immediate action. Nearly 5 years on and we are still not equipped to handle a communications scandal of the same scale.


Social media’s struggle with self-censorship goes further than the findings of the Russia Report – the Tech sector cannot be left to handle such enormous breeches alone. Tech giants are removing more and more content, but the question remains on whether they are removing the right kind of content. Tech has been shaping UK elections for longer than we care to admit but it does have the potential to enrich our democracy. The internet has allowed citizens to have political agency and access to, a previously extremely private, Westminster in ways they didn’t have before. However, we must face up to the fact these same mechanisms for good have the power to be extremely damaging.


One of the lessons we will take from the COVID-19 Pandemic is the harm caused from online misinformation and how ill-equipped the government was to handle it at such a scale. The Cabinet Office, home of the Defending Democracy Programme, required support from the military to tackle disinformation, narratives infiltrating social media and communications that directly seek to undermine the UK’s reputation and hurt citizens. And unlike social media platforms, this work was solely internationally focused and not conducted to act upon content produced by British citizens.


As a result, pressure is finally being made to speed up the process the UK being a major player in the cyber world. The 2021 Integrated Review announced the introduction of a UK Cyber Force. This is welcome news and if free speech is to be protected in the Great Britain, we need to get ahead of the curve and learn from the finding of the Russia Report and COVID-19. We must create the means to protect ourselves, enshrined within the new UK Cyber Force. The world will be watching Britain closely in the next few years and judging our every step following our exit from the European Union. We must not waste this opportunity and fail to protect ourselves from the modern cyber threats we face – it is the only option if we are to protect free speech and our valued way of life.


Written by Rt Hon Tobias Ellwood MP


Tobias Ellwood was elected as Member of the UK Parliament for Bournemouth East in May 2005, and subsequently re-elected in 2010, 2015, 2017 and most recently in December 2019. He was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with special responsibility for the Middle East and Africa from July 2014, and was made Parliamentary under-Secretary of State in the Ministry of Defence in the June 2017 reshuffle. He is Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee.