Freedom on the Net 2022 - United Kingdom

/ 100
Obstacles to Access 24 / 25
Limits on Content 30 / 35
Violations of User Rights 25 / 40
78 / 100 Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.


The internet remained free for users in the United Kingdom (UK), with widespread availability and few major constraints on access or content. Following the lead of its European counterparts, however, the government did restrict access to two Russia-backed media outlets and asked platform operators to restrict access to their content. Policymakers also proposed or passed new or revised legislation seeking to further regulate online platforms and internet service providers (ISPs).

The UK—which includes the constituent countries of England, Scotland, and Wales along with the territory of Northern Ireland—is a stable democracy that regularly holds free elections and is home to a vibrant media sector. While the government enforces robust protections for political rights and civil liberties, recent years have seen concerns about increased government surveillance of residents, as well as rising Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. In a 2016 referendum, UK voters narrowly voted to leave the European Union (EU), through a process known colloquially as “Brexit,” which will have political and economic reverberations both domestically and across Europe in the coming years.

Key Developments, June 1, 2021 - May 31, 2022

  • Internet access continued to expand during the coverage period, and the government has continued to propose initiatives to address persisting digital divides. In October 2021, for instance, the government announced the £5 billion ($6.7 billion) Project Gigabit to bring faster and more reliable broadband internet to 570,000 rural premises (see A2).
  • The Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021 received royal assent in November 2021, amending the Communications Act 2003 and empowering the government to restrict market entry on national security concerns. The act was criticized by legal scholars for potentially limiting market diversity (see A4).
  • In April 2022, Michael Grade, a former British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) chairman, was named chairman of Ofcom, the country’s primary telecommunications regulator. His four-year term started in May. Politicians and civil society questioned Grade’s independence from the ruling Conservatives along with his expertise (see A5).
  • Websites for Russia-backed outlets Sputnik News and RT both presented signs of blocking in the UK and several other European countries around March 2022. Also that month, Nadine Dorries, then the culture secretary, requested that Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok block access to those outlets’ content in the UK (see B1 and B2).
  • While inauthentic coordinated behavior was identified in the UK’s online information landscape during the coverage period, misleading online content and efforts to manipulate the online sphere seen around Brexit and the 2019 election did not recur (see B5).
  • Reporting from October 2021 detailed the recent expansion of the Metropolitan Police Service’s (MPS) social media monitoring operations between September 2020 and July 2021 (see C5).

A Obstacles to Access

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 6 / 6

Access to the internet is considered a key element of societal and democratic participation in the UK. Broadband access is almost ubiquitous, and nearly 100 percent of households are within range of ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) connections. All national mobile service providers offer fourth-generation (4G) network technology, and the four largest—EE, O2, Vodafone, and Three—offer 5G service.

The Digital Economy Act 2017 obliges service providers to offer minimum connection speeds of 10 megabits per second (Mbps).1 Access to “superfast” broadband connections, with advertised speeds of at least 30 Mbps, continues to expand, covering 96 percent of UK premises as of December 2021.2 Fiber-optic coverage reached 28 percent of UK homes as of that month, a 10 percent increase since 2020.

Mobile telephone penetration is extensive. Ofcom estimates that 5G connectivity is available from at least one mobile service provider outside at least 42 to 57 percent of premises. The country’s four major service providers report they provide 4G outdoor coverage to approximately 99 percent of premises and 79 to 86 percent of the nation’s landmass.

In July 2020, the government banned the purchase of 5G technology from Chinese telecommunications company Huawei beginning in 2021 and ordered existing Huawei equipment removed by the end of 2027 due to security concerns (see A4).3 Major service providers, including EE, Three, and Vodafone, all use Huawei equipment in their 5G infrastructure; the cost of that removal was estimated at over £500 million ($667 million) in 2020.4 Huawei has since, however, partnered with three UK companies to build a private 5G network at the Cambridge Wireless 5G Testbed.5

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 3 / 3

Score change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because of the affordability of internet connectivity and the lack of a significant digital divide.

Internet access continues to expand, gradually reducing regional and demographic disparities.

The UK provides a competitive market for internet access, and prices for communications services compare favorably with those in other countries. The Economist’s Inclusive Internet Index 2022 ranks the UK fifth overall out of 100 countries surveyed, and first for affordability, defined by cost of access relative to income and the level of internet-market competition.6

According to analytics company Cable, the average cost of 1 gigabyte (GB) of mobile data in 2022 was £0.67 ($0.89).7 In July 2021, Ofcom reported that the average monthly price for mobile use (excluding handset cost) dropped from £12.23 ($15.81) in 2019 to £10.96 ($14.62) in 2020.8 Ofcom also reported that the average monthly household spend on communications services was £122.51 ($163.41) in 2020, a 1 percent increase compared to 2019.9

Meanwhile, the average monthly broadband cost in 2022 was £29.66 ($39.89).10 Several fixed-line broadband providers offer low-cost packages, however, including five that offer targeted tariffs for £10 ($13.31) or £15 ($19.97) a month.11 Ofcom’s expenditure analysis shows that 3.3 million households with the country’s lowest incomes spend over 4 percent of their disposable income on fixed-line broadband service, almost four times as much as the average household.12

Despite the positive trends in the UK, 6 percent of households remain offline. In an April 2021 report, Ofcom noted lower-income households (representing 11 percent of the total), and the most financially vulnerable (10 percent) were the least likely to have internet access.13

In October 2021, the UK government announced the £5 billion ($6.7 billion) Project Gigabit to bring faster and more reliable high-speed services to 570,000 rural premises.14

According to 2020 data from the Office of National Statistics, virtually all residents between the ages of 16 and 44 are internet users, with most accessing the internet through their mobile device.15 There is almost no gender gap in internet use as of 2020—93 percent of men used the internet compared to 91 percent of women.16

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 6 / 6

The government does not exercise control over the internet infrastructure and does not routinely restrict connectivity.

The government does not place limits on the amount of bandwidth ISPs can supply, and the use of internet infrastructure is not subject to direct government control. ISPs regularly engage in traffic shaping or slowdowns of certain services, such as peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing and television streaming. Mobile service providers have cut back on previously unlimited access packages for smartphones, reportedly because of network congestion concerns.

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 5 / 6

There are few obstacles to the establishment of service providers in the UK, allowing for a competitive market that benefits users.

Major ISPs include Virgin Media with a 24 percent market share, BT (formerly British Telecom) with 23 percent, Sky with 17 percent, TalkTalk with 9 percent, and others constituting the remaining 27 percent.17 Ofcom continues to use regulations to promote the unbundling of services so that incumbent owners of infrastructure invest in their networks while also allowing competitors to make use of them.18

ISPs are not subject to licensing, but they must comply with general conditions set by Ofcom, such as having a recognized code of practice and being a member of a recognized alternative dispute-resolution scheme.19

Among mobile service providers, EE, which has been owned by BT since 2016, leads the market with 22 percent of subscribers, followed by O2 with 19 percent, Vodafone with 15 percent, Three with 10 percent, and Tesco with 7 percent.20 Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) including Tesco provide service using the infrastructure owned by one of the other companies.

The Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021, which received royal assent that November, to amend the Communications Act 2003, places stronger legal obligations on telecommunications service providers to identify and reduce the risk of cybersecurity breaches and prepare for their occurrence.21 The law empowers the government to regulate and issue codes of practice for service providers to this effect via secondary legislation, which had not been finalized by the end of the coverage period. Draft measures have been described as onerous by some legal scholars.22 Providers who do not comply could receive sanctions of up to 10 percent of global turnover. Consultation on draft regulations and an associated draft code of practice closed in May 2022.23

The act also allows the government to issue Designated Vendor Directions (DVDs) regarding high-risk vendors that are deemed threats to national security. The government produced a DVD for Huawei, for instance, when it previously banned the purchase of Huawei equipment and mandated its eventual removal by service providers (see A1). The act legally enshrines these measures and has been criticized by some legal scholars for potentially limiting market diversity.24

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 4 / 4

The various entities responsible for regulating internet service and content in the UK generally operate impartially and transparently.

Ofcom, the primary telecommunications regulator, is an independent statutory body. It has broadly defined responsibility for the needs of “citizens” and “consumers” regarding “communications matters” under the Communications Act 2003.25 It is overseen by Parliament and also regulates the broadcasting and postal sectors.26 Ofcom has some authority to regulate content with implications for the internet, such as regulating video content in keeping with the EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive.27 Ofcom will enforce the Online Safety Bill, which existed in draft form as of April 2022 (see B3, B5, and B6).28 The most recent appointment of the Ofcom chair sparked controversy during the coverage period. 29 Michael Grade, a former BBC board chairman, was confirmed as Ofcom’s chairman in April 2022 and his four-year term began in May. His independence from the government and ruling Conservative Party, as well as his expertise, was questioned by politicians and civil society.30

Nominet, a nonprofit company operating in the public interest, manages access to the .uk, .wales, and .cymru country domains.

Other groups regulate services and content through voluntary ethical codes or coregulatory rules under independent oversight. In 2012, major ISPs published a Voluntary Code of Practice in Support of the Open Internet, which commits ISPs to transparency and confirms that traffic management practices will not be used to target and degrade competitors’ services.31 Amendments to the code clarify that signatories could deploy content filtering for public Wi-Fi access.32 Ofcom also maintains voluntary codes of practice related to internet speed provision, dispute resolution, and the sale and promotion of internet services.33

Criminal online content is addressed by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), an independent self-regulatory body funded by Nominet and industry associations (see B3).34 The Advertising Standards Authority and the Independent Press Standards Organisation regulate newspaper websites.

The Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum (DRCF), formed in July 2020 by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and Ofcom, and later joined by the Financial Conduct Authority, was created to promote greater cooperation between entities on online regulatory matters.35

B Limits on Content

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 4 / 6

Score Change: The score declined from 5 to 4 because the websites of Russia-backed outlets Sputnik News and RT presented signs of blocking in March 2022, amid broader European efforts to restrict the outlets’ reach across the continent.

Blocking generally does not affect political and journalistic content or other internationally protected forms of online expression. Service providers do block and filter some content that falls into one of three categories: copyright-infringing material, the promotion of terrorism, and depictions of child sexual abuse. Optional filtering can be applied to additional content, particularly material that is considered unsuitable for children.

According to measurements conducted by the Open Observatory for Network Interference (OONI), Sputnik News and RT both presented signs of blocking around March 2022 in several European countries, including the UK. The EU officially banned the outlets, including downloading their apps and sharing their content on social media, on March 2, in a stance against Moscow’s “continuous and concerted propaganda actions” around the invasion of Ukraine (see B2).36 Both sites continued to present signs of blocking through the end of the coverage period.37

In October 2019, the government dropped plans for automated age verification for online pornography, set to enter into force in April 2019, 38 deeming it technically infeasible.39 The Digital Economy Act 2017 includes provisions that allow blocking of “extreme” pornographic material, setting standards that critics said were poorly defined and could be unevenly applied.40 In May 2021, the BBC reported that the draft Online Safety Bill did not include an age-verification system (see B3, B5, and B6);41 the government announced in February 2022 that the legal duty requiring age-verification controls, with threat of blocking in cases of noncompliance, would be introduced in the latest version. 42

ISPs are required to block domains and URLs found to be hosting material that infringes copyright when ordered to do so by the High Court (see B3).43

Overseas-based URLs hosting content that has been reported by police for violating the Terrorism Act 2006, which prohibits the glorification or promotion of terrorism, are included in the optional child filters supplied by many ISPs.44 “Public estates” like schools and libraries also block such URLs.45 The content can still be accessed on private devices.46

ISPs block URLs containing photographic or computer-generated depictions of child sexual abuse or criminally obscene adult content in accordance with the Internet Services Providers’ Association’s voluntary code of practice (see A5). Mobile service providers also block URLs identified by the IWF as containing such content.

All mobile service providers and some ISPs that provide home service filter legal content that is considered unsuitable for children. Mobile service providers enable these filters by default, requiring customers to prove that they are over age 18 to access the unfiltered internet.47 Content considered suitable for adults only includes the promotion of illegal drugs, sex education, and discriminatory language. Website owners can check whether their sites are filtered under one or more category, or report overblocking, by emailing the industry-backed nonprofit group Internet Matters,48 though the process and timeframe for correcting mistakes varies by provider.

These optional filters can affect a range of legitimate content pertaining to public health, LGBT+ topics, drug awareness, and even information published by civil society groups and political parties (see B3).49 A 2014 Ofcom report found that ISPs include “proxy sites, whose primary purpose is to bypass filters or increase user anonymity, as part of their standard blocking lists.”50

Blocked, a site operated by the Open Rights Group, allows users to test the accessibility of websites and report excessive blocking and optional filtering by both home broadband and mobile internet providers.51 As of March 2021, the number of blocked and filtered sites was reported to be over 775,000; more than 21,000 of which are suspected to be blocked inadvertently.52 This includes sites related to advice for abuse victims, addiction counseling, LGBT+ subjects, and school websites.53

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 3 / 4

Political, social, and cultural content is generally not subject to forced removal, though excessive enforcement of rules against illegal content can affect protected speech (see B1). The government continues to develop regulations that would compel platforms to restrict content that is deemed harmful but not necessarily illegal (see B3, B5, and B6).

On March 3, 2022, the day after the EU banned broadcasts, the sharing of social media content, and app downloads from RT and Sputnik, then culture secretary Nadine Dorries requested that Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok block access to the outlets’ content via UK services (see B1).54 Meta reported that it would restrict access to both outlets across the UK.55 Ofcom revoked RT’s broadcasting license later that month.56

The Terrorism Act calls for the removal of online material hosted in the UK if it “glorifies or praises” terrorism, could be useful to terrorists, or incites people to carry out or support terrorism. As of April 2019, the police’s Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU), which compiles lists of such content, reported that 310,000 pieces of material had been taken down since 2010.57

When child sexual abuse images or criminally obscene adult materials are hosted on servers in the UK, the IWF coordinates with police and local hosting companies to have it taken down. For content that is hosted on servers overseas, the IWF coordinates with international hotlines and police to have the offending content taken down in the host country. Similar processes exist under the oversight of True Vision, a site that is managed by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), for the investigation of online materials that incite hatred.58

In 2019, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that search engines do not have to apply the right to be forgotten—the removal of links from search results at the request of individuals if the stories in question are deemed to be inadequate or irrelevant—for all global users after receiving an appropriate request to do so in Europe.59 In April 2018, the UK’s High Court ordered Google to delist search results about a businessman’s past criminal conviction in its first decision on the right to be forgotten. In another case, the court rejected a similar claim made by a businessman who was sentenced for a more serious crime.60

Despite ending membership in the EU, the British government and data protection regulator, the ICO, committed to implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR),61 which came into force in May 2018 (see C6). Under the GDPR, the right to be forgotten, along with other rights enshrined in the GDPR, will continue to apply in the UK under the Data Protection Act 2018.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cabinet Office Rapid Response Unit (RRU) began an aggressive campaign to address “misinformation narratives” concerning the virus.62 The RRU has worked with social media platforms to remove certain content identified as “misinformation.” In some cases, the RRU flags the content or posts a rebuttal.

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 3 / 4

The regulatory framework and actual procedures for managing online content are largely proportional, transparent, and open to correction. However, the optional filtering systems operated by ISPs and mobile service providers—particularly those meant to block material that is unsuitable for children—have been criticized for a lack of transparency, inconsistency between providers, and excessive application that affects legitimate content.

In May 2021, the government published the Online Safety Bill (see B5 and B6), which proposes a new regulatory framework to compel search engines and online platforms to address and remove illegal and harmful content under the statutory duties of care, defined as an obligation “to moderate user-generated content in a way that prevents users from being exposed to illegal and harmful content online.”63 A revised draft was introduced in March 2022 after a period of parliamentary scrutiny.64 The bill had not been approved by the end of the coverage period.

The bill would apply to illegal content, “content that is harmful to adults,” and “content that is harmful to children.” Illegal content includes child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) offenses, terrorist content, and additional content specified in Schedule 7 of the bill. The bill broadly defines “content that is harmful to adults” and “content that is harmful to children” as content that presents a “material risk of significant harm to an appreciable number of [users] in the United Kingdom.” While the bill does not expressly require the use of automated content-moderation tools, online services would be required to use “accredited technology” to remove terrorist and CSEA content, and to “swiftly take down content.” The revised bill grants Ofcom the power to issue relevant notices.65

The proposed legislation targets services including search engines and “user-to-user” services, defined as an internet service that hosts user-generated content or facilitates public or private interaction between at least two people. Under the bill, the culture secretary may designate some services as “Category 1,” based on their function and number of users, to take additional action to combat harmful content.66 Those services would also be required to protect “journalistic content,” which seemingly includes independent journalists, and “content of democratic importance,” broadly defined as content that “appears to be specifically intended to contribute to democratic political debate in the United Kingdom or a part or area of the United Kingdom.” Protections for “journalistic content” would include an expedited content-removal appeals process for journalists.67 A proposed change to the bill announced in July 2022, after the coverage period, would bar platforms from removing news content until an appeals process concludes.68

For noncompliant services, Ofcom would be empowered to issue notices and fines up to £18 million ($24 million) or 10 percent of global turnover, whichever is higher. In a December 2020 response to the consultation of the white paper, the government noted that these fines would make it “less commercially viable” for services to operate in the UK, thus forcing companies to comply.69 Additionally, Ofcom would have the ability to order a suspension of service for noncompliant platforms, and an interim suspension of service in extreme cases. If the suspension orders are deemed ineffective, Ofcom would then be empowered to order interim and long-term access restriction orders. Ofcom would also be responsible for drafting relevant codes of practice for the management of harmful content.70

Under the Digital Economy Act 2017, ISPs are legally empowered to use both blocking and filtering methods, if allowed by their terms and conditions of use.71 Civil society groups have criticized the default filters used by ISPs and mobile service providers to review content deemed unsuitable for children, arguing that they lack transparency and affect too much legitimate content, which makes it difficult for consumers to make informed choices and for content owners to appeal wrongful blocking (see B1).

ISPs block URLs using content-filtering technology known as Cleanfeed, which was developed by BT in 2004. The process involves deep packet inspection (DPI), a granular method of monitoring traffic that enables blocking of individual URLs rather than entire domains.

ISPs are notified about websites hosting content that has been determined to violate or potentially violate UK law under at least three different procedures. The IWF compiles and distributes a list of specific URLs containing photographic or computer-generated depictions of CSEA or criminally obscene adult content to ISPs;72 the CTIRU compiles an unpublished list of URLs—which are filtered on public-sector networks—hosted overseas that contain material considered to glorify or incite terrorism under the Terrorism Act 2006;73 and the High Court can order ISPs to block websites found to be infringing copyright under the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988.74 Copyright-related blocking has been criticized for its inefficiency and opacity.75

In some cases, mobile service providers’ filtering activity may be outsourced to third-party contractors, further limiting transparency.76 Child-protection filters are enabled by default in mobile internet browsers, though users can disable them by verifying that they are over the age of 18. MVNOs are believed to be capable of using their parent service’s filtering infrastructure.77 O2 allows its users to check how a particular site has been classified.78 The filtering is based on a classification framework for mobile content published by the British Board of Film Certification (BBFC), the designated age-verification regulator.79 The BBFC adjudicates appeals from content owners and publishes the results quarterly.80

Website owners and companies that knowingly host illicit material and fail to remove it may be held liable, even if the content was created by users, according to EU Directive 2000/31/EC (the E-Commerce Directive).81 Updates to the Defamation Act effective since 2014 limit companies’ liability for user-generated content that is considered defamatory. However, the Defamation Act offers protection from private libel suits based on third-party postings only if the plaintiff is able to identify the user responsible for the allegedly defamatory content.82 The act does not specify what sort of information the website operator must provide to plaintiffs, but it raised concerns that websites would register users and restrict anonymity in order to avoid civil liability.83

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 3 / 4

Self-censorship, though difficult to assess, is not understood to be a widespread problem in the UK. However, due to factors including the government’s extensive surveillance practices, it appears likely that some users censor themselves when discussing sensitive topics to avoid potential government intervention or other repercussions (see C5).84

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 4 / 4

Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because misleading online content and efforts to manipulate the online sphere did not significantly impact online information during the coverage period.

Concerns about content manipulation increased from 2016 through 2020, with foreign, partisan, and extremist groups allegedly using automated “bot” accounts, fabricated news, and altered images to shape discussions on social networks.

Though such concerns have somewhat abated since 2020, coordinated inauthentic behavior did occur during the coverage period. In November 2021, Meta reported removing a network of 524 Facebook accounts, 20 pages, 4 groups, and 86 Instagram accounts that originated in China and targeted English-speaking audiences in the UK and the United States. Meta found links to employees of a Chinese information-security firm and individuals associated with Chinese state-owned infrastructure firms.85 In December 2021, Meta reported removing a network of 8 Facebook accounts and 126 Instagram Iran-based accounts that primarily targeted Scotland and the UK as a whole. The accounts, which employed popular hashtags promoting Scottish independence, posed as English or Scottish citizens and produced and amplified political content including criticism of the UK government. They also tried to contact policymakers.86

During the December 2019 general election, the governing Conservative Party and opposition Labour Party spread misleading content and disinformation on social media, including doctored videos shared by the Conservative Party.87 Google banned eight Conservative ads for “violating Google’s advertising policy”; six related to a website created by Conservative Party officials that imitated Labour’s election manifesto.88 In July 2020, the UK government said that the Russian government had tried to influence the 2019 election by illicitly acquiring sensitive US-UK trade documents and distributing them on the social media platform Reddit.89

The online environment was allegedly manipulated surrounding the 2016 Brexit referendum and the June 2017 elections, adding to the polarization of online political discourse. In the lead-up to the referendum, targeted online ads distributed by Leave campaign groups on Facebook included misleading statistics and claims, with one even accusing the EU of seeking to ban teakettles.90 In May 2017, Facebook reported that it had removed tens of thousands of inauthentic accounts to limit the impact of deliberately misleading information disguised to look like news reports; such accounts had spread online prior to the elections.91

A parliamentary inquiry into social media interference intensified in March 2018, when Christopher Wylie, a former employee at the data analytics company Cambridge Analytica, claimed that the firm had illegally obtained information from Facebook on millions of accounts and had developed techniques for categorizing and influencing potential voters.92

The government runs a counterdisinformation campaign called SHARE—previously known as Don’t Feed the Beast—that provides users with a checklist of features to note before sharing posts and media online.93 The Online Safety Bill would empower Ofcom to create a disinformation-and-misinformation advisory committee to advise online services (see B3 and B6).94

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 3 / 3

Online media outlets face economic constraints that negatively impact their financial sustainability, but these are the result of market forces, not political intervention.

Publishers have struggled to find a profitable model for their digital platforms, though more than half of the population reportedly consumes news online. In 2021, a survey conducted for Ofcom found that 73 percent of adults used the internet to access news, with social media being the most popular online source.95

Ofcom is responsible for enforcing the EU’s 2015 Open Internet Regulation, which includes an obligation for ISPs to ensure net neutrality—the principle that internet traffic should not be throttled, blocked, or otherwise disadvantaged on the basis of content. This regulation was revised slightly but largely preserved in UK law after the country's exit from the EU was finalized in 2020.96

The Online Safety Bill (see B3 and B5) would empower Ofcom to fine online services the greater of £18 million ($24 million) or 10 percent of a service’s global turnover if they do not comply with the bill’s provisions, which could impact their ability to operate in the UK.

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability? 4 / 4

The online information landscape is diverse and lively. Users have access to the online content of virtually all national and international news organizations. While there are a range of sources that present diverse views and appeal to various audiences and communities, the ownership of leading news outlets is relatively concentrated,97 and particular media groups have been accused of political bias.

The publicly funded BBC, which maintains an extensive online presence, has an explicit diversity and inclusion strategy, aiming to increase the representation of women and LGBT+ people, and the representation of different age ranges and ethnic and religious groups.98 Similar models have been adopted by other national broadcasters.99

The CMA endeavored to boost competition among digital platforms during the coverage period. In November 2021, the CMA ordered Meta to sell Giphy, a search engine for GIFs that Meta had acquired in 2020, because it would reduce competition.100 The Competition Appeals Tribunal quashed the ruling in June 2022; in July, CMA announced that it would conduct another review.101 In June 2022, after the coverage period, the CMA vowed to probe the dominance of Apple and Google’s mobile browsers, citing their “effective duopoly“ on the mobile environment.102

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 6 / 6

Online mobilization tools are freely available and commonly used to organize offline,103 and collective action continues to grow in terms of both numbers of participants and numbers of campaigns. Some groups use digital tools to document and combat bigotry, including Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks), which tracks reports of attacks or abuse submitted by British Muslims online.104 Petition and advocacy platforms such as 38 Degrees and AVAAZ have emerged, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) view online communication as an indispensable part of any campaign strategy.

C Violations of User Rights

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 5 / 6

The UK does not have a written constitution or similarly comprehensive legislation that defines the scope of governmental power and its relation to individual rights. Instead, constitutional powers and individual rights are addressed in various statutes, common law, and conventions. The provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights were adopted into law via the Human Rights Act 1998.

In December 2021, the government launched a consultation on reforming the Human Rights Act.105 In June 2022, after the coverage period, the government published the Bill of Rights Bill, which would repeal and replace the Human Rights Act.106 It includes significant changes to the UK’s human rights framework, requiring claimants to prove that they have suffered “significant disadvantage” and giving Parliament, rather than the courts, primacy in decision-making when competing rights and interests are at stake. The bill maintains that courts must give “great weight” to the importance of freedom of speech, but also establishes exemptions in areas including criminal proceedings and matters relating to immigration, citizenship, and national security.107

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 2 / 4

Political expression and other forms of online speech or activity are generally protected, but there are legal restrictions on hate speech, online harassment, and copyright infringement, and some measures—including a 2019 counterterrorism law—could be applied in ways that violate international human rights standards.

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, which received royal assent in February 2019, included several provisions related to online activity (see C5).108 Individuals can face up to 15 years in prison for viewing or accessing material that is useful or likely to be useful in preparing or committing a terrorist act, even if there is no demonstrated intent to commit such acts. The law includes exceptions for journalists or academic researchers who access such materials in the course of their work, but it does not address other possible circumstances in which access might be legitimate.109 “Reckless” expressions of support for banned organizations are also criminalized under the law. A number of NGOs argued that the legislation was dangerously broad, with unclear definitions that could be abused.110 In April 2021, the Countering Terrorism and Sentencing Act, which stipulates prison sentences of up to 14 years for anyone who “supports a proscribed terrorist organization,” received royal assent.111

Stringent bans on hate speech are encapsulated in a number of laws and some rights groups have said they are too vaguely worded.112 Defining what constitutes an offense has been made more difficult by the development of new communications platforms. One such ban is included in Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which punishes “grossly offensive” communications sent through the internet.113 The maximum penalty is an unlimited fine and six months in prison.

These communication offenses will likely be amended by the Online Safety Bill, which also labels knowingly false, persistent, and threatening communications and “cyberflashing,” when an individual sends an unsolicited intimate image to another, as offenses.114 Commentators have criticized these offenses due to the lack of certainty and standards used, which may impact speech.115

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) publishes specific guidelines for the prosecution of crimes “committed by the sending of a communication via social media.”116 Updates in 2014 placed digital harassment offenses committed with the intent to coerce victims into sexual activity under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which carries a maximum of 14 years in prison.117 Revised guidelines issued in March 2016 identified four categories of communications that are subject to possible prosecution: credible threats; abusive communications targeting specific individuals; breaches of court orders; and grossly offensive, false, obscene, or indecent communications.118 In October 2016, the CPS updated its guidelines again to cover more abusive online behaviors, including organized harassment campaigns or “mobbing,” and doxing, the deliberate and unauthorized publication of personal information online to facilitate harassment.119

The Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988 carries a maximum two-year prison sentence for offenses committed online. In 2015, the government held a public consultation regarding a proposal to increase the sentence to 10 years, which was ultimately incorporated into the Digital Economy Act 2017.

In March 2021, the Scottish parliament passed the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, through which lawmakers aimed to extend and modernize existing hate crimes; it became law in April 2021. The law creates criminal offenses for speech and acts intentionally “stirring up hatred” against groups based on protected characteristics, including age, disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, and transgender identity.120 Violators of the law face up to 12 months’ imprisonment and a fine for summary conviction, and up to 7 years on a conviction by jury trial. Civil society groups, including the Open Rights Group, have raised concerns that the law has a wide remit and low threshold for prosecution,121 particularly noting that criteria for “insult” is not clearly defined and could make sharing online material that is offensive a crime.122

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 5 / 6

Police have arrested internet users for promoting terrorism, issuing threats, or engaging in racist abuse. In some past cases, the authorities have been accused of overreaching in their enforcement efforts.123 The frequency of these cases appear to be declining, and prison sentences for political, social, and cultural speech remain rare.124

In March 2022, Twitter user Joseph Kelly was sentenced to 150 hours of community service and 18 months of supervision under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 for posting a “grossly offensive” tweet about a British Army officer. Kelly had said “the only good Brit soldier is a [dead] one” in February 2021, the day following the officer’s death.125

Local police departments have the discretion to pursue criminal complaints that would be treated as civil cases in many democracies. The NPCC operates True Vision, an online portal to facilitate the reporting of hate crimes to law enforcement.126 In May 2020, police in Newcastle arrested three teenagers who posted a Snapchat video mocking the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police officers in the United States earlier that month. The incident was reportedly being investigated as a hate crime;127 no updates were reported as of the end of the coverage period.

Cases of offensive humor have been prosecuted. For example, in May 2020, an officer of the Devon and Cornwall police force was arrested and charged with “sending an offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing image via a public electronic communications network” for sharing a meme about the death of George Floyd in a private WhatsApp group, contrary to the Communications Act 2003. However, in April 2021, the defendant was cleared as the judge felt that the prosecution had not made a strong enough case that the image had sufficiently malicious intent.128

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 2 / 4

Users are not required to register to obtain a SIM card, allowing for the anonymous use of mobile devices.129 However, some laws provide authorities with the means to undermine encryption, and security officials have pushed for further powers.

There are several laws that could allow authorities to compel decryption or require a user to disclose passwords, including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), the Terrorism Act 2000, and the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (IP Act) (see C5 and C6).130 Although such powers are seldom invoked in practice, some users have faced detention for failure to provide passwords.131

In October 2019, then home secretary Priti Patel and her counterparts in the United States and Australia wrote to Facebook opposing the company’s plans to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging platforms.132 The letter followed communiques in July and October 2019 from the Five Country Ministerial, a Five Eyes consortium of which the UK is a member, criticizing technology companies that provide encrypted products that preserve anonymity and preclude law enforcement access to content.133 In October 2020, the Five Eyes along with the Indian and Japanese governments issued a statement requesting backdoor access to encrypted messages.134 In April 2021, Patel gave a speech at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in which she urged Facebook and other platforms to consider encryption’s impact on “public safety” and provide mechanisms for law enforcement to access encrypted conversations.135 In January 2022, the No Place to Hide campaign, backed by the UK government, was launched to raise awareness against the alleged danger of encrypted messaging to children and prevent Facebook from expanding its use of end-to-end encryption.136

In November 2021, the UK government announced five winning projects of the 2021 Safety Tech Challenge Fund, which aims to combat the sexual abuse and exploitation of children online in encrypted environments without impacting people’s rights to privacy and data protection.137

The Online Safety Bill, which would require age verification for access to online pornography, has ignited civil society concerns over its potential to compromise encryption (see B1).138 Under the bill, Ofcom can mandate online services to employ government-approved software to find images depicting CSEA.139 These orders, which can be issued to services that use end-to-end encryption and consequently cannot technically inspect user messages, has been criticized as an attempt to compel companies to abandon or compromise their encryption systems.140

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 2 / 6

UK authorities are known to engage in surveillance of digital communications, including mass surveillance, for intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism purposes. A 2016 law introduced some oversight mechanisms to prevent abuses, but it also authorized bulk collection of communications data and other problematic practices. A 2019 counterterrorism law empowered border officials to search travelers’ devices, undermining the privacy of their online activity.

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act (see C2) gives border agents the ability to search electronic devices at border crossings and ports of entry with the aim of detecting “hostile activity”—a broad category including actions that threaten national security, threaten the economic well-being of the country in a way that touches on security, or are serious crimes.141 Those stopped are required to provide information when requested by border officers, including device passwords.142

The IP Act codified law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ surveillance powers in a single omnibus law, whereas they previously existed in multiple statutes and authorities.143 It covers interception, equipment interference, and data retention, among other topics.144 The IP Act has been criticized by industry associations, civil rights groups, and the wider public, particularly regarding the range of powers it authorizes and its legalization of bulk data collection.145

The IP Act specifically enables the bulk interception and acquisition of communications data sent or received by individuals outside the UK, as well as bulk equipment interference involving “overseas-related” communications and information. When both the sender and receiver of a communication are in the UK, targeted warrants are required, though several individuals, groups, or organizations may be covered under a single warrant in connection with a single investigation.146 Part 7 of the IP Act introduced warrant requirements for intelligence agencies to retain or examine “personal data relating to a number of individuals” who are “unlikely to become of interest to the intelligence service in the exercise of its functions.”147

The IP Act established a new commissioner appointed by the prime minister to oversee investigatory powers under Section 227.148 The law includes other safeguards, such as “double-lock” interception warrants. These require approval from both the relevant secretary of state and an independent judge, though the secretary alone can approve urgent warrants.149 The act allows authorities to prohibit telecommunications providers from disclosing the existence of a warrant. Intercepting authorities that may apply for targeted warrants include police commissioners, intelligence service heads, and revenue and customs commissioners.150 Applications for bulk interception, bulk equipment interference, and bulk personal dataset warrants can only be made to the secretary of state “on behalf of the head of an intelligence service by a person holding office under the Crown” and must be reviewed by a judge.

Bulk surveillance is an especially contentious issue in the UK because intelligence agencies developed secret programs under older laws that bypassed oversight mechanisms and possible means of redress for affected individuals. These programs affected an untold number of people within the UK, even if they were meant to have only foreign targets. Tempora, a secret surveillance project documented in the Snowden leaks, is one example. A number of other legislative measures authorized surveillance,151 including RIPA.152 RIPA was not repealed by the IP Act, though many of its competences were transferred to the newer legislation. A clause within Part I of RIPA allowed the foreign or home secretary to sign off on bulk surveillance of communications data arriving from or departing to foreign soil, providing the legal basis for Tempora.153 Since the UK’s fiber-optic network often routes domestic traffic through international cables, this provision legitimized mass surveillance of UK residents.154 Working with telecommunications companies, The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) installed interception probes at the British landing points of undersea fiber-optic cables, giving it direct access to data carried by hundreds of cables, including private calls and messages.155

In July 2016, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal found that bulk data collection by GCHQ, the Security Service (also known as MI5), and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6), was unlawful from March 1998 until the practice was disclosed in November 2015.156 The practice had been authorized under Section 94 of the Telecommunications Act 1984, which the interception of communications commissioner described in June 2016 as lacking “any provision for independent oversight or any requirements for the keeping of records” and which the tribunal declared incompatible with EU human rights standards in July 2021.157 The tribunal also said in 2016 that the use of bulk personal datasets by GCHQ and the Security Service, commencing in 2006, was likewise unlawful until disclosed in March 2015.158

In May 2021, the High Court ruled that security agencies cannot use “general warrants,” outlined in Section 5 of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, to order the hacking of computers or mobile devices. For example, under a “general warrant,” a security agency could request information from “all mobile phones used by members of a criminal network” to justify the hacking of these devices without having to obtain a specific warrant for each individual in the network. The ruling came after Privacy International, a UK-based NGO, challenged a 2016 decision from the Investigative Powers Tribunal that held that the government could use these warrants to hack computers or mobile devices.159

UK authorities have been known to monitor social media platforms.160 The Online Hate Speech Dashboard, a joint project led by the National Online Hate Crime Hub of the NPCC and Cardiff University, received £1 million ($1.4 million) in 2018 to use artificial intelligence for real-time monitoring of social media platforms meant to identify hate speech and “preempt hate crimes.”161

Reporting from October 2021 detailed the recent expansion of the MPS’s social media monitoring operations between September 2020 and July 2021. A database used by the Project Alpha Team, which was created in 2019 and uses covert methods to monitor social media platforms, compiles information gathered from both public and private social media accounts; the number of categories of data being gathered more than doubled, from 16 to 34, during that time. While authorities claim that Project Alpha’s goal is to combat online gang-related content, civil society groups warned of potential privacy violations and online racial profiling.162 Similar concerns arose when in June 2022, after the coverage period, reports emerged that the MPS was gathering “children’s personal data” from social media, specifically 15-to-21-year-old males, as part of a broader profiling project.163

C6 0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 3 / 6

Companies are required to capture and retain user data under certain circumstances, though the government issued regulatory changes in 2018 to address flaws in the existing rules. While the government has legal authority to require companies to assist in the decryption of communications, the extent of its use and efficacy in practice remains unclear.

The UK has incorporated the GDPR into domestic law through the Data Protection Act 2018.164 The GDPR was therefore envisioned to regulate data protection within the UK after the country’s exit from the EU. In September 2021, however, the government published a consultation outcome that envisioned a significant departure from the GDPR. 165 The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill was introduced in the House of Commons in July 2022, after the coverage period.166 The bill includes significant areas of departure from the GDPR, including listing examples of legitimate interest as a lawful basis for processing of personal data.167

Data retention provisions under the IP Act allow the secretary of state to issue notices requiring telecommunications providers to capture information about user activity, including browser history, and retain it for up to 12 months. The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (DRIPA), the older law on which the IP Act requirement was modeled, was ruled unlawful in the UK and the EU in 2015.168 In January 2018, the Court of Appeal described DRIPA as being inconsistent with European law, since the data collected and retained were not limited to the purpose of fighting serious crime.169 In April 2018, the High Court ruled that part of the IP Act’s data retention provisions similarly violated EU law, and that the government should amend the legislation by November 2018.170

In response, the government issued the Data Retention and Acquiring Regulations 2018, which entered into force in October 2018. The regulations limited the scope of the government’s collection and retention of data and enhanced the transparency of the process.171 Furthermore, a newly created Office for Communications Data Authorisations would oversee data requests and ensure that official powers are used in accordance with the law.

According to a March 2021 report, the government issued orders under the IP Act to two service providers to install surveillance technology that would record users’ web history, creating an internet connection record (ICR).

Another problematic provision of the IP Act enables the government to order companies to decrypt content, though the extent to which companies would be willing or able to comply remains uncertain (see C4).172 Under Section 253, technical capability notices can be used to impose obligations on telecommunications operators both inside and outside the country “relating to the removal … of electronic protection applied by or on behalf of that operator to any communications or data,” among other requirements. The approval process for issuing a technical capability notice is similar to that of an interception warrant.173 In March 2018, after consultations with the industry and civil society groups,174 the government issued the Investigatory Powers (Technical Capability) Regulations 2018, which governs how the notices are issued and implemented.175 The regulations specify companies’ responsibilities in ensuring that they are able to comply with lawful warrants for communications data.

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in relation to their online activities? 4 / 5

There were no reported instances of violence against internet users in reprisal for their online activities during the coverage period, though cyberbullying and harassment against women are widespread.176 A June 2018 study found that one in three female members of Parliament (MPs) had experienced online abuse, harassment, or threats; research from September 2021 confirmed that women and minority MPs were at particular risk of receiving social media messages containing stereotypes about their identity or questioning their role as politicians.177 Online harassment of Muslims and other minorities is also a significant problem.178

Online harassment worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for women and people of Chinese descent. Support services reported a surge in reports of cyberstalking and online harassment.179 Racist incidents involving people of Chinese or other Asian descent were reported throughout the UK, including several cases involving social media.180

A 2017 study found an increase in abusive comments targeting politicians on Twitter, which peaked on the day of the 2016 Brexit referendum.181 A June 2021 press report, meanwhile, revealed that English soccer players were targeted with racist messages during the Euro 2020 tournament.182 More than 2,000 abusive messages were directed at the team during the three group stage matches, 44 of which used explicitly racist language.183

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 2 / 3

NGOs, media outlets, and activists are generally not targeted for technical attacks by government or nonstate actors. Financially motivated fraud and hacking continue to present a challenge to authorities and the private sector. Cyberattacks have increased in recent years, and observers have questioned the security of internet-of-things (IoT) devices and appliances.184 In the government’s 2022 cybercrime survey, 39 percent of business respondents said they experienced a cyberattack; 83 percent of those respondents said they faced phishing attempts.185

In February 2022, Reuters reported that the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) was the target of a “serious cybersecurity incident” earlier in the year, citing government tender documents. The government did not disclose details.186

In October 2021, an industry body reported that coordinated distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks had been employed against several UK-based voice over internet protocol (VoIP) providers. Officials reported that the attacks, which had occurred over four weeks, appeared to be extortion attempts.187

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK saw an increase in cybercrime, particularly phishing and ransomware attempts, with victims up by one-third from previous years.188 In an assessment on the origin of the attacks, British intelligence agencies noted that Russian actors played a large role.189

In May 2022, the FCDO, citing the UK, US, EU, and other actors, accused the Russian government of orchestrating a cyberattack “with Europe-wide impact” immediately before launching its invasion of Ukraine.190 Cyberattacks against privately owned critical infrastructure increased by 72 percent as of May 2022.191

In July 2020, a report to Parliament stated that Moscow-affiliated actors had hacked into the UK national infrastructure and launched phishing attacks against various government departments.192 The government responded that while Moscow’s capabilities represented a threat, they noted that there was no evidence of Russian interference in the 2019 election.193

During the 2019 election, the opposition Labour Party was subject to multiple cyberattacks, including a denial of service and a leak of donor identities.194 These attacks were not attributed to state actors and the party received ongoing support from the National Cyber Security Centre.