From file: Migrants who crossed the Channel by small boat are picked up by UK Border Force officials and brought to Dover | Photo: Stuart Brock / Anadolu Agency
From file: Migrants who crossed the Channel by small boat are picked up by UK Border Force officials and brought to Dover | Photo: Stuart Brock / Anadolu Agency

The UK government announced on Tuesday it would be seeking to force tech platforms to remove videos of migrants crossing the Channel if they showed that crossing in a "positive light." The measure is part of a draft bill which still needs to be passed by both houses of parliament.

The British government is currently working on tightening up laws governing the digital world as part of its Online Safety Bill. As the title suggests, it is there to protect children and adults from online abuse and harm from images seen on digital media.

As part of the draft bill, which still needs to be passed by both houses of parliament, Culture Secretary (Minister of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) Michelle Donelan is proposing adding amendments "to better tackle illegal immigration encouraged by organized gangs," reported the news agency Reuters.

If the bill were to be passed, this could include criminalizing those who are seen to be publishing videos of migrants crossing the Channel in a "positive light." In a guide to the online safety bill, published in December 2022, the government says the bill will tackle all illegal content posted on line, which will include content related to "illegal immigration and people smuggling," as well as "terrorism."

Enforcement and high fines

The government says the bill will be enforced via the telecommunications regulator Ofcom, an independent body. They will be in "charge as a regulator to check platforms are protecting their users."

Companies who are found not to comply with the bill if passed "will be fined up to €20 million or 10% of their annual global turnover, whichever is greater." The government also promises to initiate "criminal action" against "senior managers who fail to follow information requests from Ofcom."

"In the most extreme cases, with the agreement of the courts, Ofcom will be able to require payment providers, advertisers and internet service providers to stop working with a site, preventing it from generating money or being accessed from the UK."

According to the government the powers will extend against international companies too, "no matter where they are based, if they are accessible to UK users."

Linked to offline offenses

The bill has so far reached the Report Stage in the UK’s lower house (House of Commons). If it passes those stages, it would then need to go through the same three readings, Committee stage and Report stage in the upper house (House of Lords) before considering any amendments and obtaining Royal Assent. No timeline has yet been given but it would be expected to complete at some point this year.

In a written statement, reported Reuters, Donelan explained that anyone found to be "aiding abetting, counselling, conspiring etc. those [existing immigration] offenses by posting videos of people crossing the Channel which show that activity in a positive light could be an offense that is committed online."

In July 2021, the former UK Home Secretary Priti Patel highlighted social media’s role in promoting what she called illegal migration. She accused sites like TikTok of "glamorizing" migrant crossings and urged them to remove videos of migrants crossing the Channel.

Viral videos

Patel sent a letter to companies like Facebook (Meta) and TikTok after a video went viral on TikTok which appeared to show a group of men in an inflatable dinghy crossing the Channel. The minister said that smugglers were using these kinds of videos to promote "lethal crossings" and was "totally unacceptable."

In the letter, Patel wrote that "what these posts don’t mention are the people who have died trying to make this crossing, or those forced to spend 13 hours in unseaworthy boats in freezing waters."

In reply at the time, a spokesperson for Facebook said that "people smuggling is illegal and any ads, posts, pages or groups that coordinate this activity are not allowed on Facebook."

In order to justify including these clauses in the bill, Donelan told the i-newspaper "The Prime Minister [Rishi Sunak] has said, stopping these crossings is one of this Government’s top priorities. The use of highly dangerous methods to enter this country, including unseaworthy or small and overcrowded boats and refrigerated lorries presents a huge challenge for us. The situation needs to be resolved, and we will not hesitate to take action, wherever that can have the most effect –including through this Bill, as organized crime groups are increasingly using social media to facilitate migrant crossings."

'TikTok traffickers'

Conservative MP for Dover Natalie Elphicke who supports the bill told the i "the Online Safety Bill amendment calls time online for the TikTok traffickers who promote small boat crossings through online platforms and social media." The MP also gave an interview to BBC 5 Live on the subject.

Elphicke added that she had worked closely with the government on these changes in order to see offenses "relating to illegal immigration and modern slavery added to the Online Safety Bill."

The lawmaker called the draft bill "an important legal change towards stopping the small boat. It will make it harder for people smugglers to reach wide audiences using social media."


More articles