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The right to free expression

We help people get the most they can from the power of communications. We stand up for the right to communicate openly, whenever and wherever possible, because that’s what our business has always been about. The right to free expression isn’t just about freedom of speech, it’s also about the right to information.

We don’t host (or store) much online content ourselves. We provide access to content produced by others – like shared social media content – by enabling people to transmit information across our networks.

So potentially we could limit people’s rights to free expression if we block access to content online. And in rare circumstances that’s what we do. We block access to child sexual abuse images. We block malware to protect our customers’ communications and our network. When a court orders us to, we block material which infringes other people’s rights.

Our parental control tools give customers choices over blocking certain content on devices in their homes. We believe there’s a good case for people being able to make those choices themselves rather than us imposing choices on them. This was the subject of an industry debate in 2013 and 2014. Some politicians and media asserted that all adult material should be automatically blocked and that people should be forced to “opt in” in order to access it. We didn’t see things quite the same way. Rather than restrict access to potentially legitimate content without consent, we argued the case for leaving the initial decision with our customers. The debate continues.

In the few situations where we host content ourselves5 we allow people to add content and share opinions freely while protecting everyone from hateful or illegal material. Our terms and conditions are clear; customers must not upload content which is illegal, offensive, abusive, indecent, defamatory, obscene or menacing, or in breach of confidence, copyright, privacy or any other rights. If someone objects to any content, we quickly review it and remove it if we think it breaches our guidelines or is illegal. Speed is of the essence, otherwise we could be held legally responsible for making available illegal content. We’ve not had any requests to take down material from bt.com in the last 12 months. We’ve had only a handful of requests to suspend or take down material on sites we host as part of BT Community WebKit. And for MyDonate (our free online service for making charitable donations) we’ve taken down or modified around 20 to 30 comments made about donations in the last year.

Later in this report we explain why we take a strong stance on free expression. We believe in the right to access information online. Limitations to that right must be carefully circumscribed. Sometimes our position has meant getting clarity on the law in court (as we did when we took legal action to understand the impact of the Digital Economy Act 2010). We show where there are areas of legal uncertainty in the approach to free expression online – particularly when considering material which could be unlawful. And we make suggestions for safeguards in this area.

5 On bt.com, MyDonate (our online fundraising platform) and BT Community WebKit (our self-build website tool for charities and not-for-profit community groups).