Online Harms: Government Restates Press Freedom Assurances

The Government has restated its commitment to upholding press freedom as it seeks to implement a new regulatory framework for the tech giants, designed to crack down on online harms.  

Speaking in a Lords debate on the Online Harms White Paper this week, DCMS Minister Lord Ashton opened the debate with a statement of the Government’s strong support for press freedom and editorial independence

He said that “journalistic or editorial content will not be affected by the regulatory framework” that the Government is putting into place, repeating to Parliament the assurance previously given in Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright’s public letter.

He said: “There has been comment in some newspapers that the measures we have set out in the White Paper will fetter the freedom of the press. I reassure noble Lords that that is not the case. The Government strongly support press freedom and editorial independence.

“A vibrant, independent, plural and free press that is able to hold the powerful to account is essential to our democracy. Journalistic or editorial content will not be affected by the regulatory framework that we are putting in place.

“Furthermore, the regulator will have a legal duty to pay due regard to protecting users’ rights online—in particular, their privacy and freedom of expression. The regulator will not be responsible for policing truth and accuracy online.”

During the debate, Viscount Colville highlighted reasons for media concerns around the definitions of online harms which could lead to impingements on press freedom, and received further assurances in the Minister’s reply.

Viscount Colville also highlighted the issue of “hosting”, “sharing” and “discovery of user-generated content” saying that the definition was so widely drawn that it would cover much user-generated content on the websites of broadcasters and newspapers regulated by regualtors such as Ofcom and IPSO..

“Some of the UGC is also regulated on these publishers’ websites, particularly those that have gone through a process of editorial control. However, a lot of the other comments and UGC on these websites is not covered and is not being looked at under the regime suggested by the White Paper. I suggest that it should be dealt with by extending the remit of the existing regulators, rather than being duplicated by a new regulator,” he said.

He also expressed concern around some of the definitions of online harms on particularly those under the column entitled “harms with a less clear definition” such as “disinformation” which could have a chilling effect on free speech. 

He added: “I fear that, despite the Government’s laudable intention, a wide definition would allow interest groups and individuals being investigated by reporters to disrupt research and undermine the credibility of news organisations with allegations of fake news.

“For example, we have seen super-complaints against media outlets reporting on the pharmaceutical industry and exposing the side-effects or addictive qualities of certain drugs. The threat of a digital regulator questioning the original journalism and comments from users, who report the side-effects of these drugs, could stop these investigations taking place.”

He continued: “Another term that worries me is “violent content”, which also comes under the column entitled “less clear definition”. This definition must also be drawn very carefully so that it does not censor reports on demonstrations or terrorism.

“Even if these reports have been carefully edited, there could still be complaints of incitement to or encouragement of violence. For instance, reporting from the Catalan independence referendum showed many shots of the police violently ‚Äčtackling voters to prevent the banned vote going ahead. In this case, a wide definition of “violent content” could be interpreted to cover these images of extreme police action because they incite violence; they might therefore be taken down.

“I ask the Minister to draw these definitions carefully so as not to chill free speech. It would be ironic if the legislation coming from this White Paper managed to quash valid and important free speech when it should be stopping a much greater harm.”

Concluding the debate, the Minister replied: “The noble Lord, Lord Colville, talked about the need for a focused definition so as not to inhibit free speech. We are absolutely focused on that; we believe in it. The regulator will issue codes of practice setting out clearly what companies need to do.

“If the evidence changes and new harms are manifest, the regulator can react and issue guidance but we will have to make sure the legislation itself is very clear about free speech. We are giving the regulator a duty to have regard to privacy and people’s rights under, for example, the GDPR. That will be absolutely within the regulator’s remit.”