The NMA warned that the proposals pose “profound dangers to press freedom” because, as currently drafted, national and local news publishers would fall within the scope of the new regime, despite assurances from Government that publishers will not be targeted.
Launching the White Paper, Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said the Government was interested in, “user-generated content where there is no other control of that behaviour. The activities of newspapers and broadcasters are already regulated.” In a subsequent letter to the Society of Editors, he added: “Journalistic or editorial content will not be affected by the regulatory framework.”
In its submission to the Online Harms White Paper consultation, the NMA said that a complete exemption would need to be written into the legislation in order to fulfil the government’s assurances. Otherwise publishers would be placed in “double jeopardy of censorship and sanction” as both user generated content on their own websites and journalistic content distributed via the social networks would be directly impacted.
User generated content on publishers’ websites would trigger the application of a new statutory duty of care bringing news media publishers under direct control of a powerful new regulator armed with powers of surveillance, oversight, investigation, enforcement and sanction, says the NMA.
This ignores the fact that, as well as being subject to the law of the land, publishers already have well-established systems in place for the governance of user generated content, backed by IPSO, and take swift action to address any problems, the NMA said.
The proposed regime would also bite on publishers’ content distributed via the social networks – an important platform for publishers to reach new and younger audiences who want to consume their content.
Algorithms deployed by the tech giants to flag “online harms” under the new regime would inevitably fail to distinguish lawful reporting on matters of high public interest - such as terrorism or sexual abuse - from illegal content, leading to a chill in freedom of expression.
The NMA said: “In order to prevent new fetters upon the press and freedom of expression, exemptions are vital. In view of the systems which news publishers already have in place, no public detriment would stem from exemptions.
“In the absence of exemptions, the White Paper would establish wholly unnecessary, disproportionate, legally uncertain restrictions upon press freedom, which would undermine rather than sustain news publishers’ provision of high quality, trusted journalism to the ever-growing audience which demands it.”
The NMA says it is also gravely concerned about other proposals in the White Paper which would impact negatively upon freedom of expression.
The consultation outlines a raft of new legal restrictions, such as new surveillance powers “to support law enforcement” which could be used to bypass well-established freedom of expression protections and threaten journalistic sources.
Additionally, the invention of new harms such as “online disinformation” and “online abuse of public abuse” would be subverted and abused to quash legitimate reporting in the public interest, the NMA warned.
The NMA said it would welcome discussion with the Government on the “vital, comprehensive” exemption for news publishers and their content from the proposed regime.
The Society of Editors has also been highly critical.
“While we accept that the present government is sincere in its wish to protect a free, vibrant and plural media in the UK, the proposed law to restrict online harms runs the risk of creating the unintended consequence of a means for a regime hostile to the press to attack its vital online presence,” warned Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors.
“We are calling for irreversible clauses in the proposed law that exempt the media from this legislation, but also for steps to be taken to ensure freedom of expression is not harmed in a wider sense. It is also essential any new regulatory body does not impinge on the media and should be free of political control and interference to ensure freedom of expression.
“No one wants to see online content that supports terrorism, abuse, gang violence and self-harm, but a careful line needs to be drawn between clamping down on unlawful and dangerous content and allowing open debate on important issues.
“The Society is particularly concerned where the proposed law attempts to prevent disinformation and fake news. Who will decide what is disinformation? It does not take too much imagination to see the eventual creation of some sort of Orwellian ‘Department of Truth’ emerging from a badly-thought through piece of legislation, no matter how well meaning.
“It would be better if the new law focussed on preventing illegal content from appearing online rather than becoming bogged down in deciding what constitutes fake news,” added Murray.