A report in the Sunday Mail revealed that the launch of a proposed Online Harms code, being drawn up by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Wright and Home Secretary Sajid Javid had been postponed over concerns it would go too far in restricting the media and also the public’s freedom of expression.
On Monday, Society of Editor’s executive director Ian Murray wrote to Mr Wright expressing the Society’s concerns over the report that the new measures would in fact lead to press regulation by the back door.
“While no one doubts there is a need to regulate the digital companies and ensure that extreme online material promoting such subjects as terrorism or abuse are taken down, there is always a risk that such regulations prove to be too broad and damage freedoms essential to our society,” said Murray.
“I have written to the Secretary of State to underscore the Society’s concerns that any new regulator and code does not bring in press regulation by the back door nor restricts too broadly the public’s right to freedom of expression and their right to know.
“What is needed is a careful balance between protecting the vulnerable online and freedom of expression. This will not be easy, but it is essential. And while we can accept that the new controls are not intended to affect the mainstream media this could very likely be the case. From experience we know some politicians and others who look to curb media freedom will seek to use hastily thought-out new laws to this end.”
The Society’s letter stated:
While no one would argue that some measures do need to be taken to protect against serious threats from online harm, there are concerns such regulation if too broad would restrict areas that were never intended to be regulated. An attempt to crack down on disinformation – so-called fake news – would be a case in point. Who will decide what is fake news?
While we appreciate that the press and media as a whole are not the target of any new regulation in this area, there is a great deal of experience of those who wish to restrict the freedom of the media using laws never intended for that end.
And while the Society of Editors is primarily concerned about the media and any attempts to infringe on its freedoms, it is also a campaigner on behalf of freedom of expression as a whole and for the public’s right to know. As a body therefore we would feel concerned regarding any over-bearing attempt to restrict what can be said and what topics can be discussed online.