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Digital Minister affirms commitment to exempt news sites from Online Harms Bill

Posted on: May 13, 2020 by Mariella Brown

The Digital and Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage MP has confirmed today that the government’s stance on press regulation has not changed in the light of the proposals for the Online Harms Bill.

In a Home Affairs Select Committee session this morning, Minister Dinenage referred to a letter of assurances from the former Culture Secretary to the Society of Editors, and stated that since there is clear moderation for news platforms – including below-the-line comments sections – the government did not wish to duplicate it.

In the virtual hearing to discuss online harms relating to Covid-19, Dinenage affirmed her commitment to a free press as one of the pillars of society, and added that journalistic and editorial content is ‘not in scope of the white paper and our stance on press regulation has not changed’.

A question brought by the SNP’s Stuart McDonald raised the issue of the government’s response to requests by newspapers and news websites to make assurances about whether they would be affected by the Online Harms regulation.

Caroline Dinenage replied: ‘The Secretary of State wrote a letter to the Society of Editors and this was about the below the line comments sections. They were concerned that might be regulated. What the Secretary of State is saying is where there is already clear and effective moderation of that sort of content, we don’t intend to duplicate it. For example, there are IPSO and IMPRESS activity on moderated content sections.’

The Minister added the government was working with stakeholders around those parameters and how to reflect that in legislation.

The debate over comment moderation emerged from the session’s discussion of the role of tech giants in moderating false and harmful content placed on their platforms, particularly that pertaining to coronavirus.

The virtual hearing heard new information from Baroness Williams, Minister of State for the Home Office, that Facebook has put warning labels on 50million pieces of content related to Covid-19 in the first quarter of this year.

Yvette Cooper, Home Affairs Select Committee chair also probed ministers on how the government was tackling the online harms caused by conspiracy theories such as that relating to 5G.

Dinenage reported that the government has been working with Twitter to ensure that if a user searches for 5G masts it directs them to reputable health advice on the social media site. The session raised concerns over fake conspiracy theories which have led to masts being vandalised and even attacks on telecoms engineers – with one being stabbed, as MP Ruth Edwards probed the government’s work with social networks to prevent the spread of false information.

The Minister however warned that it was necessary to ‘always balance these sometimes conflicting challenges’ regarding freedom of speech and the spread of misinformation and disinformation.

Dinenage was careful to warn that interventions such as making it compulsory for social network users to provide a name and address to operate an account would be detrimental to certain users who rely on anonymity.

While acknowledging concerns raised by MP Diane Abbott and Tim Lawton that users can utilise anonymous profiles to spread targeted and malicious abuse, Dinenage was clear of the caveats surrounding ‘those unable to identify themselves for fear of harm’, citing whistleblowers, anonymous sources to journalists as well as victims of abuse and violence who may require such protections.

Dinenage was keen to emphasise that the proposed Online Harms Bill was important and ‘world-leading’ legislation and added that countries around the world are looking to the UK’s response in making the first move.

Regarding the timeline of the Online Harms Bill, DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP expressed concern that events such as coronavirus outbreak had thrown the Secretary of State’s prior assurances for setting the Bill in this parliamentary session into doubt.

However, the Minister declined to commit to producing the online harms legislation for this parliamentary session saying that producing the legislation for the current session was the ministry’s ‘aspiration’.

Knight appeared dissatisfied with this response and following the meeting, tweeted: “I have growing concerns over both delays in bringing forward an online harms bill and the likely paucity of its scope”.

The Committee did hear that the full response to the white paper will be coming later this year.

Picture: Parliament UK