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Exemptions for news media outlined in Online Harms proposals

Posted on: December 16, 2020 by Mariella Brown

Details of how the government plans to identify which media will be exempt from the proposed Online Harms regulations will be addressed as part of the discussions into the new law, Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has confirmed.

Speaking in a Commons debate yesterday (December 15, 2020) into the proposed law to protect children and vulnerable people from online abuse and harmful content, Mr Dowden outlined more details of how the media would be exempt from the regulations.

The Society of Editors (SoE) yesterday broadly welcomed the proposed Online Harms bill, but called for determined efforts by the government to ensure the digital platforms did not remove media content on their sites through the use of algorithms when adhering to the new regulations.

Confirming that Ofcom would be the new regulator for the Online Harms regulations, the Secretary of State said the laws would impose a duty of care and put in place a substantial fines regime for social media companies if in breach.

Mr Dowden described the proposals as the “toughest safety measures in the world”.

“I can confirm that news publishers’ own content on their sites is not in scope; nor are the comments of users on that content,” he told the House. 

The Culture Secretary added that exemptions would be applied to all of news publishers’ output, including video sharing. 

Regarding disinformation and misinformation, Mr Dowden emphasised that reliance on trusted news sources is a priority.

“We are so fortunate in this country to have well-established newspapers, broadcasters who are committed to public service information and we’ve seen that through the Covid crisis, and that is why we have supported them through this period,” the Secretary of State said.

Mr Dowden added that steps taken by the government to remove fake news also included rebutting false information through the Cabinet Office fact-checking unit along with an agreement with tech companies to remove misinformation and disinformation within 48 hours and not profit from it. 

When questioned by former DCMS Committee Chair Damian Collins MP over how the government would define what a news provider was, the Secretary of State appeared to defer the question and said the issue would be addressed in pre-legislative scrutiny. 

“The question surrounding defining news providers is a challenging one for the reasons he [Damian Collins] sets out. We want to avoid the situation whereby a harmful source of information sets up as if it were a news publisher and that will be an important part of the engagement we will be doing with members of this House through the pre-legislative scrutiny. I hope I’ll be able to reassure him on these points,” said Mr Dowden.

Outlining how the proposals could affect the proposed take-down of journalistic content, the Secretary of State said:

“We have taken two very clear decisions. First of all, we are protecting press and journalistic freedom. They will not be subject to this legislation. 

“Secondly, we will ensure when we draft this legislation to make sure it doesn’t create a situation whereby government or social media companies can start putting their world view on to their output. 

“There must be reasonable grounds for taking content down. They can’t just take it down because it doesn’t cohere with their worldview.”

The Online Safety Bill, which will give effect to the regulatory framework outlined in the White Paper response, will be ready in 2021.

While the Shadow Secretary of State for DCMS, Jo Stevens MP, welcomed steps taken to safeguard children online, she said the original proposals had been watered down.

Ms Stevens added that she was disappointed that criminal sanctions for senior executives at social media companies will be covered in secondary legislation – not in the upcoming bill.

Society of Editors’ executive director Ian Murray commenting on the proposed legislation said: “Throughout the consultations on the proposed Online Harms laws the Society of Editors and mainstream media have argued that with its adherence to high editorial standards and existing strong regulatory bodies there was no need to include the mainstream media in new regulations. We are pleased the government has recognised this fact.” 

“The mainstream media has campaigned strongly for protection for children and the vulnerable from harmful online content as well as combatting terrorist and criminal activities. It is gratifying to see these measures being proposed with online businesses and platforms required to have a ‘duty of care’ to protect children from cyberbullying, grooming and pornography.

“The government’s assurances that media content even when carried on social media platforms will be protected is welcome, however the devil will be in the detail. The digital platforms when faced with huge fines for non-adherence to the new regulations may resort to the use of sweeping algorithms to remove content deemed as harmful. Such measures must have in-built protection for legitimate media content,” added Murray.

In the full response to the White Paper, the government confirmed an exemption for journalistic content from the scope of the legislation. 

The response states:

  1. Stakeholders raised concerns during the consultation about how the legislation will impact journalistic content online and the importance of upholding media freedom. Content published by a news publisher on its own site (e.g. on a newspaper or broadcaster’s website) will not be in scope of the regulatory framework and user comments on that content will be exempted. 
  2. In order to protect media freedom, legislation will include robust protections for journalistic content shared on in-scope services. The government is committed to defending the invaluable role of a free media and is clear that online safety measures must do this. The government will continue to engage with a range of stakeholders to develop our proposals.

In the full response to the White Paper, the government outlined steps to harness media literacy as a strategy to equip users with ability to keep themselves safe online. 

The response states: 

  1. Encouraging companies to build safer products and services will be key to delivering a successful regulatory regime. Our proposed safety by design framework will set out clear principles and practical guidance on how companies can design safer online products and services. The government, Ofcom and industry will also do more to equip users with the skills they need to keep themselves and others safe online, starting with the publication of an online media literacy strategy. This will build on Ofcom’s existing media literacy work. The government and Ofcom will consider the links between service design and media literacy as part of this.

In the full response to the White Paper, the government has said they will continue to engage with stakeholders to address concerns regarding content moderation on in-scope platforms affecting the take-down of journalistic content. 

The response states: 

1.11 Journalistic content is shared across the internet, on social media, forums and other websites. Journalists use social media services to report directly to their audiences. This content is subject to in-scope services’ existing content moderation processes. This can result in journalistic content being removed for vague reasons, with limited opportunities for appeal. Media stakeholders have raised concerns that regulation may result in increased takedowns of journalistic content. 

1.12 In order to protect media freedom, legislation will include robust protections for journalistic content shared on in-scope services. The government will continue to engage with a wide range of stakeholders to develop proposals that protect the invaluable role of a free media and ensure that the UK is the safest place in the world to be online.

Part 6: How does the regulatory framework fit into the wider digital landscape? 

Box 22: Examples of wider government regulatory action

A pro-competition regime for digital markets

  • On 27 November 2020, the government announced it is establishing a new, procompetition regime for digital markets. The new regime will include:
    • an enforceable code for digital platforms with substantial and enduring market power, which will promote competition in digital markets including those funded by online advertising and ensure the sustainability of highquality journalism and news publishing
    • the establishment of a dedicated Digital Markets Unit (DMU) in 2021 to introduce, maintain and enforce a code of conduct.
  • The announcement was included in the government response to the Competition and Markets Authority’s recent market study into online platforms and digital advertising. The Competition and Markets Authority found that Google and Facebook have market power in search, social media and online advertising markets.
  • The government accepted the six strategic recommendations in Unlocking Digital Competition (the Furman Review), and at the March Budget, commissioned a new Digital Markets Taskforce to advise on the design and implementation of the procompetition regime. The Taskforce published their advice in December 2020 and the government will respond in due course.

Cairncross Review on sustainable journalism

  • The Cairncross Review was commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in March 2018 to examine the sustainability of high quality journalism in the UK. The Review put forward a set of recommendations to help secure the future sustainability of the press sector, focusing on issues surrounding tech platforms, digital advertising and public interest journalism.
  • The government is supportive of the majority of recommendations, including the publication of a media literacy strategy, support for platforms to help users better identify the reliability and trustworthiness of news sources and the introduction of a ‘news quality obligation’ on platforms.
  • The Review also identified an unbalanced relationship between online platforms and news publishers, with the potential to threaten the viability of news publishers’ businesses. In response, the Review recommended the establishment of new codes of conduct aimed at rebalancing the relationship between publishers and platforms.
  • The enforceable code aimed at promoting competition in digital markets announced on 27 November 2020 is consistent with, and delivers on the substance of the similar proposal put forward in the Cairncross Review into sustainable journalism.

Read the Online Harms White Paper in full here