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Ofcom boss echoes press freedom concerns on online harms and age verification

Posted on: June 27, 2019 by Mariella Brown

The Society of Editors has welcomed comments from the Chief Executive of Ofcom cautioning against the effects of the government’s proposed new Online Harms legislation.

Chief Executive Sharon White offered words of caution to the NSPCC annual conference on 26 June, asking that proposed government regulation on online harms must ensure ‘careful balances’ are struck to avoid ‘blunt regulation’. 

Addressing her audience yesterday, which also included Secretary of State for DCMS Jeremy Wright MP, White laid out Ofcom’s position: ‘we favour regulation that protects freedom of expression – not just by users, but also by newspapers who publish online.’

White said that although government regulation is needed to reduce online harm for children and place a ‘duty of care’ on social media companies, the government must be mindful of the ‘valid concerns from news sites’ with regards to age walls, for example.

She added ‘rules around online content need to be proportionate. The internet is a wonderful tool for people to express their views, and blunt regulation could undermine that.’ This section of her speech hinged on news websites being allowed freedom of expression – one that may be threatened by undermining legislation.

The Ofcom CEO’s caution of ‘blunt’ regulation is a welcome voice in the many who have recently spoken out about the threats to freedom of speech from government regulation. In April, the Society of Editors wrote to the Secretary of State to explain the concerns of proposing an independent regulator.

Society of Editors Executive Director Ian Murray welcomed White’s comments.

“The Society has already expressed its concerns and that of its members that the Online Harms White Paper as it stands includes some very real threats to media freedoms in this country as well as the wider concept of freedom of expression,” said Murray.

“While we abhor child abuse, the promotion of terrorism and the glorifying of gang culture and self-harm and would support ways to prevent this on-line, the media must be free to report and debate important issues that are considered legal.

“The online harms proposal appears to go too far and although the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has given assurances the media will not be targeted by the new laws and proposed regulator, it remains to be seen if this will be the case and where the protections will lie to prevent future governments from using them to silence critics and voices they do not like.”

White’s speech was followed by the Secretary of State’s, who – like White – acknowledged there are ‘valid concerns about freedom of speech online’. As with his April Online Harms White Paper, Wright explained the ways in which the government might firstly explain a duty of care to tech companies and secondly enforce that duty using an independent regulator.

However, the new information emerging from Wright’s speech was the sense of a timeline. The Secretary of State intends to publish the Government response to the White Paper consultation by the end of 2019 and introduce legislation ‘as soon as possible’ thereafter.

The Secretary of State also took the opportunity to encourage responses to the Online Harms White Paper, which is accepting responses to its consultation until 1 July. This may be completed by following this link.

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To read Sharon White’s speech in full, click here.

To read Jeremy Wright’s speech, click here.

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