Society of Editors welcomes assurances of protection for a free press in Online Harms statement – but warns against ‘regulatory-creep.’

Posted on: February 12, 2020 by admin

The Society of Editors (SoE) has welcomed the assurances by the Culture Secretary, Baroness Morgan and Home Secretary, Priti Patel today that the Press will have safeguards under the proposed new Online Harms Bill.

The Society also welcomed what appeared to be a distancing by the government of original ambitions to tackle fake news on the web by addressing so-called disinformation.

However, the Society warned against the potential for regulatory-creep under plans to give powers to Ofcom to regulate the Bill’s measures online and called for clarification that this would not lead to a new tier of regulation aimed at the UK’s free press.

The Digital Secretary, Nicky Morgan and Home Secretary, Priti Patel announced the government is minded to appoint communications watchdog Ofcom as the regulator to enforce rules to make the internet a safer place. The announcement comes as the government publishes its initial response to the public consultation on the Online Harms White Paper.

Their joint statement said: “The government will ensure Ofcom has a clear responsibility to protect users’ rights online. This will include paying due regard to safeguarding free speech, defending the role of the press, promoting tech innovation and ensuring businesses do not face disproportionate burdens.”

Ian Murray, Executive Director of the SoE commented: “It is heartening that the government appears to have taken on board the concerns of the Society, who were consulted on the proposed Online Harms Bill along with others, that there was a potential risk to freedom of expression and the ability of the media to report legitimate debate.

“However, there appears to be no confirmation that Ofcom, if appointed as regulator, will not have a role in regulating press and media websites. The print press in the UK already has a functioning, effective regulator in the Independent Press Standards Organisation to which the vast majority of publications are members. There is no requirement to provide another layer of regulation, especially one that is state-appointed, as Ofcom is. There must be no regulatory-creep, no attempt to control the freedom of the UK Press by the backdoor.”

Ian Murray added: “The SoE recognises that there is a very real need to provide protection for those using the web and also tackling such online harms as child abuse, terrorism and self-harm, to name but a few areas where the public rightly seeks action. But while the UK government seeks to be a pathfinder in this area, following its aims to create the toughest regulation standards for the internet in the world, it must be careful not to blunder into creating a chilling effect on free speech and an independent media.

“Thankfully, it appears the government has rowed back from attempts to regulate against fake news and disinformation on the web which the Society and others had warned could lead to the establishment of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth.”

In her statement, DCMS Secretary of State Nicky Morgan said:

“With Ofcom at the helm of a proportionate and strong regulatory regime, we have an incredible opportunity to lead the world in building a thriving digital economy, driven by ground-breaking technology, that is trusted by and protects everyone in the UK. We will give the regulator the powers it needs to lead the fight for an internet that remains vibrant and open but with the protections, accountability and transparency people deserve.”

The statement continued, “To protect freedom of expression, the regulations will not stop adults from accessing or posting legal content that some may find offensive. Instead companies will be required to explicitly state what content and behaviour is acceptable on their sites in clear and accessible terms and conditions and enforce these effectively, consistently and transparently.

“The regulation will only apply to companies that allow the sharing of user-generated content – for example, through comments, forums or video sharing. Fewer than 5 per cent of UK businesses will be in scope.”


Notes about the consultation

  • The government will publish a full consultation response in Spring 2020.
  • The public consultation received over 2,400 responses
  • The government’s press release can be read here and the initial response to the Online Harms consultation here.