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SoE welcomes Minister’s support for free speech

Posted on: January 19, 2021 by Ian Murray

The Society of Editors (SoE) has welcomed assurances by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) that free speech will be protected as the government looks to regulate social media in the UK.

As the UK government looks to introduce its Online Harms legislation, and following Twitter’s life ban on President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Oliver Dowden said social media giants should not be able to simply censor those they did not agree with.

“We need to do everything we can to protect our most vulnerable citizens, and particularly children, from harm. Our upcoming Online Safety Bill holds them as our number one priority,” said the Secretary of State.

“The second is the protection of free speech. As Lord Justice Sedley put it in 1999, that definition has to include “not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative.” Without the latter, we are making an empty promise.

“So, under our legislation, social media giants will have to enforce their terms and conditions consistently and transparently. This will prevent them from arbitrarily banning any user for expressing an offensive or controversial viewpoint.

“If users feel like they’ve been treated unfairly, they’ll be able to seek redress from the company. Right now, that process is slow, opaque and inconsistent.

“And it’s absolutely vital that internet regulations can’t be used as a tool to silence an opponent or muzzle the free media. So news publishers’ content on their own sites will be exempt.”

Ian Murray, executive director of the SoE, welcomed the assurances and said it was vital free speech and legitimate journalism was not censored, by design or by default, as the social media giants were required to police their content.

“The SoE has consistently said it is imperative that legitimate, recognised, regulated media should not be hampered by new regulations imposed on the digital giants. Now the Secretary of State has underscored that ambition.”

In his statement, Mr Dowden added: “We need to be able to define what social media is and isn’t. Given it is now so crucial a part of public discourse, should we compare it to a utility? Or should we see social media companies as publishers, akin to newspapers – and therefore liable for everything they publish?

“In reality, neither the passive “platform” nor the editorialised “publisher” truly hit the mark. Holding companies liable for every piece of content – for 500 hours a minute of uploads on YouTube alone – would break social media.

“But equally, when these companies are curating, editorialising, and in some cases removing users, they can no longer claim to be bystanders with no responsibility whatsoever.

“However we categorise social media, one thing is clear: as with other forms of mass communication, democratically elected governments must play a role in regulating it.

“In the UK, we are leading the world by starting to deal with this dilemma. I have been clear that we are entering a new age of accountability for tech.

“At the end of last year, we outlined plans for a groundbreaking new rulebook for social media companies: one that would make sites like Facebook and Twitter responsible for dealing with harmful content on their platforms, while also holding them answerable for their wider role and impact on democratic debate and free speech.

“We can no longer outsource difficult decisions. There’s now a burning need for democratic societies to find ways to impose consistency, transparency, fairness in the online sphere.”

The full statement can be read here