MICK HUME COMMENT on Online Harms law that would lead media freedom in tatters

There can be no doubt that the Government’s plans to counter ‘Online Harms’ unveiled yesterday are based on good intentions. But as the old proverb reminds us, the road to hell is paved with those.

For, no matter how well-meaning, the proposals to regulate the web could give a future less liberal government – perhaps one led by Jeremy Corbyn – the power to clamp down on the thing it most fears: freedom of the Press and free speech.

A week, as they say, is a long time in politics. Just last Friday Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, himself a former Culture Secretary, announced to great fanfare that celebrity human rights lawyer Amal Clooney will be Britain’s ‘special envoy on media freedom’.

It was supposed to be a signal to the world that Britain will lead the charge against the rise of despotic leaders and the introduction of draconian censorship laws around the world.

Yet three days later, the very same Government of which Mr Hunt is a senior member proposed setting up an official regulator in the UK armed with the sort of repressive powers we associate with totalitarian police states.

Will Special Envoy Clooney lead a designer-heeled demonstration up Whitehall in protest? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Just last Friday Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, himself a former Culture Secretary, announced to great fanfare that celebrity human rights lawyer Amal Clooney (pictured with him at Media Freedom Press announcement) will be Britain's 'special envoy on media freedom', writes JIM HULME

Just last Friday Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, himself a former Culture Secretary, announced to great fanfare that celebrity human rights lawyer Amal Clooney (pictured with him at Media Freedom Press announcement) will be Britain's 'special envoy on media freedom', writes JIM HULME

Just last Friday Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, himself a former Culture Secretary, announced to great fanfare that celebrity human rights lawyer Amal Clooney (pictured with him at Media Freedom Press announcement) will be Britain’s ‘special envoy on media freedom’, writes JIM HULME 

The Online Harms White Paper proposes a sweeping, punitive system of regulation that hopes to remedy a range of problems, from terrorist propaganda and child pornography to ‘fake news’ and trolling.

In a chilling section that could have been lifted out of George Orwell’s 1984, it states the Home Secretary of the day would sign off the rules on terror and child exploitation content.

At the moment, the ostensible targets of these measures are tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, which have been rightly slated for hosting potentially harmful content.

But give censors an inch and they will take a mile. It would, I predict, be only a matter of time before Britain’s proud history of media freedom and freedom of speech lies in tatters.

The White Paper’s one-size-fits-all approach would hand extraordinary powers to a new regulator, Ofweb, to fine, restrict and ultimately bar non-compliant websites – regardless of how big they are.

Pictured: Amal Clooney at the G7 meeting in Dinard, France for the launch of the media freedoms campaign

Pictured: Amal Clooney at the G7 meeting in Dinard, France for the launch of the media freedoms campaign

Pictured: Amal Clooney at the G7 meeting in Dinard, France for the launch of the media freedoms campaign 

Former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, now Foreign Secretary, is pictured at the event in Brittany, France on April 5

Former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, now Foreign Secretary, is pictured at the event in Brittany, France on April 5

Former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, now Foreign Secretary, is pictured at the event in Brittany, France on April 5 

This means that the same rules that govern behemoths such as Google and Facebook – both of which have expert in-house legal teams and billions of pounds at their disposal – will apply to any website, however small or harmless, that allows users to post comments.

Tory MP and former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, writing at the weekend, was completely justified in warning that the proposals risk dragging Britain into a ‘draconian censorship regime’ more akin to China, Russia or North Korea. No other Western democratic state has countenanced similarly far-reaching controls.

Of course, Theresa May is no Putin-style ‘strongman’ and current Home Secretary Sajid Javid would make an unlikely Kim Jong-un. But once such an apparatus is in place, what is to stop a future, more regressive government from using those powers for its own political ends?

Imagine Labour’s blinkered Home Secretary Diane Abbott, entrusted with overseeing the regulator which enforces the rules for what can and cannot be seen online?

While her hapless TV performances in recent years suggest she may not be much good with numbers, we can have a fair notion of what her No 1 target would be.

Since Jeremy Corbyn took control of the Labour Party in 2015, he has waged a shameless Stalinist war on what he sees as the trouble-making media.

His party may not agree about Brexit or much else, but there are no divisions on Labour’s front-bench when it comes to bashing the Press.

Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Moscow today

Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Moscow today

Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Moscow today 

Deputy leader Tom Watson – himself the recipient of £500,000 of donations in one year from multi-millionaire Max Mosley, an ardent campaigner for stricter Press control – has long crusaded for greater media restrictions.

Years before Watson became Labour’s deputy leader, he was a zealous supporter of the celebrity-led Hacked Off campaign for tighter Press regulation.

Back then, he had no qualms about using the victims of phone-hacking as the human shields behind which he could advance his political agenda.

Since his rise to prominence under Corbyn, he has championed the introduction of ‘Section 40’ measures that would in effect blackmail the media into signing up to Britain’s first system of state-backed Press regulation since 1695.

Last summer, in a rare speech spelling out what a Labour government would do, Corbyn also made clear his own disturbing desire for government-approved journalism produced by a tame, state-financed media.

He suggested plans for a special tax on tech giants, not to fund social care or anything useful, but to finance ‘public interest journalism’ as defined, not by the public, but by a Labour-controlled organisation.

There is no question that the current Labour Party hierarchy would love to nationalise the news to stop the media asking awkward questions of those in power.

‘Just because it’s on the front page of The Sun or The Mail doesn’t automatically make it news,’ Corbyn said last summer.

Theresa May is no Putin-style ‘strongman’ and current Home Secretary Sajid Javid would make an unlikely Kim Jong-un (pictured today). But once such an apparatus is in place, what is to stop a future, more regressive government from using those powers for its own political ends? Asks JIM HULME 

What he meant was: ‘Just because it’s news, doesn’t automatically mean it should be allowed on the front page of The Mail.’

Corbyn’s contempt for Press freedom has some surprising allies in high places. Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, Britain’s top anti-terror cop, last month published an ‘open letter’ to the media on ‘how to report terrorism’ following the Christchurch mosque atrocity in New Zealand.

He called for a ‘sensible conversation’ which seems eminently reasonable. But what ACC Basu was really calling for was powers for the police or other authorities to issue orders to newspapers and TV broadcasters on what they can and cannot publish – something that wouldn’t seem out of place in an Orwellian police state.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that ACC Basu has expressed his support for the new White Paper. After all, it smoothly followed on from his warning that ‘we cannot simply hide behind the mantra of freedom of speech’.

But if there is a ‘mantra’ being chanted repeatedly in Britain today, it is certainly not in defence of free speech.

Instead, we face a new breed of thought police who preach that society needs even more restrictions on what is permissable to say, hear read and even think.

Freedom of speech and of the Press are the lifeblood of any civilised society. And Britain has led the way in securing those liberties. Our nation’s history is awash with heroes who would fight to the death for a free Press, from the Levellers during the English Civil War through to John Wilkes and Thomas Paine in the 18th century.

Brave people went to jail – and even the gallows – to ensure that the Press remained untainted by state interference. Today’s politicians would do well to remember their actions.

Racist, sexist and vile online content should always be condemned. But the problem, once you decide to impose new limits, is always the same: who decides where to draw the line?

Should it be the PM or the Home Secretary? A few high court judges? Or Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow cabinet? Or perhaps Simon Cowell and Cheryl?

Or should we just leave it to the unaccountable members of an ‘independent’ quango such as Ofweb?

When it comes to media regulation, there is no such thing as ‘independent’. There are no ‘independent’ angels hovering on a cloud above the political fray below; everybody has an agenda, an angle, or an axe to grind.

However worthy the motives, every attempt further to restrict freedom of expression inevitably invites more of the same.

Defending media freedom online may not seem the easy, comfortable option. But there is always one thing more harmful than free speech – and that’s its opposite.

Mick Hume is the author of Trigger Warning: Is The Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?

How the new rules work 

 Analysis by Ian Drury for The Daily Mail 

DUTY OF CARE

Under the new rules, tech firms including Facebook, Twitter and Google will have a legal ‘duty of care’ to users. 

This will make them responsible for vile content such as child abuse images, ‘suicide porn’ and extremist propaganda. 

Failure to remove it could see them fined millions of pounds or even blocked. But as well as the Silicon Valley firms, the proposals apply to any platform that allows users to post comments, including news sites.

A WATCHDOG WITH TEETH

A regulator, funded by the tech industry, will police the duty of care. It will draw up a legally-enforced code of practice spelling out what social networks and internet companies must do to safeguard users. 

The independent watchdog will be able to impose penalties and name and shame tech firms that flout the rules. News websites will be covered even though many are already independently regulated.

TERROR AND CHILD ABUSE IMAGES

Tech firms will face further stringent requirements to ensure child abuse and terrorist content is not disseminated online. 

The regulator will decide how quickly platforms should remove extremist content, such as the live-streamed New Zealand mosque massacre. 

Firms must also develop technology to stop certain content getting online. There are fears this could hamper legitimate news coverage or give the Home Secretary powers over what can and can’t be said about terrorists.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH UNDER THREAT?

The White Paper says the regulator will have a legal duty to protect ‘freedom of expression’, so the crackdown on tech firms is seen by some as a major victory. But there is a risk that a government could use the legislation against opponents and clamp down on dissenting voices on news websites.

TROLLING AND DISINFORMATION

The proposals would make tech firms tackle ‘trolling’ and ‘disinformation’ online. 

They will also be required to have dedicated fact-checkers, especially during elections. 

Again this raises the question as to who would decide what is allowed to be said. A malign government could effectively decide the boundaries of public debate – as with the authoritarian regimes in China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

AGE CHECKS

Technology firms will have a legal duty to protect children from inappropriate content. 

They could face significant penalties if they fail to introduce stringent age verification checks. It could mean that millions of children are barred because 40 per cent of under-13s use social media.

Critics brand new internet regulation laws the ‘most draconian crackdown in the Western democratic world’ as they warn it could threaten the freedom of speech of millions of Britons

By Joel Adams for MailOnline 

Critics today warn the government’s new plan to clean up the internet could be the most draconian crackdown on online free speech in the Western democratic world, and would impact social media users but not the tech firms it is designed to target.

The Online Harms white paper proposes taking sites offline to UK citizens if the sites fall foul of new regulators, and suggests levying massive fines on companies like Facebook and Google and their employees in an effort to crack down on the spread of child abuse images, terrorism, revenge pornography and hate crime.

But campaigners warn the Culture Secretary’s stated aim to make the UK the ‘safest place in the world to go online’ could mean regulators or even algorithms decide what websites or content Britons can see.

Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group told MailOnline: ‘We are talking about the potential for the most draconian crackdown in the Western democratic world.

Campaigner Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, said: 'We are talking about the potential for the most draconian crackdown in the Western democratic world'

Campaigner Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, said: 'We are talking about the potential for the most draconian crackdown in the Western democratic world'

Campaigner Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, said: ‘We are talking about the potential for the most draconian crackdown in the Western democratic world’

‘We’re talking about banning content that the government won’t make illegal – it won’t legislate to ban it, but it wants companies to do so.

‘They’re saying ‘we don’t like Facebook so we’re going to give Facebook more power to regulate our content more’, it’s a terrible irony.’ 

The Open Rights Group is a crowd funded organisation which works to protect digital rights including privacy and free speech.

In its analysis of the white paper it warned that ‘in its drive to make the internet ‘safe’, the government seems not to recognise that ultimately its proposals don’t regulate social media companies, they regulate social media users.

‘The duty of care is ostensibly aimed at shielding children from danger and harm but it will in practice bite on adults too, wrapping society in cotton wool and curtailing a whole host of legal expression.’

The organisation warned that ‘governments both repressive and democratic are likely to use the policy and regulatory model that emerge from this process as a blueprint for more widespread internet censorship.’

It said firms would protect themselves by creating filters which blocked the uploading of content which might incur fines – but warned such technology would be incapable of differentiating between abusive or harmful content, and content which was parody, comedy, satire or editorial. 

Ex-Culture Secretary John Whittingdale said the new internet reforms risked giving tyrants an excuse to restrict free speech

Ex-Culture Secretary John Whittingdale said the new internet reforms risked giving tyrants an excuse to restrict free speech

Ex-Culture Secretary John Whittingdale said the new internet reforms risked giving tyrants an excuse to restrict free speech

Mr Killock added: ‘The government’s proposals would create state regulation of the speech of millions of British citizens.

‘We have to expect that the duty of care will end up widely drawn, with serious implications for legal content that is deemed potentially risky, whether it really is nor not.’

Former Culture Secretary John Wittingdale warned the proposals risk dragging Britons into a ‘draconian censorship regime’, adding: ‘This mooted new UK regulator must not give the despots an excuse to claim that they are simply following an example set by Britain.’

Mark Stephens, a media lawyer at Howard Kennedy, said: ‘We are the first Western regime to consider this. The only other countries doing this are Saudi Arabia, China, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia. It is not appropriate for a Western democracy.’

The proposal to block sites which fall foul of new regulations is one of a slew of reforms set out today in the Government’s White Paper on Online Harms, designed to force tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to clean up harmful material on their platforms.

It also suggests companies could be wiped from internet search results and app stores if they fall foul of the law. In the most serious cases they could be banned from the internet altogether.

Under the new rules, any website which allows users to post content will have a legal ‘duty of care’ to all users.

The regulations will apply to firms such as Google and Facebook, which have repeatedly come under fire for hosting vile material, including terrorist and paedophile content. 

Under new rules, any website which allows users to post content will have a legal 'duty of care' to all users

Under new rules, any website which allows users to post content will have a legal 'duty of care' to all users

Under new rules, any website which allows users to post content will have a legal ‘duty of care’ to all users

But they will also apply to smaller websites which allow users to post comments, including blogs, and online news and review sites.

Web firms will be held to account by an independent regulator, which will set out the new code and have the power to hand out severe punishments.

However, the regulator’s rules on terror and child exploitation will have to be approved by the Home Secretary.

The Government is launching a consultation on the extent of the regulator’s powers, but the paper’s proposals include:

  • Personal fines for individual senior managers at firms which seriously break the rules;
  • Web firms needing to provide annual reports setting out the amount of harmful content on their platforms;
  • Civil fines of up to £20million, or 4 per cent of annual turnover, for firms which break the rules;
  • In the worst circumstances, the regulator could have offending websites blocked by internet service providers, so they cannot be accessed in the UK.

The regulator will also have powers to tackle disinformation – so-called ‘fake news’ – although the White Paper concedes this has no clear legal definition.

The measures come amid growing concerns that tech giants are damaging democracy with misinformation. They have been criticised for circulating instruction manuals for would-be terrorists, hosting extremist videos and providing a ‘service’ for paedophiles to direct each other to illegal material.

The Government will say it is considering the extreme measures due to ‘the serious nature of the harms in scope and the global nature of online services’. It will add that the threat of disconnecting websites from the internet would ‘only be an option of last resort’.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said: ‘The era of self-regulation for online companies is over. We want the UK to be the safest place in the world to go online.’

Charities and campaigners welcomed the measures.

NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said: ‘Social networks have failed to prioritise children’s safety. It’s high time they were forced to act through this legally binding duty.’

Last night the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said the White Paper had ‘no intention’ of impacting editorial content. 

A spokesman said: ‘These measures are not about regulation of the press, they are about tackling online harms and the damage they can do to people’s lives. The independent regulator will take a sensible, risk-based approach.’ 

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