The UK’s deeply flawed Online Safety Bill gets a rare positive amendment as measures are introduced to stop big US social media platforms from censoring some stories.
The latest tweak seeks to prevent Category 1 companies, which include the largest and most popular social media platforms, from taking down or making less visible stories published by ‘recognised news outlets’, even if they are suspected of breaching the platform’s terms and conditions. The definition of ‘recognised’ is not given in the press release.
“Our democracy depends on people’s access to high quality journalism and our world-leading internet safety law brings in tough new safeguards for freedom of speech and the press online,” said Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries. “Yet we’ve seen tech firms arbitrarily remove legitimate journalism with a complete lack of transparency and this could seriously impact public discourse. These extra protections will stop that from happening.”
One example stated in the announcement was the unilateral removal of TalkRadio’s YouTube channel, with no real explanation or right of appeal. An even better example is the blanket censorship of a legitimate New York Post story in advance of the last US general election that could well have altered its outcome. It’s hard to view that as anything other than active election interference by the platforms involved.
As is usually the case with tweaks to the Online Safety Bill, which mostly concerns itself with giving the UK government and Ofcom the power to censor speech on the internet, this one comes in response to concerns that even legitimate sources, as opposed to regular people, will be caught in the net. Apparently journalists are somehow ‘safer’ than the rest of us and should thus be granted the due-process that is otherwise denied.
‘The amendment follows concerns raised by the news industry and the Joint Committee that the Bill could indirectly incentivise platforms to be overzealous in removing or moderating news publishers’ content due to fear of sanctions by the regulator Ofcom,’ says the announcement. ‘This could damage the commercial sustainability of news publishers, many of which rely on the advertising revenue they receive through people accessing their content on social media channels.’
It’s clearly in the public interest for journalism to remain uncensored, especially by unaccountable foreign companies, but once more the UK government is seeking to give itself the power to determine what speech is acceptable. What if a private individual happened to catch a public figure doing something they shouldn’t and published evidence of it on social media – will they be protected?
This amendment, however welcome it is from a journalistic perspective, still serves to emphasise what a futile game of whack-a-mole censorship is. The fact that they keep having to add exemptions illustrates what a bad idea this extra level of state censorship, over and above existing law, is. We can only hope that the current chaos afflicting UK politics will result in a changing of the guard and a new Digital Secretary that understands this.
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