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February 27, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 8:59am

Ofcom says it would not seek to ‘curtail’ news websites’ editorial freedom if made online regulator

By Charlotte Tobitt

Ofcom has said it would not seek to “curtail the editorial freedom of news sites” if it is given powers to regulate online content.

Kevin Bakurst (pictured), Ofcom’s group content director, said that concerns the watchdog would “police” the internet by shutting down websites or censoring content were “unfounded”.

The Government has said it is “minded” to give the broadcast regulator new online regulatory powers to ensure platforms protect users from harmful and illegal content, including that of a terrorist and abusive nature.

Writing in the Times, Bakurst responded to what he described as “early misgivings” over the impact on freedom of expression and press freedom.

The Society of Editors and Index on Censorship are among press freedom groups to have raised concerns about new legislation.

“If given the job, we would aim to build on our work as the media regulator,” said Bakurst.

“We would act sensibly and proportionately, focusing on the most serious and widespread harm, especially to children – not hounding small businesses or seeking to curtail the editorial freedom of news sites.”

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Bakhurst wrote that in Ofcom’s existing work it never censors content before broadcast and is independent from the Government in a way he said should also be true of the new online body.

He added that the regulator is “already legally required to secure audience protection in a way that best guarantees freedom for broadcasters to transmit a range of ideas – and your right to receive them”.

“Far from undermining free speech, good regulation can and does support it,” he said.

The Government has already said that in order to protect freedom of expression the new regulations would not stop adults from accessing or posting legal content that some people may find offensive, or force companies to remove such posts.

Instead, regulated companies must “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 Government has said Ofcom’s role would 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”.

Bakurst also said Ofcom would “expect to have the resources and teeth to hold companies to account” and is calling for “tough enforcement powers” to use against tech giants with turnovers above $1bn.

The Government’s proposed sanctions were missing from its response to the Online Harms White Paper published this month amid accusations it had “watered down” its plans after backlash from the likes of Facebook and Google.

Picture: Ofcom

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