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January 24, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 10:57am

Online Safety Bill fails to protect journalists’ freedom of speech, MPs and editors warn

By Andrew Kersley

The Online Safety Bill fails to protect journalistic freedom of speech as it risks letting tech giants use automated algorithms to accidentally take down reporting, a parliamentary report has warned.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee also claimed that the draft bill was  a “missed opportunity” to properly solve an array of online issues, including the abuse faced by journalists online.

The report’s findings were met with agreement from the Society of Editors who said that the government’s proposals failed to account for the “fast nature of today’s news process”.

One of the concerns shared by the committee, the Society and others is that the bill creates a duty of care for tech giants that could see them put in place new algorithms to remove harmful content from their platforms.

The worry is that those algorithms could inadvertently remove journalistic reporting and content alongside actually harmful posts, unless specific rules are included in the bill to prevent this.

As it stands, the current rules would mean that tech platforms would have to offer a fast track route to put journalistic content back online if it is caught up in their algorithms, with adherence enforced by Ofcom.

However, many have expressed concerns that if this fast track isn’t maintained, or is overwhelmed by excessive appeals, then the Online Safety Bill could have a dire effect on journalists’ freedom of speech.

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The report recommended that the bill needed to find a way to “properly account” for journalistic work when considering the context of content under consideration.

DCMS Committee chairman Julian Knight said: “In its current form what should be world-leading, landmark legislation instead represents a missed opportunity.

“The Online Safety Bill neither protects freedom of expression nor is it clear nor robust enough to tackle illegal and harmful online content.”

Dawn Alford, executive director of the Society of Editors, said her group “welcomes the DCMS select committee’s acknowledgement in the report that, at present, the draft Online Safety Bill is insufficient to protect freedom of expression.

“As the Society has previously outlined in evidence to the joint committee that has also scrutinised the bill, a broad and workable exemption for journalistic content must be included in the legislation and measures must be put in place by platforms to ensure that broad-brush algorithms do not result in the take-down of legitimate journalistic content.

“We also call on the government to look more closely at the appeals process to ensure that it works in practice and that it recognises the fast nature of today’s news process.”

The report also cited testimonies from journalists about online abuse as it claimed the new bill was not “clear or robust” enough to deal with harmful content.

It pointed to a National Union of Journalists survey that found that only 34% of respondents reported abuse to social media platforms, while 80% felt that reporting abuse made no difference whatsoever. The report said this showed victims “have little access to recourse from service providers”.

The issue of online abuse was particularly problematic for female journalists, as testimony to the committee suggested that women more generally were 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men.

While the draft bill has an explicit exception for news sites and their comment sections, it does not offer blanket coverage for posts, content and reporting from those sites on third-party platforms.

Multiple parliamentary committees, third party organisations and the House of Lords have all previously criticised the lack of concrete detail in the bill protecting journalistic content, as well as a nebulous definition of “citizen journalism” that could risk any user pretending to be a citizen journalist and overwhelm the reporting system.

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