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April 10, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 7:38am

Proposed new internet regulator will not step on toes of press watchdogs, says Culture Secretary

By Freddy Mayhew

Digital and Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright has said a new online regulator, proposed by the Government in a White Paper this week, would not duplicate the work of existing press regulators.

Proposed new legislation would impose a statutory “duty of care” on firms that “allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online”, overseen by the regulator.

“Journalistic or editorial content will not be affected by the regulatory framework,” Wright said today in a letter of reply to Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray.

Murray had written last month to express industry concern that the new online safety laws could hamper press freedom, after elements of the Online Harms White Paper were leaked to the Mail on Sunday.

Murray wrote: “While we appreciate that the press and media as a whole are not the target of any new regulation in this area, there is a great deal of experience of those who wish to restrict the freedom of the media using laws never intended for that end.”

The vast majority of UK news publishers are regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, with more than 120 smaller, independent titles signed up to Royal Charter-backed regulator Impress.

In his reply, Wright said: “As I made clear at the White Paper launch and in the House of Commons, where these services are already well regulated, as IPSO and Impress do regarding their members’ moderated comment sections, we will not duplicate those efforts.”

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Wright said the new regulator would have a “legal duty to pay due regard to protecting users’ rights online, particularly their privacy and freedom of expression”, adding: “We are clear that the regulator will not be responsible for policing truth and accuracy online.”

The Government is consulting on whether to create a new independent internet watchdog – some have dubbed it Ofweb – or whether to hand this responsibility to an existing regulator, such as Ofcom.

Wright went on: “The Government absolutely upholds the core principle of freedom of expression recognising the invaluable role a free press plays in our culture and democratic life.

“I hope this letter reassures you of our intentions, and that we are seeking to build sufficient safeguards into our proposals to protect these freedoms.”

Wright said he was keen to work closely with the press industry “to ensure our proposals are effective, proportionate and do not have unintended consequences”.

And he declared the Government’s support for “press freedom and editorial independence”, saying: “A vibrant, independent, plural and free press that is able to hold the powerful to account is essential to our democracy.

“High quality journalism also plays a key part in tackling misinformation and disinformation. I am completely committed to supporting this and taking forward the work of the Cairncross Review.”

Freedom of expression group Article 19 has strongly opposed a “duty of care” being imposed on internet platforms.

It said this would “inevitably require them to proactively monitor their networks and take a restrictive approach to content removal”, adding: “Such actions could violate individuals’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy.”

Read Wright’s letter in full.

Picture: Reuters/Toby Melville

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