Peers have warned they “remain to be convinced” that the draft Online Safety Bill will not stop journalistic content being restricted.
There is an exemption within the bill for news publishers’ content, including both their articles and website user comments.
The bill includes a statutory duty designed to stop the biggest social media giants from removing journalistic content via sweeping algorithm restrictions or moderation decisions. They will have to ensure the “importance of the free expression of journalistic content is taken into account”.
However peers in the Lords Communications and Digital Committee have now written to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden with fears the bill does not go far enough to protect the industry.
Lord Gilbert of Panteg, the Conservative chair of the committee, said: “We welcome the principle in clause 14 of the draft bill that journalistic content should receive special protection, although we remain to be convinced that the draft bill would not lead to access to such content being restricted.”
Social media companies will be obliged to run a fast-track appeals process for journalistic content to be used in instances where platforms do decide to take it down – for example if they consider it to be a clear breach of their terms and conditions or it poses a major risk to users. If they cannot justify the removal, Ofcom will be able to enforce against them.
The Online Safety Bill exemptions are also set to apply to citizen journalism, with the definition of journalistic content including any UK-linked content that has been “generated for the purposes of journalism”.
But Lord Gilbert said peers on the committee remained unconvinced these protections were “workable in their current form”.
He warned the fast-track appeals process could be “overwhelmed” by people claiming to be citizen journalists, resulting in publishers’ requests being delayed during the time of a story’s biggest newsworthiness.
“We question whether there is any prospect of Ofcom or platforms being able consistently to distinguish citizen journalism from other forms of expression by individuals without citizen journalism being clearly defined,” Lord Gilbert’s letter to Dowden said.
“This raises the prospect of expedited appeals processes intended for news organisations being overwhelmed by members of the public and therefore not offering the intended protection.”
Press Gazette understands DCMS will require Ofcom to create further guidance on the definition of “journalistic content” and that platforms will be expected to clearly set out how they intend to identify journalistic content.
The draft Online Safety Bill also seeks to force the biggest social media sites to protect content deemed “democratically important”, which could mean anything from journalism promoting or opposing government policy or a party ahead of an election, or campaigning on a live political issue.
Lord Gilbert said: “In principle, we welcome the proposal that powerful social media companies should not be able to suppress opinions they disagree with,” but added peers felt there were two flaws to be addressed.
He said a narrow definition of the “democratic political debate” protected in the proposal meant citizens campaigning on issues that are not “live” do not appear to be covered, nor those campaigning for social rather than policy change.
He also raised concerns that although the bill requires platforms to apply their terms and conditions consistently, they could still write into them prohibitions on particular views.
“We worry that social media companies – perhaps under pressure from their staff or activist advertisers – would be free to write terms and conditions which ban viewpoints they dislike on controversial issues,” Lord Gilbert said, although this idea has been denied by DCMS.
Speaking in the House of Lords last week Lord Faulks, who is chairman of the UK’s biggest regulator the Independent Press Standards Organisation, said it was vital the legislation “did not compromise freedom of the press whether in print or online”.
He said: “Our newspapers are mostly regulated… It’s time that social media where most people gather their news and other information should also be regulated to protect the vulnerable and to safeguard the integrity of the newsgathering process.”
Tory Lord Black of Brentwood, deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group, said: “One thing the pandemic has certainly taught us is the need for reliable, verifiable news from trusted sources of information.
“The whole need for trusted journalism has never been greater, the threats to it are becoming existential as the revenues which fund it evaporate.
“The situation is grave, particularly for the local and regional press, which are now in real peril.”
Lord Black said the Online Safety Bill started “the journey of levelling-up”.
He added: “That is levelling-up the essential duties and responsibilities of the platforms to those to which traditional publishers have long been subject both in terms of legislation and regulation.
“The draft Online Safety Bill includes a robust and comprehensive exemption of news publishers from its framework of statutory regulation. That is absolutely right.”