By Ian Murray
The Society of Editors today warned against rushing to create too-sweeping powers when attempting to tackle fake news and disinformation online, voicing fears such measures could harm freedom of expression and legitimate journalism in the UK.
The statement came as a House of Lords committee called on the Government to introduce new legislation to combat what it says is a digital “pandemic of misinformation.”
A report from the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee released today calls for immediate action to rein in tech giants, including new powers for proposed online harms regulator Ofcom to fine digital companies up to four per cent of their global turnover or the blocking of serial offenders.
However, the SoE repeated warnings made earlier that the threats could serve to force digital platforms to remove any content they deemed unsafe, including legitimate journalism.
And the SoE said the thorny question of who would decide what is disinformation would lead to censorship by those in power and with vested interests.
[Such as a political party like the SNP which has banned and boycotted The Democrat, not because of inaccurcies, defamation or disinformation but simply because it believes we are too inclined towards Labour in our coverage of local matters.]
“No one wishes to see the spread of false information and fake news, especially where doing so puts people at risk or undermines democracy,” commented Ian Murray, executive director of the SoE.
“But if the penalties are steep and the scope of the remit for any regulator wide, then at the very least there will be a chilling effect on journalism in this country. The digital platforms will be forced to use broad algorithms to avoid the risk of heavy sanctions, an approach that will remove legitimate journalistic content as well as harmful matter.
“And who will decide what is fake news and what is legitimate debate? We cannot live in a world where government or other bodies are permitted to decide on an official line and all other debate is to be censored. We do not need an Orwellian Ministry of Truth.
“It may not be the aim of the Lords’ committee to stifle public debate and legitimate journalism, but the effect will be the same if measures to combat very real harms caused in the digital sphere are too broad and open to interpretation harmful to the media and its role in our democracy.
“Previously, the Society has been assured by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that journalism is not to be the target of the Online Harms new legislation and Ofcom would have no remit to regulate on-line versions of newspapers and other news sites. This is welcome and important, but there are no plans we understand to add this exemption into the wording of the new law.”
The cross-party House of Lords committee said online platforms should be required to be transparent in how their algorithms work so they are not operating in ways that discriminate against minorities.
In addition, the committee is calling on the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to “conduct a full market investigation into online platforms’ control over digital advertising”.
And the committee says the Online Harms Bill “should make clear that misinformation and disinformation are within its scope”
Its report said that power has been ceded to a “few unelected and unaccountable digital corporations.”
The report said that the political parties should work with the Advertising Standards Authority and other regulators to develop a code of practice that would ban “fundamentally inaccurate” advertising during elections and referendums.
Committee chair Lord Puttnam said: “We are living through a time in which trust is collapsing. People no longer have faith that they can rely on the information they receive or believe what they are told. That is absolutely corrosive for democracy.
“Part of the reason for the decline in trust is the unchecked power of digital platforms. These international behemoths exercise great power without any matching accountability, often denying responsibility for the harm some of the content they host can cause, while continuing to profit from it.
“We’ve seen clear evidence of this in recent months through a dangerous rise of misinformation about Covid-19. We have become aware of the ways in which misinformation can damage an individual’s health along with a growing number of instances where it is our collective democratic health that’s under threat.
“That must stop – it is time for the Government to get a grip of this issue. They should start by taking steps to immediately bring forward a Draft Online Harms Bill. We heard that on the current schedule the legislation may not be in place until 2024. That is clearly unacceptable.
“We have set out a programme for change that, taken as a whole, can allow our democratic institutions to wrestle power back from unaccountable corporations and begin the slow process of restoring trust. Technology is not a force of nature and can be harnessed for the public good. The time to do so is now.”