JOURNALISM: Online Safety Bill does not protect freedom of expression, MPs warn

By Bill Heaney

In its current form, the Online Safety Bill does not protect freedom of expression, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee has this week warned.

Publishing its report on the draft Online Safety Bill, the committee said that what should be a “world-leading, landmark” piece of legislation, instead represents a “missed opportunity” and neither “protects freedom of expression” nor is it “clear or robust” enough to tackle illegal and harmful content online.

The bill’s focus on threatening companies with fines could lead to “excessive take-downs” of content and the draft legislation should be changed to ensure Ofcom has “powers to assess whether providers have balanced their freedom of expression obligations with their decision making” the committee said.

Responding to the report, Dawn Alford, RIGHT, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said that it was essential that the bill was strengthened to protect freedom of expression and journalistic content.

She said: “The Society 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.”

Writing in the report, the committee said that current proposed amendments to the bill represent “a missed opportunity” in making the broader definitions of harm compatible with international human rights law and address societal harms like Covid-19 disinformation.

In relation to content that is harmful to adults, the committee said that, at present, the bill “does not provide a clear legislative basis upon which Ofcom will be able to judge the efficacy of measures, systems and processes (particularly algorithms and automated systems) in mitigating or managing the risk of such content.”

The bill “lacks proportionality in this area” the committee said and, as such, “may result in excessive takedowns by service providers especially where their terms and conditions specify that such content should be removed prima facie in order to meet the duties’ requirements to enforce their terms of service consistently and thus avoid associated penalties.”

Calling on the government to reframe the language around considerations for freedom of expression and “incorporate a ‘must balance’ test so Ofcom can interrogate and assess whether providers have duly balanced their freedom of expression obligations with their decision making” the committee also called for the definition of content that is harmful to adults to explicitly include content that “undermines, or risks undermining, the rights or reputation of others, national security, public order and public health or morals” as also established in international human rights law.

The DCMS select committee report can be found here.

‘Unequal playing field’ in relation to data use, report finds

Media organisations continue to operate on an “unequal playing field” in relation to effective data use, a report has found.

The report, ‘How user data shapes the media sector’, was conducted by Revealing Reality on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and found that in comparison with big tech companies, news organisations not only face an unequal access to data but face additional challenges including unequal control over how data is used and unequal regulation to abide by.

The report, released this week (Tuesday 25 January), comes in the wake of the findings of the Cairncross Review in 2019 that recommended that better use of consumer data was key to a sustainable future for quality journalism.

The report found that one of the main challenges raised by media organisations was the explosion of competition in the media landscape—social media and online only content providers can often offer content to audiences in cheaper and easier to access formats, and big tech organisations are increasingly acting as gatekeepers to valuable data, the report said. Media organisations also had to consider the implications of pursuing data-driven models and the threat of reduced audiences through increased data collection, it said.

It added: “It was not always practical for organisations to collect more data as this can introduce increased friction for customers, potentially leading to reduced audiences. This is particularly true for press organisations with mass market appeal that are free to access, who worry customers would just go elsewhere if requirements to share more data were added.”

Media organisations continue to have an unequal control over how data is used, the report found, with tech firms often setting the agenda for how data can be used by media organisations. In addition to this, proposed changes to Google’s third-party cookies, would see media organisations face additional challenges.

The report said: “Many media businesses rely on third party cookies to gather data on user behaviour beyond their own website/app—which is hugely valuable to prospective advertisers. Google’s announcements (and subsequent delays) of their intention to restrict use of third-party cookies via their services is of great concern to many media organisations, not least because one of the proposed alternatives, Google’s ‘Privacy Sandbox’ will likely end up driving more business in Google’s own direction.”

In terms of regulation, tech firms are often less heavily regulated, meaning they can focus on providing the most value to users, without any restrictions on what their content should include, the report found.

It added: “In contrast UK based media organisations are often overseen by regulatory and industry standards bodies, for example, local commercial radio stations can be required by Ofcom to provide a certain level of local content (news, travel etc.). This means that media organisation can’t always be completely data led in their decision making.”

LGBTQ+ Journalism Network is launched by Newsquest reporter

A reporter for the Oxford Mail has launched a new LGBTQ+ network for journalists.

The LGBTQ+ Journalism Network, founded by Sophie Perry, aims to provide a supportive community and network for people who identify as LGBTQ+ and work in, or are studying, journalism in the UK.

Writing on Behind Local News, Sophie said that the decision to launch the network was due to the fact that there was no single public group for LGBTQ+ journalists to meet and connect with each other.

She said: “The group aims to be a supportive community and network for people who identify as LGBTQ+ and work in, or are studying, journalism in the UK.

“The LGBTQ+ Journalism Network is open to students, entry-level journalists, senior editors and absolutely everyone in-between.

“I hope the group will be a positive place for people to share their success stories and big wins, job opportunities, best practice for telling LGBTQ+ stories as well as a space where people can advise and support each other.”

Moving forward, Sophie said that she hoped to run events for the group including social meet-ups and panel discussions to further unite LGBTQ+ journalists across the industry.

The Network can be found here.

Evening Standard and Independent campaign sees 100 jobs pledged

More than 100 jobs for young unemployed Londoners have been pledged as part of the Evening Standard and the Independent’s Skill Up Step Up campaign.

Launched in December 2021, the £1m campaign, in partnership with Barclays, has seen grants provided to a select group of charities to offer employability training to make jobless young people work ready.

Almost a dozen employers have so far pledged to hire 119 young Londoners who have been up-skilled by Springboard – one of the charities supporting the campaign.

Employers that have so far pledged support include the Compass Group, which operates catering facilities at Chelsea FC and the O2 and PPHE Hotel Group which owns the Park Plaza.

Daniel Pedreschi of PPHE Hotel Group said: “We are proud to support the Skill Up Step Up initiative by offering a range of jobs across our portfolio to London’s young unemployed.”

Compass spokeswoman Donna Catley said: “We pledge 60 vacancies which include roles such as commis chef, chef de partie, barista and hospitality and customer service operator. This is a great opportunity to help unemployed young people in London find a job they can progress in.”

To donate to the campaign or find out more about it, visit the London Community Foundation.

Journalism.co.uk launches mentorship programme

Journalism.co.uk has this week launched a mentorship scheme to support innovation in local and regional news.

The scheme invites local and regional journalists in the UK to apply to be paired with experienced industry professionals who can assist smaller publishers in experimenting with new tools and strategies.

Areas of mentorship include organisational strategy and newsroom management, audience engagement or growth, using AI in the newsroom, innovative storytelling techniques, podcasting and audio storytelling and social media strategy.

The mentorship scheme is supported by United Robots AB, a Swedish technology company working in automated editorial content and Utopia Analytics, a Finnish company that enables automated moderation of reader comments.

Applications for the scheme are open until Monday 14 February and more information on the application process and the mentors can be found here.

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