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LONDON — The U.K. wants to protect journalists from plans to regulate Big Tech — it just doesn’t seem to know how.
Amid a growing chorus of concern over the impact a social media platform crackdown could have on freedom of expression, U.K. Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden vowed to place “a protective bubble around journalistic and ‘democratically important’ content” in his upcoming Online Safety Bill.
But tech industry figures involved in behind-the-scenes discussions on the draft law, which is aimed at shielding internet users from harmful content, say their calls for more clarity — including specifying whose output would be protected under the Bill — are going unanswered.
Campaigners, meanwhile, fear the gap could have a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.
Dowden’s new law would impose a legal duty on tech companies to protect their users from harm, and would be policed by the communications regulator Ofcom. Since the draft version was published in May, the government has been holding talks with the tech industry to get feedback.
Invitees say conversations have often turned to what defines a journalist, with participants asking the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for specification.
“The answer is just a really flat: ‘That is for Ofcom [the regulator] to determine,'” according to one tech industry lobbyist familiar with the discussions but who declined to comment publicly about the private talks.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which is leading on the plans, is “actually pretty good at talking to us,” said a second tech industry public affairs staffer involved in discussions. “They will take any roundtable, but they just won’t answer any of our questions.”
“It just feels like we’re in a holding pattern,” they added. “We push them, we give them specific real-world examples.”
“I think a lot of this bill has shocked them because they have a very sort of narrow view about where they want to get to, and they haven’t really thought about how the regulation could be interpreted differently, or how in the real world things could pan out. They seemed to think that everyone would just welcome it with open arms,” they said.
The lack of legal clarity has also alarmed civil liberties campaigners, who fear public interest citizen journalism could be removed at the behest of regulators under pressure from ministers without parliamentary scrutiny. At the same time, tech companies like Twitter fear they could be forced to keep harmful content online by users claiming journalistic privileges.
In the draft legislation, the U.K. government said the most popular platforms — “category one” companies like Facebook and Twitter — will be required to safeguard all journalistic material shared on their platform.
Posts will be deemed “journalistic content” if “the content is generated for the purposes of journalism” and “the content is U.K.-linked,” according to the draft law.
The U.K. government says the platforms themselves will need to set out how they identify journalism in their terms of service. Platforms like Twitter, however, say the U.K. government needs to explain how it will build in safeguards for journalists if they want to do so.
“Every day we see tweets with screenshots of newspaper front pages, links to blogs, updates from journalists and firsthand accounts of developing events. Crucially, there are accounts we have suspended for Hateful Conduct and other violations of our rules who have described themselves as ‘journalists,'” Twitter wrote in evidence to a House of Lords inquiry on freedom of expression.
The social media platform added: “If the Government wishes for us to treat this content differently to other people and posts on Twitter, then we would ask the Government to define it through the accountability of the parliamentary process. Without doing so, it risks confusion not just for news publishers and for services like ours, but for the people using them.”
“We support the principle that there should be protections for citizen journalism,” the lawmakers said. “However, we are concerned by the vagueness of the draft Bill about what constitutes citizen journalism. The Government should clearly define citizen journalism in the draft bill.”
A government official pointed to the U.K.’s media regulator, saying they expect Ofcom’s own codes of practice to give “further guidance” on the steps platforms should take to identify journalistic content.
But Heather Burns, policy manager at the Open Rights Group, is concerned the Online Safety Bill risks being used to “hold a stealth discussion, completely outside Parliamentary scrutiny, about what constitutes a journalist and what constitutes journalism.”
“This is a blueprint for a chilling effect on freedom of expression and citizen journalism,” she warned.
Burns added: “I can easily see a situation arising where, for example, a young woman walking to a shop films a police officer holding his knee on a man’s neck, and a regulator, under government pressure, orders that video to be pulled off social media sites on the grounds that the young woman was not an accredited journalist, and that the violent video constitutes subjectively harmful content.”
The second tech lobbyist quoted above sees the definitional dilemma playing out in one of two ways. “The first way is that it is just left up to platforms, and we’re faced with every single platform sort of deciding for themselves what a journalist is.” The other route, they said, is that “effectively […] the government has sort of statutory regulation of the press, via the back door, which many people also don’t really want.”
“We can’t, at the moment, get DCMS to give any more clarification on which way they think they’re going to go,” they added, “and it genuinely seems that’s because they don’t know.”
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Tech policy coverage: Pro Technology. Our expert journalism and suite of policy intelligence tools allow you to seamlessly search, track and understand the developments and stakeholders shaping EU Tech policy and driving decisions impacting your industry. Email [email protected] with the code ‘TECH’ for a complimentary trial.
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