Amendment 124

Online Safety Bill - Committee (8th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:29 pm on 23 May 2023.

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Lord Clement-Jones:

Moved by Lord Clement-Jones

124: Clause 49, page 47, line 6, at end insert—“(2A) Subsection (2)(e) does not apply in respect of a regulated user-to-user service which is operated by an organisation which—(a) is a relevant publisher (within the meaning of section 41 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013), and(b) has an annual UK turnover in excess of £100 million.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment seeks to ensure the comment sections of the largest newspaper websites are subject to the Online Safety Bill’s regulatory regime.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 124 but also to Amendments 126 and 227, all of which were tabled by my noble friend Lord McNally and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. Sadly, they are both unable to do battle today, for health reasons, and I start by wishing them both a speedy recovery. I hope that I at least partly do justice to their intentions and to these amendments today.

These amendments are designed to address significant loopholes in the Bill which have been very clearly pointed out by Hacked Off, Impress—the press regulator—and the Press Recognition Panel. These loopholes risk enabling extremist publishers to take advantage of the overbroad “recognised news publisher” exemption and allow hatred and other online harms to spread on some of the most popular social media forums online—the newspaper comment sections. Amendment 124 would remove comment sections operated by news websites where the publisher has a UK turnover of more than £100 million from the exemption for regulated user-generated content.

Some of the most harmful online content is in newspaper comment sections, which are in fact social media forums themselves and are read by millions of readers every day. Hacked Off has found examples of misogyny, explicit anti-Semitic language, Holocaust denial and more. Women in public life are also the target of misogyny in these comments sections. Professor Corinne Fowler, an academic who was criticised by some newspapers after contributing to a National Trust report, describing her experience, wrote that

“unregulated comments beneath articles, including the Telegraph and The Times as well as the Daily Mail and the Express … contained scores of suggestions about how to kill or injure me. Some were general ideas, such as hanging, but many were gender-specific, saying that I should be burnt at the stake like a witch … without me knowing, my son (then 12 years old) read these reader comments. He became afraid for my safety. The comments were easily accessible: he googled ‘Corinne Fowler National Trust’ and scrolled below the articles. No child should have to deal with hate speech directed at a parent”.

Amendment 126 would have the effect of incentivising newspapers to sign up to an independent regulator. It would expand the definition of a “recognised news publisher” to incorporate any entity that is a member of an approved regulator, while excluding publishers that are not members of such a regulator, unless they are broadcasters and regulated by Ofcom. Recognised news publishers enjoy wide exemptions in the Bill. Their content is not only protected from being taken down by platforms, but a new provision will require platforms to actively consult media publishers before removing their content. As a result, news publishers will enjoy greater free speech rights under the Bill than private citizens.

The criteria to qualify as a “recognised news publisher” is different for broadcasters and other media. For broadcasters, outlets must be regulated by Ofcom. For non-broadcast media, outlets need only meet a list of vague criteria: have a standards code, which could say anything; have a complaints process, which could also say anything; have a UK office; have staff; and not be a sanctioned title. As a result, a host of extremist and disinformation publishing websites may qualify immediately, or with minor administrative changes, for this rather generous exemption. For example, conspiracy theorist and racist David Icke’s website could qualify with minor administrative changes. He would be free to propagate his dangerous and, in many cases, anti-Semitic conspiracies on social media. Heritage and Destiny, an openly racist website, would likewise be able to qualify with minor changes and spread racial hatred on social media. Infowars could open up a UK office, qualify and spread harmful content on social media.

This amendment would replace that vague list of criteria with the simple requirement that, to access the exemption, non-broadcast media publishers must be in a PRP-approved independent regulator. The effect would be that extremists and harmful publishers would not be able to access the exemption. All publishers would have the same free speech rights as everyone else, unless they are otherwise regulated under the charter system or Ofcom in the case of broadcasters.

Amendment 227 requires Ofcom’s reporting on the impact of the regulatory regime on the availability and treatment of news publishers and journalistic content to also cover what impact the news publisher exemption and journalistic content duty have on the regime’s efficacy. The Bill requires Ofcom to publish a report on whether the new regime will harm freedom of the press. This is despite the fact the Bill already goes to extraordinary lengths to protect the interests of the press. This very modest amendment would require Ofcom’s report to also query whether the news publisher exemption is undermining the regulatory regime.

Impress, which is the UK’s only press regulator approved by the Press Recognition Panel under royal charter, says that the Bill leaves the public vulnerable and exposed to online harms and therefore falls short of the Government’s aim of making the UK the safest place to be online. It has summarised the three ways in which the current Bill is in danger of undermining its principal function—to protect the public from online harms—which could be resolved by these amendments.

First, the Bill creates an uneven playing field. A poor definition of what constitutes a news publisher threatens to undermine the public protection benefits of the Bill. Secondly, the Bill misses an opportunity to fight misinformation or disinformation. The Bill undermines industry standards and fails to distinguish journalism from fake news. Thirdly, the Bill could be easily used as a cover to spread serious harms. The Bill’s current journalism exemptions create dangerous loopholes which could easily be exploited to spread misinformation and disinformation. Publishers should be required to demonstrate compliance and oversight in relation to their published code of conduct and complaints policy.

If we needed any more persuasion, a letter to me from David Wolfe KC, the chair of the PRP, provides an additional twist:

“I am writing to draw your attention to the Bill’s potential impact on the regulation of the press and news publishers in the UK. Specifically, to Clause 50 of the Bill, which explains the circumstances in which news publishers are taken out of the proposed Ofcom regulatory regime … it does not specify any minimum standards and does not specify who is to assess publishers. The practical implication, though, is that Ofcom—whose board are appointed by the Secretary of State … and which operates under their direct oversight—will not only set the minimum requirements but also undertake the assessment. Paradoxically, the possibility of political interference, which Lord Leveson and the Royal Charter set out to avoid (in the Royal Charter and PRP framework) might now be directly introduced for all UK news publishers”.

That means that the national press, which has avoided regulation, is coming under the regulation of Ofcom. I will be very interested to hear what a number of noble Lords might have to say on that subject.

Taken together, these amendments would address serious flaws in the Bill, and I very much hope that the Government’s response will be to reflect on them. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Black of Brentwood Lord Black of Brentwood Conservative

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in wishing the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Lipsey, well. I hope they are watching us on the television—perhaps as a cure for insomnia at this time of night. I declare my interest as deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group and of the Regulatory Funding Company and note my other interests set out in the register. I must admit I was gripped by a sense of déjà vu when I saw these amendments on the Marshalled List, because I fear they risk catapulting us back into the debate over matters which were settled a decade ago in response to events which took place two decades or more ago.

Before coming on to the detail of some of the amendments that the noble Lord set out, I will make a few general points which relate principally to Amendments 126 and 227 but impinge on the whole group.

First, I do not believe that this Bill, which is about the enormous, unaccountable and unregulated platforms and the dangers they pose to the vulnerable, is the place to reopen the debate about press regulation. Later in the year there will be a media Bill, recently published in draft, which will contain provisions to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. If noble Lords want to discuss the whole issue of the royal charter and punitive legislation against the press, I respectfully suggest that that is the time and place to do so.

Secondly, this Bill has widespread support. The vast majority of people agree with its aims, even if we have disagreements at the edges. If the Bill ceases to be the Online Safety Bill and becomes the state regulation of the press Bill, it will become enormously controversial not just here but internationally.

That is my third point: the enormous global ramifications of seeking to use novel online legislation to force state-backed regulation on the press. The Crime and Courts Act 2013 and the establishment of the royal charter were roundly condemned by international press freedom organisations worldwide—the very same press freedom organisations we all claim to support when talking about the safety of journalists or the way in which the press is controlled in authoritarian regimes. Those same organisations condemned it utterly and they would look on with incredulity and horror if this, the first brave piece of legislation in the world to tackle online safety, was corrupted in this way and in a manner which sent the wrong signals to undemocratic regimes worldwide that it is okay to censor the press in the name of making the platforms accountable.

I was going to make a few comments about IPSO, which the noble Lord raised, but I see that the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is in his place and I am sure he will make them much more effectively than I would.

The other general point is that this group of amendments flies in the face of the most fundamental Leveson recommendation. In his report, he stressed that it was essential that the system of self-regulation remained voluntary. What these proposals do is the antithesis of that. In effect, they hold a gun to the head of the industry and say, “Either you join a state-approved regulator, or you’re subject to the statutory control of Ofcom”. There is no voluntary element in that at all because either route ends up in a form of state regulation. That is Hobson’s choice.

Finally, as I have said to this House before, and I hoped I would never have to say again, the vast majority of the press will not under any circumstances join a regulator which is authorised by a state body and underpinned by the threat of legislation. Even Sir Brian Leveson said that he recognised that this was a matter of principle. That principle is that the press cannot be free if it is subject to any form of statutory control, however craftily concealed. That position has existed for many centuries and is threatened by the amendments. The reason for that is that if Amendment 126, and some of the others, went through, none of the major publishers at national, regional and local level, nor magazines, would be exempt from the terms of the Bill and would become subject to the statutory control of Ofcom—something that Ofcom has always made clear that it wants nothing to do with—and the prospect of unlimited penal sanctions. That is the end of a free press, by any definition.

I will very briefly discuss a few specifics. Amendment 124 seeks to bring the comments sections of basically all national newspaper websites within the Bill’s statutory regime. These are already regulated by IPSO, unless the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, corrects me, and they come under its jurisdiction as soon as a complaint is made to the publishers, even if they are not moderated. Unlike social media, which is entirely different in its reach and impact, editors are legally responsible for what appears on their websites, which is why in most cases there are strong content moderation procedures in place. That is why comments sections rightly fall within the limited functionality exemption in the Bill, because there is such limited scope for harm. The impact of Amendment 124 would be to introduce confusing and complex double regulation of comments sections on websites, to the detriment of the public who wish to engage in legitimate debate.

Amendment 127 also veers in the direction of extending statutory controls, because it is a subjective test, unlike the others in Clause 50, which would in effect require either the tech platforms or Ofcom to make value judgments about the timeliness of complaints handling, either by publishers or by IPSO. When it comes to media freedom, subjective tests in the hands of state regulators end up making bad law.

Finally, Amendment 227 seeks to extend Ofcom’s powers to include an assessment of whether the news publisher exemption is adversely impacting the online safety regime. That would again place a state regulator in the position of assessing whether independent voluntary self-regulation, of the sort envisaged by Leveson, complied with an online safety regime which was never intended to encompass press regulation. It is, in effect, the royal charter by the backdoor, trying to shoehorn a square peg into a round hole in a way which makes this legislation and the powers of the regulator even more complex and controversial.

At the end of the day, this should not be a press regulation Bill, and it is wrong to try to do that. It is a Bill about the responsibility of the vast unaccountable, unregulated platforms which disseminate so much dangerous and harmful content without anyone having recourse, as we have heard powerfully already this afternoon, and not a Bill about the publishers who produce verifiable, trusted journalism which is the lifeblood of a democracy. We confuse the two at our peril and at the cost of the free press, which I know all your Lordships hold dear.

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks Non-affiliated 9:45, 23 May 2023

My Lords, much of what I would have said has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Black, so I will make my contribution brief. Elegantly dressed up as these amendments were by the noble Lord on behalf of the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord McNally, to whom I also say get well soon, they are in fact intended to change the way the press is currently regulated. I declare my interest as chairman of IPSO, a post I have held since January 2020. IPSO regulates 95%, by circulation, of the printed press, and that includes online versions of newspapers.

Noble Lords will remember the Leveson inquiry, following the discovery of unacceptable press practices including phone hacking. Parliament’s response was to create the Press Recognition Panel and the concept of an approved regulator. It was not state regulation, but nor was it the status quo ante. Only one regulator has sought and attained approved status: Impress. The Press Recognition Panel was chaired by David Wolfe KC, who provided a quotation to the noble Lord. Impress is funded by the estate of Max Mosley. It does not regulate any of the main national newspapers, which have either, like the Guardian, elected for self-regulation, or, like most of the others, selected IPSO as their regulator. Now, clearly it would be unattractive for me to extol the virtues of IPSO, but to its critics I recommend reading the newly published independent external review, written by Sir Bill Jeffrey, former Permanent Secretary at the MoD. I think readers would generally be reassured by the report.

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act was intended as a stick—or was it a carrot—to drive newspapers into the arms of the approved regulator. Even when I had nothing to do with press regulation, I did not like that provision, which has hovered over the newspaper industry like the sword of Damocles. It has never been brought into effect, and I welcome the fact that the Government now intend to repeal Section 40 via the media Bill—although I accept, as the noble Lord, Lord Black, said, that there may be a debate about the proper scope of regulation, and indeed of Section 40, when that comes before Parliament.

As I understand these amendments, regulation of the largest websites would prospectively be the subject of the Online Safety Bill’s regulatory regime. I echo comments already made that this extraordinarily significant Bill is not primarily directed at press regulation at all. It is intended by these amendments that for newspapers to qualify for the recognised news publisher status, they would have to be a member of an approved regulator. This is plainly an attempt to dismantle the current system of press regulation.

It seems something of an irony that newspapers that are regulated by IPSO or even self-regulated have accountability, however imperfect, whereas, pending the passing of the Bill, internet platforms are wholly unregulated—yet it is sought to pass off some of the regulation of newspapers to Ofcom. Is Ofcom ready, willing or even equipped to replicate the complaints system that currently obtains? I think Ofcom would have quite enough to do. Is its horizon-scanning model even appropriate for press complaints? It is very early days to increase the scope of Ofcom’s rule. The Government have promised a review of the regulatory framework in two or three years; I suppose then it might be possible to assess whether Ofcom’s role should change or be enlarged. Until then, it seems inappropriate to do so.

I suggest that the current system of press regulation should not be the subject of further statutory provision at this juncture, or indeed at all. There have been some deplorable press practices in the past, but the traditional printed press in this country, albeit a much-reduced animal with diminished circulation and advertising revenues, nevertheless has some real strengths. A free, vigorous and challenging press is part of a functioning democracy. We should be very wary of giving a Government, of whatever colour and by whatever means, greater power to control it.

Photo of Baroness Grey-Thompson Baroness Grey-Thompson Crossbench

My Lords, I speak in favour of Amendments 124, 126 and 227 to which my name is attached. I will reserve my comments mostly to the Bill’s loophole on newspaper comment sections.

These forums would qualify as social media platforms under the Bill’s definition were it not for a special exemption in Clause 49. They have been found to host some of the most appalling and despicable content online. I will paraphrase some examples so as not to subject the Committee to the specific language used, but they include anti-Semitic slurs in comments appearing under articles covering a violent attack on a synagogue; Holocaust denial; and speculation that Covid was created and spread by a secretive global cabal of powerful individuals who control the world’s leaders like puppets.

Some of the worst abuse is reserved for women in public life, which I and others in your Lordships’ House have personally experienced. In an article about a female leader, comments included that she should be struck down or executed by the SAS. Others commented graphically on her appearance and made disturbing sexual remarks. Another woman, Professor Fowler—who the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has already discussed —was described as having a sick mind and a mental disorder; one comment implied that a noose should be prepared for her. There are many more examples.

Comment sections are in too many cases badly regulated and dangerous places for members of the public. The exemption for them is unwarranted. Specifically, it protects any social media platform where users make comments in response to what the Bill describes as “provider content”. In this case, that means comments posted in response to articles published by the newspaper. This is materially no different from user exchanges of any other kind and should be covered just the same.

The Government have previously argued that there should be a distinction between newspaper comment sections and other platforms, in that other platforms allow for virality because posts that are liked and retweeted do better than the others. But this is exactly the same for many modern comment sections. Lots of these include functionality to upvote certain comments, which can then rise to the top of the comment section on that article.

There are estimated to be around 15 million people on Twitter in the UK—I am one of them—but more than twice that number read newspaper websites every month. These comment sections are social media platforms with the same power, reach and capacity to cause harm as the US giants. We should not treat them any differently on account of the fact that they are based out of Fleet Street rather than Silicon Valley.

There are some concerns that the Bill’s requirements would put an undue burden on small organisations running comment sections, so this amendment would apply only to organisations with an annual turnover in excess of £100 million. This would ensure that only the largest titles, which can surely afford it, are required to regulate their comment sections. Amendment 124 would close the comment section loophole, and I urge the Government to act on it.

It is a great shame that, due to the lateness of the hour, my noble friend Lady Hollins is unable to be here. She would strongly support Amendment 126 on several points but specifically wanted to talk about how the exemption creates double standards between how the public and news publishers are treated, and puts platforms and Ofcom in an impossible situation over whether newspapers meet vague criteria to access exemptions.

I also support Amendments 126 and 227, which would help protect the public from extremist and other dangerous websites by preventing them accessing the separate media exemption. In all these matters, we must not let overbroad exemptions and loopholes undermine what good work this Bill could do.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, while considering this group of amendments, a comment by Index on Censorship came to mind. Critical of aspects of the Bill, it worried out loud about whether this legislation

“will reverse the famous maxim ‘publish and be damned’, to become, ‘consider the consequences of all speech, or be damned’”.

In that context, I am very grateful—relieved at least— that the freedom of the press is given due regard and protections in the Bill. Freedom of the press is one practical form in which freedom of expression exists and is invaluable in a democracy. It is so crucial that it has been at the centre of democratic struggles in this very Parliament for more than five centuries—ever since the first printing press meant that the masses could gain access to the written word. It fuelled the pamphleteers of the English Civil War. It made a hero of MP John Wilkes in the 18th century, his victory giving the press freedom to report on the goings-on of the great and the good, to muckrake and to dig the dirt; long may that continue.

So I welcome that news publishers’ content on their own websites is not in scope of the legislation; that if platforms take down or restrict access to trusted news sources, they will face significant sanctions; that platforms must notify news publishers if they want to take down their content and, if the publisher disputes that, the platform must not remove it until the dispute is resolved; and that Ofcom must also review the efficacy of how well the platforms are protecting news.

I say “Hurrah!” to all that. If only the Bill treated all content with such a liberal and proportionate approach, I would not be standing up and speaking quite so much. But on the press specifically, I strongly oppose Amendments 124 and 126—as well as Amendment 127, now that it has been explained and I understand it; I did not quite before. Amendment 124 would mean that the comment section of the largest newspaper websites were subject to the regulation in the Bill.

It is important to note—as has been explained—that user comments are already regulated by IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, and that individual publishers have strong content moderation system policies and the editor is ultimately liable for comments. That is the key issue here. This is about protecting editorial independence from state interference. Amendment 124 does the opposite. That amendment would also restrict the ability of UK citizens to discuss and engage with publishers’ content.

It is part of a lively and vital public square to be free to debate and discuss articles in newspapers. We have heard some pretty graphic and grim descriptions from the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, about those comments; but for me, ironically, the comment section in newspapers is a form of accountability of the press to readers and the audience. Although the descriptions were grim, much of that section is intelligent, well-informed and interesting feedback. I will talk a little about hate afterwards.

What is more, one likely outcome of this amendment is that newspapers could shut down their comments sections. The cost of investing in proactive scanning or child safety technology would be prohibitively expensive, and I think that would be a great loss. Whenever a newspaper article is published and, maybe because it is controversial, the newspaper decides not to have a comments section, all over social media people say, “That’s not fair, I wanted to say something on it”, and they just comment on social media.

I am especially opposed to Amendment 126, which would mean that only those news publishers that would qualify for recognised news-publisher status would have to be a member of an approved regulator. We have to be clear what is meant by approved here: it means state approved. It would be the return of state licensing of the press and wipe out all those hard-won gains dating back from Milton’s Areopagitica and John Lilburne and the Levellers’ sacrifices for press freedom. I just do not want to throw those away; it would leave publishers in an impossible position of choosing between submitting to state-backed regulation or leaving their media content open to censure or censorship by tech giants, or Ofcom.

I think it is an attempt at coercing or bullying these papers into what is a Hacked Off-inspired, Leveson-style regulation system by the back door that has been rejected by the vast majority of the print media, as has been explained. It will remove vital protections for press freedom built into the Bill and allow anyone who refused to be blackmailed into state licensing and statutory content regulation, or thrown under the bus, and it would effectively greenlight Silicon Valley censorship of UK journalism.

That said, while it is important to give due respect to press freedom under a specific category, just as we do with academic freedom, I am still a little squeamish about the special-favours approach towards the mainstream media, as it is described, and legacy media. Perhaps that is the one thing on which I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. Privileging comments sections of newspapers, while offering no parallel protections for some members of the public to comment on social media on the internet itself, is a problem. While we are focusing in this Bill only and largely on the negatives of the internet, we should remember that it has been hugely democratising, removing official gatekeeping and allowing ordinary people to publish and amplify their voices, which were often silenced or ignored in the past. Yet now they are peculiarly subject to censorious measures and, what is more, their reputations are traduced.

I thought it was interesting, listening to the discussion about hate in response to the way the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, discussed the comments section in newspapers—which I am not naive enough to imagine are not full of some horrors, as they described—that there is a danger that we have an impression of the British public as a hate-fuelled mob who, as soon as you let them speak, spew out anti-Semitism, misogyny and all the rest of it. As I constantly try to say throughout this Bill, the whole notion of hate is at least subjective and often quite complicated.

One example that happened just a couple of days ago was when an organisation called Stop Funding Hate, in response to an article about a female sportswoman who legitimately raised concerns about the disputes on sex and gender in sport, and who believes that women’s sport is in danger and on the line, described it as “bigotry” and “hate”. That led to a great deal of abuse of the female athlete. Stop Funding Hate then led a campaign to get a corporate boycott of advertising from the Telegraph, on the basis that the article was hate-fuelled—whereas I think the censorious boycott was hate-fuelled.

Therefore, using big business money, in this instance, as a weapon to dictate editorial content shows that press freedom is on the line in a variety of ways. Women arguing for protecting single-sex sport, and then being subject to vile misogyny, themselves being described as using transphobic hate speech shows me, at least, that in the name of fighting hate we should not have any attempts to assault press freedom. I will oppose all three of these amendments.

Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 10:00, 23 May 2023

My Lords, I support Amendment 227 in particular. I am pleased to contribute, as someone who gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry, explaining why social media should not be in scope for any new press regulation scheme. It is entertaining for me now to come through the looking glass and listen to the noble Lords, Lord Black of Brentwood and Lord Faulks, in particular making the kinds of argument I made then, as we discuss whether the press should be in scope for a new social media regulatory scheme.

These amendments are a helpful way to test how the Government expect their decision to afford certain privileges for online activity by journalists and news publishers to work. That is what the regime does, in effect, with the rationale, which was explained to us, that this is why certain bodies can be privileged when using user-to-user services and search engines in a way that, if they were not afforded that status, they would not be given those privileges. Again, it is noteworthy that there has often been criticism of social media precisely for giving special treatment to some users, including in stories in some of the press that we are talking about, and here we are creating not just a state sanction but a state-ordered two-tier system that all the social media companies will now have to adopt. That creates some interesting questions in itself.

I want to press the Minister primarily on definitions. It is certainly my experience that definitions of who is a journalist or a news media publisher are challenging and can be highly political. There have been several pressure points, pushing social media companies to try to define journalists and news publishers for themselves, outside of any regulatory scheme—notably following the disputes about misinformation and disinformation in the United States. The European Union also has a code of practice on misinformation and disinformation. Every time someone approaches this subject, they ask social media companies to try to distinguish journalists and news media from other publishers. So these efforts have been going on for some time, and many of them have run into disputes because there is no consistent agreement about who should be in or outside those regimes. This is one of those problems that seems clear and obvious when you stand back from it, but the more that you zoom in, the more complex and messy it becomes. We all say, “Oh yes, journalists and news publishers—that is fine”, and we write that in the legislation, but, in practice, it will be really hard when people have to make decisions about individuals.

Some news organisations are certainly highly problematic. Most terrorist organisations have news outlets and news agencies. They do not advertise themselves as such but, if you work in a social media platform, you have to learn to distinguish them. They are often presented entirely legitimately, and some of the information that you use to understand why they are problematic may be private, which creates all sorts of problems. Arguably, this is the Russia Today situation: it presented itself as legitimate and was registered with Ofcom for a period of time; we accepted that it was a legitimate news publisher, but we changed our view because we regard the Russian Government as a terrorist regime, in some senses. That is happening all of the time, with all sorts of bodies across the world that have created these news organisations. In the Middle East in particular, you have to be extraordinarily careful—you think that something is a news organisation but you then find that it has a Hezbollah connection and, there you go, you have to try to get rid of it. News organisations tied to extremist organisations is one area that is problematic, and my noble friend referred to it already.

There is also an issue with our domestic media environment. Certainly, most people would regard Gary Lineker as a journalist who works for a recognised news publisher—the BBC—but not everyone will agree with that definition. Equally, most people regard the gentleman who calls himself Tommy Robinson as not being a journalist; however much he protests that he is in front of judges and others, and however much support he has from recognised news publishers in the United States, most people would say that he is not a journalist. The community of people who agree that Gary Lineker is not a journalist and that of people who think that Tommy Robinson is not a journalist do not overlap much, but I make the point that there is continually this contention about individuals, and people have views about who should be in or out of any category that we create.

This is extraordinarily difficult, as in the Bill we are tasking online services with a very hard job. In a few lines of it, we say: “Create these special privileges for these people we call journalists and news publishers”. That is going to be really difficult for them to do in practice and they are going to make mistakes, either exclusionary or inclusionary. We are giving Ofcom an incredibly difficult role, which is why this debate is important, because it is going to have to adjudicate when that journalist or news publisher says to Ofcom: “I think this online platform is breaching the Online Safety Act because of the way it treated me”. Ofcom is going to have to take a view about whether that organisation or individual is legitimate. Given the individuals I named, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone is going to go to Ofcom and say, “I don’t think that Gary Lineker or the BBC are legitimate”. That one should be quite easy; others across the spectrum will be much more difficult for it to deal with.

That is the primary logic underlying Amendment 227: we have known unknowns. There will be unanticipated effects of this legislation and, until it is in place and those decisions are being made, we do not know how it will work. Frankly, we do not know whether, as a result of legal trickery and regulatory decisions, we have inadvertently created a loophole where some people will be able to go and win court cases by claiming protections that we did not intend them to have. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Black: I do not think Amendment 227 undermines press freedom in any sense at all. All it does is to say: “We have created an Online Safety Bill. We expect it to enhance people’s safety and within it we have some known unknowns. We do not know how this exemption is going to work. Why not ask Ofcom to see if any of those unintended consequences happen?”

I know that we are labouring our way through the Online Safety Bill version 1, so we do not want to think about an online safety Bill version 2, but there will at some point have to be a revision. It is entirely rational and sensible that, having put this meaningful exemption in there—it has been defended, so I am sure that the Government will not want to give it up—the least we can do is to take a long, hard look, without interfering with press freedom, and get Ofcom to ask, “Did we see those unintended consequences? Do we need to look at the definitions again?”

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Allan, has clearly and comprehensively painted a picture of the complex world in which we now live, and I do not think that anybody can disagree with that or deny it. We are in a world which is going to keep evolving; we have talked in lots of other contexts about the pace of change, and so on. However, in recognising all that, what the noble Lord has just described—the need for constant evaluation of whether this regime is working effectively—is a job for Parliament, not for Ofcom. That is where I come back to in starting my response to this group of amendments.

Briefly—in order that we can get to the wind-ups and conclude business for the day—ensuring that recognised news publishers and organisations are not subject to Ofcom or any form of state regulation is a vital principle. I am pleased that the Government have included the safeguards which they have in the legislation, while also making it much harder for the tech platforms to restrict the freedom of recognised news publishers and users’ access to them.

I reiterate that I understand that this is becoming increasingly complicated, but these are important principles. We have to start in the world that we currently understand and know, ensure that we protect those publications which we recognise as trusted news providers now, and do not give way on those principles. As my noble friend Lord Black said, regarding debates about Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, there will be an opportunity to re-evaluate that in due course when we come to the media Bill. For what it is worth, my personal view is that I support the Government’s intention to remove it.

The only other thing I would add is that as far as the accountability of news publishers is concerned, I, too, think this is important. It is an important element of their proper editorial oversight that they control and oversee online comments sections and that they are subject to the same sort of self-regulation and regulation by IPSO as has been described. However, it is also important to say to these news publishers and any organisations that rely on the support and continued use and subscription of their users that they ought to have in place good-quality customer service regimes. If people want to raise complaints and concerns, not necessarily just about content but about the way in which they manage their subscriptions, their inability to cancel their subscriptions or indeed a demand for a more flexible approach to their subscriptions, I would like to see much better accountability in the way that these organisations look after and service the people who are their readers. The future of news publishers ultimately relies on them meeting the expectations of their readers and giving voice to the perspective of their readers, and for as long as they do that, I think they should enjoy the freedom to operate without statutory control, and therefore I do not support the amendments in this group.

Photo of Baroness Gohir Baroness Gohir Crossbench 10:15, 23 May 2023

My Lords, I support Amendments 124, 126 and 227. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord McNally, for proposing these amendments and I wish them well.

A number of far-right websites already exist across the internet which are capable, with minimal reform, of meeting the requirements to qualify as recognised news publishers and benefit from the exemption. Some of these websites host content from known high-profile racists. These extreme websites feature anti-Semitism, hatred of women and hatred of Muslims. The Centre for Media Monitoring, part of the Muslim Council of Britain, has criticised the Bill’s media exemption. The threat of far-right and anti-Muslim websites arguing that they constitute a news publisher is not only inevitable but very dangerous. As news publishers, they would have the freedom to propagate fake news, disinformation and conspiracy theories about Islam and Muslims.

The thought that UK-based racist outlets would be able to access this exception is horrific enough, but there is also a risk that extremist news websites currently based in the USA and elsewhere around the world will seek to relocate to Britain to benefit from the exemption in future. This is because while the exemption does not require publishers to abide by any specific set of standards, it does require publishers to have a UK office. Perversely, this creates an incentive for an extremist website based the US, for example, from where many of the internationally most popular racially hateful websites currently operate, to establish an office here in the UK. In doing so, it may then be able to post content under the terms of the exemption. Indeed, this exemption risks paving the way for a catastrophic scenario in which, on account of this exemption, the UK becomes less safe. It is critical that the Government listen and engage with these concerns.

Amendment 124 seeks to ensure that newspaper comment sections are properly regulated. Anyone can be a target of hatred in a newspaper comment section, but they are most likely to have Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic content. Without the amendment, the Bill’s provisions on the media will endanger those it is intended to protect. These amendments propose a compromise which is the right approach and will ensure that people are protected from abuse while also retaining the media exemption for responsible newspaper publishers. I hope the Government will engage more on these matters and work towards a solution.

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour

My Lords, I regret that my noble friend Lord Lipsey is unable to be here. I wish him and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, well. I also regret that my noble friend Lord Stevenson is not here to wind up this debate and introduce his Amendment 127. Our inability to future-proof these proceedings means that, rather than talking to the next group, I am talking to this one.

I want to make four principal points. First, the principle of press freedom, as discussed by the noble Lords, Lord Black and Lord Faulks, in particular, is an important one. We do not think that this is the right Bill to reopen those issues. We look forward to the media Bill as the opportunity to discuss these things more fully across the House.

Secondly, I have some concerns about the news publisher exemption. In essence, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, set out, as long as you have a standards code, a complaints process, a UK address and a team of contributors, the exemption applies. That feels a bit loose to me, and it opens up the regime to some abuse. I hear what the noble Baronesses, Lady Gohir and Lady Grey-Thompson, said about how we already see pretty dodgy outfits allowing racist and abusive content to proliferate. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on whether the bar we have at the moment is too low and whether there is some reflection to be done on that.

The third point is on my noble friend Lord Stevenson’s Amendment 127, which essentially says that we should set a threshold around whether complaints are dealt with in a timely manner. In laying that amendment, my noble friend essentially wanted to probe. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is here, so this is a good chance to have him listen to me say that we think that complaints should be dealt with more swiftly and that the organisation that he chairs could do better at dealing with that.

My fourth comment is about comments, particularly after listening to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, about some of the hateful comment that is hidden away inside the comments that news publishers carry. I was very much struck by what she said in respect of some of the systems of virality that are now being adopted by those platforms. There, I think Amendment 227 is tempting. I heard what the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, said, and I think I agree that this is better addressed by Parliament.

For me, that just reinforces the need for this Bill, more than any other that I have ever worked on in this place, to have post-legislative scrutiny by Parliament so that we, as a Parliament, can review whether the regime we are setting up is running appropriately. It is such a novel regime, in particular around regulating algorithms and artificial intelligence. It would be an opportunity to see whether, in this case, the systems of virality were creating an amplification of harm away from the editorial function that the news publishers are able to exercise over the comments.

On that basis, and given the hour, I am happy to listen with care to the wise words of the Minister.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I join noble Lords who have sent their best wishes to the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord McNally.

His Majesty’s Government are committed to defending the invaluable role of a free media. We are clear that our online safety legislation must protect the vital role of the press in providing people with reliable and accurate information.

We have included strong protections for news publishers’ and journalistic content in the Bill, which extends to the exemption from the Bill’s safety duties for users’ comments and reviews on news publishers’ sites. This reflects a wider exemption for comments and reviews on provider content more generally. For example, reviews of products on retailers’ sites are also exempt from regulation. This is designed to avoid disproportionate regulatory burden on low-risk services.

Amendment 124 intends to modify that exemption, so that the largest news websites no longer benefit and are subject to the Bill’s regulatory regime. Below-the-line comments are crucial for enabling reader engagement with the news and encouraging public debate, as well as for the sustainability—and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, put it, the accountability—of the news media. We do not consider it proportionate, necessary or compatible with our commitment to press freedom to subject these comment sections to oversight by Ofcom.

We recognise that there can sometimes be unpleasant or abusive below-the-line comments. We have carefully considered the risks of this exemption against the need to protect freedom of speech and media freedoms on matters of public interest. Although comment functions will not be subject to online regulation, I reassure the Members of the Committee who raised concerns about some of the comments which have attracted particular attention that sites hosting such comments can, in some circumstances, be held liable for any illegal content appearing on them, where they have actual knowledge of the content in question and fail to remove it expeditiously.

The strong protections for recognised news publishers in the Bill include exempting their content from the Bill’s safety duties, requiring category 1 platforms to notify recognised news publishers and to offer a right of appeal before removing or moderating any of their content. Clause 50 stipulates the clear criteria that publishers will have to meet to be considered a “recognised news publisher” and to benefit from those protections. When drafting these criteria, the Government have been careful to ensure that established news publishers are captured, while limiting the opportunity for bad actors to qualify.

Amendment 126 seeks to restrict the criteria for recognised news publishers in the Bill, so that only members of an approved regulator within the meaning of Section 42 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 benefit from the protections offered by the Bill. This would create strong incentives for publishers to join specific press regulators. We do not consider this to be compatible with our commitment to a free press. We will repeal existing legislation that could have that effect, specifically Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, through the media Bill, as noble Lords have noted, which has recently been published. Without wanting to make a rod for my own back when we come to that Bill, I agree with my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood that it would be the opportunity to have this debate, if your Lordships so wished.

The current effect of this amendment would be to force all news publishers to join a single press regulator—namely Impress, the only UK regulator which has sought approval by the Press Recognition Panel—if they were to benefit from the exclusion for recognised news publishers. Requiring a publisher to join specific regulators is, in the view of His Majesty’s Government, not only incompatible with protecting press freedom in the UK but unnecessary given the range of detailed criteria which a publisher must meet to qualify for the additional protections, as set out in Clause 50 of the Bill.

As part of our commitment to media freedom, we are committed to independent self-regulation of the press. As I have indicated, Clause 50 stipulates the clear criteria which publishers will have to meet to be considered a “recognised news publisher” and to benefit from the protections in the Bill. One of those criteria is for entities to have policies and procedures for handling and resolving complaints. Amendment 127 from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, adds a requirement that these policies and procedures must cover handling and resolving complaints “in a timely manner”. To include such a requirement will place the responsibility on Ofcom to decide what constitutes “timely”, and, in effect, put it in the position of press regulator. That is not something that we would like. We believe that the criteria set out in Clause 50 are already strong, and we have taken significant care to ensure that established news publishers are captured, while limiting the opportunity for bad actors to benefit.

I turn now to Amendment 227. We recognise that, as legislation comes into force, it will be necessary to ensure that the protections we have put in place for journalistic and news publisher content are effective. We need to ensure that the regulatory framework does not hinder access to such content, particularly in the light of the fact that, in the past, news content has sometimes been removed or made less visible by social media moderators or algorithms for unclear reasons, often at the height of news cycles. That is why we have required Ofcom to produce a specific report, under Clause 144, assessing the impact of the Bill on the availability and treatment of news publisher and journalistic content on category 1 services.

Amendment 227 would require Ofcom’s report also to assess the impact that the recognised news publisher exemption and journalistic content duties have on the efficacy of the new online safety regulatory framework, and

“the securing of public safety from online harms”.

The Bill currently requires the Secretary of State to review the regulatory framework established by the Bill at least two years after it comes into force, as set out in Clause 159. This review will encompass the elements that these amendments seek to assess, because it requires an evaluation of how effective the new regulatory framework is at minimising the risk of harm to people in the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State must consult Ofcom in producing this report, as well as any other persons she considers appropriate. Any concerns about the recognised news publisher and journalistic content exemptions can be brought to the Secretary of State’s attention in the course of this review. Requiring Ofcom also to assess these factors in the production of its report under Clause 144 would therefore be duplicative. On that basis, I hope the noble Lord will be willing to—

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour 10:30, 23 May 2023

Before the Minister closes his folder and sits down, perhaps I could say that I listened carefully and would just like him to reflect a little more for us on my question of whether the bar is set too low and there is too much wriggle room in the exemption around news publishers. A tighter definition might be something that would benefit the Bill and the improvement of the Bill when we come back to it on Report.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

Looking at the length of Clause 50—and I note that the noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, made much the same point in his speech—I think the definitions set out in Clause 50 are extensive. Clause 50(1) sets out a number of recognised news publishers, obviously including

“the British Broadcasting Corporation, Sianel Pedwar Cymru”— self-evidently, as well as

“the holder of a licence under the Broadcasting Act 1990 or 1996” or

“any other entity which … meets all of the conditions in subsection (2), and … is not an excluded entity” as set out in subsection (3). Subsection (2) sets out a number of specific criteria which I think capture the recognised news publishers we want to see.

Noble Lords will be aware of the further provisions we have brought forward to make sure that entities that are subject to a sanction are not able to qualify, such as—

Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

I think it is actually quite important that there is—to use the language of the Bill—a risk assessment around the notion that people might game it. I thought the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, made a very good point. People are very inventive and, if you have ever engaged with the people who run some of those big US misinformation sites—let us just call them that—you will know that they have very inventive, very clever people. They will be looking at this legislation and if they figure out that by opening a UK office and ticking all the boxes they will now get some sorts of privileges in terms of distributing their misinformation around the world, they will do it. They will try it, so I certainly think it is worth there being at least some kind of risk assessment against that happening.

In two years’ time we will be able to see whether the bad thing happened, but whether or not it is the Minister having a conversation with Ofcom now, I just think that forewarned is forearmed. We know that that is a possibility and it would be helpful for some work to be done now to make sure that that is not a loophole that none of us want, I think.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

I am mindful of the examples the noble Lord gave in his speech. Looking at some of the provisions set out in subsection (2) about a body being

“subject to a standards code” or having

“policies and procedures for handling and resolving complaints”,

I think on first response that those examples he gave would be covered. But I will certainly take on board the comments he made and those the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, made as well and reflect on them. I hope—

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

On a final point of clarification, in contrast, I think the exemption may be too narrow, not too broad. With the emergence of blogs and different kinds of news organisations—I think the noble Lord, Lord Allan, described well the complexity of what we have—and some of the grimmer, grosser examples of people who might play the system, does the Minister acknowledge that that might be dealt with by the kind of exemptions that have been used for RT? When somebody is really an extremist representative of, I do not know, ISIS, pretending to be a media organisation, the sensible thing to do would be to exempt them, rather than to overtighten the exemptions, so that new, burgeoning, widely read online publications can have press freedom protection.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

I will certainly take on board the points the noble Baroness raises. Hearing representations in both directions on the point would, on first consideration, reassure me that we have it right, but I will certainly take on board the points which the noble Baroness, the noble Lord and others have raised in our debate on this. As the noble Lord, Lord Allan, suggests, I will take the opportunity to discuss it with Ofcom, as we will do on many of the issues which we are discussing in this Committee, to make sure that its views are taken on board before we return to these and other issues on Report.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his responses to the number of different issues that he has been asked about after he sat down, so to speak, which I think have been taken on board. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Gohir and Lady Grey-Thompson, and the noble Lord, Lord Allan, for their support for these amendments.

It is also a pleasure to see the noble Lord, Lord Black, who has clearly been lured out at this late hour—perhaps not so unwillingly; it gives him a chance to rehearse some of the arguments for the media Bill coming down the track. Along with the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, I am sure he will enjoy the media Bill when it comes. I had many happy hours sitting next door to the noble Lord, Lord Black, on the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, on which I may say that we agreed on most things.

But the fact is that one person’s strong exemptions is another person’s special privileges, and that very much applies in these circumstances as regards what I think the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, would call the mainstream media. I enjoyed what the noble Baroness had to say, because she came round to some kind of agreement at the end on what we might call mainstream media exceptionalism, which is a fair description. There is an element of cakeism about the way that the mainstream media seem to want to have it.

The Minister talked about low-risk services, and I think that was the reason why we had these questions asked about risk assessment. How does the Minister know that these below-the-line comments sections are low-risk unless a risk assessment has been made? We heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady Grey-Thompson and Lady Gohir, about the content of some of those comments sections. That does not sound low-risk to me at all, and I think that is the basis of their support for the amendments. When the Minister says it is not proportionate to regulate these comments sections, he is assuming they are low-risk services without much evidence. He threw a small bone by saying that sites can be held liable for illegal content, but that is a relatively small bone in those circumstances.

I took some comfort from the way that the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, talked about the need for constant evaluation. Perish the thought, but we may well need an online safety Bill number 2; I just hope it is not too soon and that we have time for a little evaluation of how this Bill operates. That is why I am pretty keen that we should get this Bill into the best possible shape.

I thought what the noble Lord, Lord Knight, had to say about post-legislative scrutiny was very apposite, but the hour is late so I will not go through too many other aspects of this. This has been a good debate. I hope the media Bill is not déjà vu all over again, but we will see what happens when we get to it. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 124 withdrawn.

House resumed.