Clause 15 - Duties to protect content of democratic importance

Part of Online Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 7th June 2022.

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Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:45 pm, 7th June 2022

I will speak to clauses 15 and 16 and to new clause 7. The duties outlined in the clause, alongside clause 16, require platforms to have special terms and processes for handling journalistic and democratically important content. In respect of journalistic content, platforms are also required to provide an expedited appeals process for removed posts, and terms specifying how they will define journalistic content. There are, however, widespread concerns about both those duties.

As the Bill stands, we feel that there is too much discretion for platforms. They are required to define “journalistic” content, a role that they are completely unsuited to and, from what I can gather, do not want. In addition, the current drafting leaves the online space open to abuse. Individuals intent on causing harm are likely to apply to take advantage of either of those duties; masquerading as journalists or claiming democratic importance in whatever harm they are causing, and that could apply to almost anything. In the evidence sessions, we also heard about the concerns expressed brilliantly by Kyle Taylor from Fair Vote and Ellen Judson from Demos, that the definitions as they stand in the Bill thus far are broad and vague. However, we will come on to those matters later.

Ultimately, treating “journalistic” and “democratically important” content differently is unworkable, leaving platforms to make impossible judgments over, for example, when and for how long an issue becomes a matter of reasonable public debate, or in what settings a person is acting as a journalist. As the Minister knows, the duties outlined in the clause could enable a far-right activist who was standing in an election, or potentially even just supporting candidates in elections, to use all social media platforms. That might allow far-right figures to be re-platformed on to social media sites where they would be free to continue spreading hate.

The Bill indicates that content will be protected if created by a political party ahead of a vote in Parliament, an election or a referendum, or when campaigning on a live political issue—basically, anything. Can the Minister confirm whether the clause means that far-right figures who have been de-platformed for hate speech already must be reinstated if they stand in an election? Does that include far-right or even neo-Nazi political parties? Content and accounts that have been de-platformed from mainstream platforms for breaking terms of service should not be allowed to return to those platforms via this potential—dangerous—loophole.

As I have said, however, I know that these matters are complex and, quite rightly, exemptions must be in place to allow for free discussion around matters of the day. What cannot be allowed to perpetuate is hate sparked by bad actors using simple loopholes to avoid any consequences.

On clause 16, the Minister knows about the important work that Hope not Hate is doing in monitoring key far-right figures. I pay tribute to it for its excellent work. Many of them self-define as journalists and could seek to exploit this loophole in the Bill and propagate hate online. Some of the most high-profile and dangerous far-right figures in the UK, including Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson, now class themselves as journalists. There are also far-right and conspiracy-theory so-called “news companies” such as Rebel Media and Urban Scoop. Both those replicate mainstream news publishers, but are used to spread misinformation and discriminatory content. Many of those individuals and organisations have been de-platformed already for consistently breaking the terms of service of major social media platforms, and the exemption could see them demand their return and have their return allowed.

New clause 7 would require the Secretary of State to publish a report reviewing the effectiveness of clauses 15 and 16. It is a simple new clause to require parliamentary scrutiny of how the Government’s chosen means of protecting content of democratic importance and content of journalistic content are working.

Hacked Off provided me with a list of people it found who have claimed to be journalists and who would seek to exploit the journalistic content duty, despite being banned from social media because they are racists or bad actors. First is Charles C. Johnson, a far-right activist who describes himself as an “investigative journalist”. Already banned from Twitter for saying he would “take out” a civil rights activist, he is also alleged to be a holocaust denier.