Culture Secretary says ‘more to come’ from online safety proposals

The Government is preparing further proposals on the regulation of online content, including around the use of political advertising, Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright has said.

Speaking on the day the Government published its white paper around online harms, which proposes new measures to regulate internet companies who do not adequately protect their users, Mr Wright confirmed the Government was also looking into online political advertising practices.

Concerns have been raised about the use of advertising networks on some social media platforms to aid election interference and spread disinformation.

“It is important to recognise that this white paper is a part of the Government’s response to a number of challenges the online world presents us with, and what people will see very shortly is further work coming from the Cabinet Office that deals with some of the challenges to our democracy that the online world presents,” Mr Wright told the Press Association.

“So no one should imagine that this white paper is the sum total of what the Government is saying. There will be more to come.”

The Culture Secretary also responded to suggestions that the list of proposals in the white paper were too broad to effectively implement and regulate.

They suggest the introduction of a statutory duty of care for internet companies, as well as codes of practice and requirements to respond to user complaints, with firms facing the prospect of large fines if they breach these rules.

The white paper also calls for the appointment of an independent regulator to enforce the new guidelines.

“I’m sure that people will be able to find things on that list that they think are excessive, but also I’m sure there will be people who will say ‘why haven’t we got x, y or z’ on the list,” he said.

“That list isn’t static, it may change over time because one of the things about the internet we all recognise is that it moves fast. So it’s important that the regulator has flexibility to address new harms.

“It’s important too that online companies, who can see those new harms perhaps emerging more quickly than a regulator would be able to, remember that their duty of care applies not just to those things there is a code of practice about, but also more broadly to other things that they need to do to keep their users safe.”

Concerns have also been raised over how the rules could impact freedom of expression and speech online, with parts of the proposals suggesting companies should be pushed to more aggressively find and remove material classed as disinformation.

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, warned the rules could amount to a form of censorship.

“The creation of new regulations to protect the vulnerable in society as outlined by the Secretary of State should be and will be broadly welcomed by anyone who feels the digital sphere has become too lawless,” he said.

“But the devil is always in the detail and where the white paper moves into areas concerning the spread of misinformation – so-called fake news – we should all be concerned.

“Who will decide what is fake news? This form of censorship in the hands of those who would shackle the press and curtail freedom of expression would be disastrous for our free society.

“There is no use pretending there are not politicians who wish to silence some debates who would use this as a weapon if permitted.”

Mr Wright said freedom of speech was “important”, and a key task for the new regulator would be to maintain respect for freedom of speech as well as preventing harm.

“Balancing those two out will be the day-to-day work of the regulator,” he said.

“But it is, I think, perfectly feasible for us to promote freedom of speech, as we should, to make sure the internet is open to a whole variety of different viewpoints – we all want that to continue – but also to make sure that some of the most pernicious harms, that would be controlled in any other environment, are also controlled online.

“That’s what this white paper is designed to achieve.”

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