Peter Wright gives evidence over new Online Safety Bill

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News organisations such as MailOnline should be given a ‘positive exemption’ from the provisions of the new Online Safety Bill, an industry representative said today.

Peter Wright, editor emeritus of DMG Media, said social media platforms should not moderate journalistic content when it is produced by ‘recognised news publishers’.

He told a Parliamentary committee that he was ‘hugely sceptical’ about Facebook’s teams of fact checkers with some appearing to be ‘single-issue lobby groups’.

Speaking to the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, he also pointed out that Google and Facebook’s algorithms and artificial intelligence are ‘very poor’.

Mr Wright added DMG’s titles including MailOnline were already ‘fully subject to the law’ and there could be a case where it is following the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) code of conduct but breaking a US tech firm’s terms of service.

He wants a positive exemption for journalism from the provisions of the bill, which aims to establish a new regulatory framework to tackle harmful content online.

Facebook and Google will fall within the scope of the new bill, which will give UK regulator Ofcom the power to hand out multi-million pound fines to tech companies.

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Mr Wright was asked today about whether the protection given to journalistic organisations from the duty of care principles within the bill was sufficient.

He said: ‘My reading of the bill is that we’re protected in the first case by the fact that the duty of care does not apply to our content, both on our own websites but also when it’s distributed on search and social media, so there’s no obligation on the platforms to censor our content.

Social media bosses face tough criminal sanctions for hosting extremist content 

Social media bosses could face ‘criminal sanctions with tough sentences’ if they allow extremist content to appear on their platforms, Boris Johnson said yesterday.

He told MPs that the forthcoming Online Safety Bill would tackle web giants if they allow ‘foul content’ to circulate.

And he promised the long-awaited legislation would make quick progress in the Commons, with the bill receiving its second reading before Christmas.

But a Whitehall source later said the second reading might not take place until early next year.

Published in May, the draft bill gives regulator Ofcom the power to impose multibillion-pound fines on technology giants that fail to show a duty of care to users.

But it stops short of bringing criminal sanctions against bosses. 

Instead, a new criminal offence for managers has been included as a deferred power that can be introduced if Ofcom finds that firms are failing to keep to their new responsibilities.

Some campaigners have raised fears that the rules risk stifling the free press, ‘silencing marginalised voices’ and introducing ‘state-backed censorship’.

‘However, the problem comes because there is also no compulsion on them not to, and clearly the authors of the bill envisage that they will block and take down items of content because the journalistic protections are there.

‘And the journalistic protections specifically apply to news publisher content, so we have to look at the journalistic protections and ask how effective they are, and in my view they’re not effective.’

He added that the moderation of content by social media firms will be done by algorithm, and the bill puts them under threat of possible criminal penalties.

Mr Wright continued: ‘And their inevitable response to that will be to set the parameters of any moderation they do as widely as possible. It’s human nature – they’ll want to protect themselves. So they’ll be using a very blunt instrument. 

‘I saw in Google’s submission, they say their algorithms are very poor at understanding context, they’re going to find moderating journalism particularly difficult.

‘And we also know from articles in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend that Facebook’s artificial intelligence is very poor at actually moderating this type of content. But what does the bill demand of them? That they take freedom of expression into account? 

‘Well, that can mean almost anything. It’s left to the platforms to determine how they do this, what rules they set.’

The Wall Street Journal claimed that documents revealed Facebook’s artificial intelligence cannot consistently identify first-person shooting videos, racist rants and even the difference between cockfighting and car crashes.

Mr Wright continued: ‘From what I’ve seen of how Facebook have been trying to moderate journalism in the USA – where they’re doing it for completely different reasons, they had an advertiser boycott last year, which has prompted them to do this – it’s arbitrary, it often fails to understand the nature of the content, it’s imposed without any sort of process, it is not in line with English legal thinking on journalism, which is that the editor must take responsibility for what he or she publishes, and pay the consequences afterwards.

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‘It’s blocking before people have had an opportunity to read it. And they also outsource their decisions to fact checkers of which there are large numbers, and some of which appear to be single-issue lobby groups under another guise.

Scandal-hit Facebook ‘planning to change its name’

Facebook is set to unveil a major rebrand in a bid to put recent scandals over its social media platforms behind it.

Founder Mark Zuckerberg is said to be planning a new name for the tech giant, which owns Instagram and Whatsapp.

A holding company is expected to be created to encompass the firms it has taken over in recent years, with the Facebook app retaining its name.

Facebook is under pressure after leaked internal research revealed bosses knew its platforms were fuelling hate and worsening teenagers’ mental health. 

And at the US Congress this month, a former worker accused the firm of prioritising ‘astronomical’ profits over user safety. The multi-billion pound company is also facing investigations from regulators in the UK, US and the European Union over its market dominance.

Yesterday Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority fined it £50million for ‘deliberate failure’ to comply with a probe into its takeover of the Giphy website.

Mr Zuckerberg will discuss the rebrand at the company’s Connect conference on October 28, tech website The Verge said.

It is believed the new name could be Horizon – a word used in two virtual reality products Facebook is developing. But it remained tight-lipped, saying it ‘doesn’t comment on rumour’.

‘So I’m hugely sceptical about this and in my view the exemption needs to be made a positive exemption so that the duty of care obliges platforms not to moderate journalistic content when it’s produced by recognised news publishers, for which there is a very good definition in the bill.’

Speaking about the issues this raises in terms of where content could be deemed to fall within one set of policies set by Ipso, but breach another set by Facebook, Mr Wright added: ‘We’re fully subject to the law. We are also subject to regulation in the case of our company, our titles are regulated by Ipso, our journalists are obliged to follow a code of conduct.

‘Other companies have slightly different arrangements – the Guardian follows the same code of conduct as us but isn’t a member of Ipso.

‘Redress is available. We employ trained journalists, we have teams of lawyers, we are not the problem this bill is trying to address – and enormous energy has been spent over the last decade debating regulation of the Press, and enormous energy continues to go into refining and improving defamation law, so all the necessary procedures for dealing with journalistic content when produced by proper, responsible news publishers is in place.

‘And this raises the danger of setting up an entirely separate and different system of regulation.’

Former minister David Davis warned in June that the Online Safety Bill will be ‘catastrophic’ for ordinary people’s freedom of speech.

The Conservative MP said forcing social networks to take down content in Britain they deem unacceptable ‘seems out of Orwell’s 1984’.

Mr Davis, 72, slammed the idea Silicon Valley firms could take down posts they think are ‘not politically correct – even though it is legal’.

The backbencher’s calls were echoed by the Index on Censorship magazine and a top media barrister Gavin Millar QC who launched the ‘Legal to Say. Legal to Type’ campaign to scrutinise and push back against the bill.

It hands more power to Ofcom, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and social media platforms to regulate what news users see on social media.

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It says platforms have a duty to protect journalistic content but can still take down or block content if it generates complaints.

Ofcom will be in charge of regulating social media firms, with the power to issue fines up to £18million and block access for repeat offences.

The aim is to make Britain one of the safest places to be online in the world – especially for children.

But its implications for the press have prompted a backlash from free-speech campaigners, civil liberties groups and media organisations. 

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Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen will give evidence to the same committee on October 25, after her bombshell testimony to the US Congress on October 5.

Miss Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, has been invited to help inform the committee in how they will shape the bill.

Earlier this month she went before Congress in Washington DC to accuse the social media platform of failing to make changes to Instagram, which it owns.

She said internal research had showed its apparent harm to some teenagers and claimed Facebook was being dishonest in its public fight against hate and misinformation.

MailOnline has contacted Facebook and Google for comment this afternoon. 

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