Poorly defined ‘media exemptions’ hamper the online safety bill’s potential

A fascist terrorist opened fire at a Buffalo supermarket last weekend, injuring three more people and killing 10 others. The attacker, following the footsteps of previous terrorists, streamed the attack live online and published a manifesto.

Twitch was the Amazon-owned platform that the killer used to broadcast his murderous rampage. However copies were made quickly and shared across other social media platforms. Similarly, the killer’s racist manifesto was irresponsibly shared widely.

As is the case with many other events, major tech platforms are again being questioned about their ability and effectiveness to reduce the spread of harmful content. After years of failures and broken promises from the tech industry, there is now a consensus that it is time for serious regulation of online space.

In the UK, the Online Safety bill is currently passing through parliament, a welcome though imperfect piece of legislation being lauded by the government as “world-leading,” with claims that it will make the UK the “safest place in the world” to go online.


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It is vital that legislation protects freedom speech and free media. However, there are a few exemptions that are not well thought out and could compromise the effectiveness of the entire bill.

Exemptions for News Publishers

At present, the bill includes a “media exemption” that means social media platforms are exempt from having to take any action around safety duties relating to news publishers’ content. The bill’s current criteria for what qualifies as a legitimate publisher of news is arbitrary. Worryingly, it is also very easy to meet.

At present, state-run purveyors of propaganda and misinformation such as the Kremlin-backed Russia Today or Iran’s Press TV would qualify for the exemption. Even explicitly far-right media outlets like Tommy Robinson’s Urban Scoop, Alex Jones’ Infowars, Rebel Media or Breitbart News could qualify with just a few alterations to meet the criteria. The Online Safety bill could paradoxically increase harmful content’s prevalence rather than decrease it.

Things could get worse. Speaking on ITV’s This Morning, Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary responsible for this bill, said, “What this bill does, if those platforms remove something which a journalist or a news outlet puts online, they have to notify that journalist that they’re about to remove that content, they have to say why they’re going to remove it, and they have to give the journalist the right to appeal, and the content remains online while that happens.”

Like the Buffalo attack, the Christchurch Mosque gunman also live-streamed and published a manifesto. The Daily Mirror and The Daily Mail both published edited versions on their websites of the massacre, while the Mail made the entire manifesto available for download. This is a shocking act of irresponsibility. If Nadine Dowries wins, social media platforms won’t be able quickly to remove links to download terrorist documents or videos of Muslims being murdered, because they have been published in a recognized news source.

Exemption for Journalistic Content

The bill also includes an ill-defined exemption for “journalistic content” – content “generated for the purposes of journalism” – which affords an expedited complaints procedure for journalists.

This is especially concerning as many high-profile far-right leaders, including Tommy Robinson (AKA Stephen Yaxley Lennon), self-define their roles as journalists. It is possible that far-right extremists who have been deplatformed on major social media platforms will try to take advantage of this exemption to regain their online presence.

However, content deemed to be “journalism” shouldn’t be afforded additional protections to content produced by everyone else. The OSB already provides a number of strong protections to ensure free speech. So why should people with press cards need more protection than those without?

Many will remember Katie Hopkins’ article in The Sun which branded migrants as “cockroaches” that spread “like norovirus on a cruise ship” or when Rod Liddle, writing in the Sunday Times, suggested extremists should blow themselves up in London’s Tower Hamlets away “from where the rest of us live”.

There was a time when you had to stand at a far-right demonstration in a rainy car park to hear speeches about a supposed migrant invasion of Europe designed to replace the “indigenous” population of the West. Now you can watch clips of Fox News host Tucker Carlson spreading the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory shared on social media. The racist conspiracy theory that inspired the Buffalo shooter should not be protected on social media simply because it is espoused by a “journalist” like Carlson.

There is also the issue that mainstream media and broadcasters give airtime to far-right figures that are banned on social networking platforms. Last year talkRadio tweeted a clip of the far-right “migrant hunter” Steve Laws, while GB News platformed the anti-vaxxer Mike Yeadon.

Naïve?

A charitable view is that these exemptions are well meaning but naïve. They rely on the comforting but incorrect assumption that prejudice and discrimination are confined to the margins of our society, and that hateful content is only produced and disseminated by “extremists” or the far-right. Social media is filled with harmful content that comes from many sources, including far-right extremists and established news publishers.

It is vital that any regulation of the internet space adequately protects freedoms of expression, our free press, and that these exemptions are carefully considered will severely hamper the effectiveness of legislation that has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make the internet safer, less harmful, and more diverse for all of us.

Racism is racism. It can be embraced by anyone. Content should be judged based on its potential to cause harm online and not by its creator.