Downing Street is finalising plans for internet giants to be forced to safeguard reputable journalism, as Ministers prepare to introduce new laws to purge the internet of offensive material such as suicide footage and terrorists’ beheading videos.
Under the new Online Safety Bill, companies such as Google and Facebook would be expected to exempt content from legitimate publications such as The Mail on Sunday and MailOnline when they perform their duty under the legislation to remove articles that they judge to be ‘harmful’.
Government sources insist that the threat of penalties, possibly running into millions of pounds, should prevent the tech companies ‘acting as judge and jury’ on news coverage and comment by reputable news publishers.
Under the new Online Safety Bill, companies such as Google and Facebook would be expected to exempt content from legitimate publications which are judged to be harmful
However, media executives who have been consulted over the proposals are understood to have told the Government that they ‘lack teeth’ because there is no cast-iron legal obligation on the internet companies to refrain from ‘censoring’ their content – just a right for the publishers to appeal to the regulator Ofcom after the event.
Under the plans being drafted by officials working for Minister for Media and Data John Whittingdale, there will be an expectation that the internet companies will not interfere with news publishers’ content once the bill becomes law, unlike other online content, which they will have to monitor and if necessary remove under threat of draconian penalties.
But nor would there be a blanket ban on them doing so, as long as they comply with new requirements to safeguard journalistic content. It is not yet clear what form those safeguards will take.
News industry executives are concerned that stories published legitimately in a newspaper like The Mail on Sunday could be prevented from appearing online by American-owned internet companies, with a state-backed regulator acting as court of appeal.
Boris Johnson has discussed with aides whether the bill could be adapted to limit the ability of companies such as Twitter and Facebook to censor politicians
They point to an incident earlier this year when TalkRadio was removed from Google-owned YouTube following an automated ruling that it had breached Google guidelines against contradicting official Covid policy. The radio station was later reinstated.
It has also been suggested that Google manipulates its search algorithms to favour Left-leaning outlets such as the BBC and The Guardian.
Boris Johnson has discussed with aides whether the bill could be adapted to limit the ability of companies such as Twitter and Facebook to censor politicians, after the social media platforms applied warning labels to 65 tweets by Donald Trump during the US presidential election but none to those from Joe Biden. Mr Johnson described it privately as ‘limiting the ability of a bunch of woke Californians to interfere in the UK’.
Plans have been drafted by officials working for Minister for Media and Data John Whittingdale
It comes as news publishers are also locked in dispute with the internet companies over payments for the content they distribute: last month, following a stand-off with Facebook, the Australian government watered down laws forcing the tech giants to pay for news. It was announced last year that a new watchdog, the Digital Markets Unit, will be given powers to levy large fines on online companies to stop customers or companies being treated unfairly and to make firms give smaller rivals access to their vast troves of data. The unit will become fully operational by next year, as part of the Competition and Markets Authority.
The CMA has called for stronger powers over Google and Facebook to address their unassailable positions in digital advertising and social media.
A Government source said: ‘Companies such as Facebook will be under a duty to safeguard legitimate journalism, and to distinguish between, for example, terrorist propaganda on the one hand and the reputable coverage of atrocities on the other. If they don’t, Ofcom will be there to force them.’
A news industry source said: ‘The news publishers exemption is very welcome, but we believe that there should be an automatic exemption, without room for argument and backed by heavy penalties.’