The Mail on Sunday

Tory’s censorship warning over new online regulator


A GOVERNMENT clampdown on social media risks ‘giving succour to Britain’s enemies’ such as Russia, a former Culture Secretary warns today.

Tory grandee John Whittingda­le spoke out as Home Secretary Sajid Javid prepares to unveil in a White Paper tomorrow plans to tackle extreme material on the internet, including images of terrorism and child abuse.

A new online regulator would make the bosses of companies such as Facebook or Instagram personally liable to be fined, prosecuted or even blocked from operating in Britain.

Ministers insist protection­s for the press will be written into the legislatio­n. But critics fear the scope of a planned new regulator, dubbed Ofweb, risks hampering genuine news websites and responsibl­e online forums such as TripAdviso­r and Mumsnet, and crippling small firms with red tape.

Mr Whittingda­le says the sweeping measures that will give firms a ‘legal duty of care’ to protect users risk dragging British citizens into a ‘draconian censorship regime’.

And he warns undemocrat­ic nations could use the UK’s actions as an excuse to further censor their own citizens.

In an article for The Mail on Sunday, he says: ‘Countries like China, Russia and North Korea, which allow no political dissent and deny their people freedom of speech, are also keen to i mpose censorship online, just as they already do on traditiona­l media. This mooted new UK regulator must not give the despots an excuse to claim that they are simply following an example set by Britain, where civil liberties were first entrenched in Magna Carta 800 years ago.’

But Security Minister Ben Wallace hit back, saying tech giants have been unaccounta­ble for too long. He said: ‘It is time to put our children’s and society’s security before the needs of Silicon Valley billionair­es and corporates who for too long have avoided taking their fair share of responsibi­lity for the horrors broadcast over their web services.

‘This White Paper seeks to preserve the freedoms of the web while those who control it take more responsibi­lity.’

But as we revealed in January, the plans have been hampered by Whitehall infighting.

Decisions on how the regulator will be funded, and whether it will be an expansion of Ofcom – which regulates the airwaves – or a new government body, have been put off until after a public consultati­on.

The regulator has also become a political football among contenders for the Tory leadership, with Health Secretary Matthew Hancock accused of trying to ‘muscle in on the process’ to win over party members who are parents. One source said: ‘Matt’s been trying to get all over this.’

There have also been battles between the Home Office and Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright, who has tried to limit the powers of the regulator in order to protect Britain’s own booming tech sector.

Last night, Mr Javid said: ‘Illegal terrorist content and child sexual exploitati­on and abuse has absolutely no place in society… and it shocks me that it is still too readily available online. Our new proposals will protect UK citizens and ensure tech firms will no longer be able to ignore their responsibi­lities.’

But the Institute of Economic Affairs think-tank said: ‘Granting the Government power to dictate what content is or isn’t appropriat­e for people to see sets an extremely dangerous precedent. Instead, more selfregula­tion should be encouraged to tackle the issue.

‘These draconian regulation­s will do more harm than good, ushering in new levels of censorship and killing innovation along the way.’

A Government source said the public consultati­on exercise around the new regulator will settle any concerns and ‘safeguards’ would be built in to protect press freedom.

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