Press Regulator… Internet Censorship… Demise of Free Speech

The British government has recently come under pressure to ensure that the press hacking scandals do not reoccur. After Lord Levesons report during which major newspapers were discovered to have hacked, breached and stalked their way through the mobiles and emails of several ‘a-list’ celebrities and public figures, the press and government have been at gunpoint. But most shockingly the truth became known the former newspaper – The News of the World – did also hack into and delete voice mails off the mobile of lost school girl Milly Dowler – vital police evidence. The UK Government has this week began to draft a proposal that would instate a ‘Press Regulator’ to prevent the immoral and unlawful activities that took place at the News of the World and others papers several years ago. The Royal Charter has been agreed by all parties – which is a surprising rarity and has been called for by hacking victims – but newspapers will not be the only subject of scrutiny.

The internet has, for a long time, been a refuge and place where bloggers and users alike could vent their thoughts and imageadmiration without worry of repercussions from the long arm of the law. The internet has bred a generation of enthusiasts that have taken part in the digital revolution – each and everyone will tell you how the web has provided a staple for society – the most influential progression of man made communication since the type writer or printing press. Utopian optimists have for a long time believed the web to be a cyberspace untouchable by the ‘dreary’ and ‘draconian’ tentacles of government and declared it a ” the new home of Mind“. Nevertheless, today, these optimists have been proved wrong. The Government, described in an early free speech campaign as “weary giants of flesh and steel”, have proven to be harder to suppress than previously thought. Current plans to enforce an independent regulator upon the press will inflict the freedom of speech for millions online. Only a couple of years ago would internet censorship and press regulation have been laughed out of parliament, the shear size of the internet would have put off any controlling authoritarian policing. But now they are even more willing to use the new technologies at their disposal. I can discuss internet censorship and infringement of free speech and you may be mistaken for be to be describing a country such as China, Iran or Russia – however ‘luckily’ for us we will soon be able to experience the full force of internet and press censorship at home.

The liberal dreams that the early developers of the web had imagined now seem a fragile illusion. After the recent scandals of newspapers such as the News of the World the whole body of Internet freedom and free speech will face persecution from the proposed regulator. The governments proposal for a new regulator would infringe basic principles of our society. An essence of propaganda is a foot – politicians, by focusing the public attention on the harshness of the media scandals, have managed to delude and avoid the fact they would be applying dictatorship like legislation and control over forms of ‘free’ media. To an extent that they have also deluded themselves. In any way or matter do I not endorse the actions of these tabloids but I note the politicians and government discussing “press regulation” and control in a tone of pre-Internet connected age.

I do not believe the government have set out to hijack or impose upon Internet freedom – but in their naivety have singled out and alienated a branch of freedom and social justice. The actions of the News of the World and others alike where startling and should be prevented from reoccurring. But the governments current take on regulating the press remains to be unpopular, unworkable and wrong. The Draft Royal Charter has already stated that bodies of “relevant publishers” will be requested to sign up – and later define these publishers as

“relevant publisher” means a person (other than a broadcaster) who publishes in the United Kingdom:

i. a newspaper or magazine containing news-related material, or
ii. a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine);”

The government is unaware of the damage it may inflict upon the Internet and its Royal Charter is not only a imageregulation of the traditional press but of the web! They feel the excessive need to urge everyone that the legislation laid before parliament will prevent further intrusions such as that of Milly Dowlers – but some now see it has a back stab at Internet liberality. The rules set out by the regulator will not just apply to publishers of “news of information about current affairs” but also “opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs”

The government has reached out to reassure the webosphere that criteria exists to protect “a single blogger”‘s but later released several contradicting comments – later admitting it would only affect sites who possessed “editorial control”. What the hell is going on here… The government can even tell us the basic proposals of their own charter and have instead cobbled together a legislative bill that resembles that of a undecided toddler.

From what can be deciphered if a “relevant publisher” (whoever they may be) does not sign up to the rules of the new club – then they themselves must instigate a self regulatory body. How the hell is John a
Smith and Co. going to set up a regulatory body to oversee all of 4 people. Lets ask the government – wait they don’t even know!

The fact is who decides what? The penalties for later infringing beer rules are to be fines of the likes of £1 million and court proceedings would be placed to deter naughty bloggers. The level of injustice in the proposed bill is worrying. And the governments ignorance even more so. Is a site who only receives several hits a day exempt? How about the personal Twitter accounts of millions who could easily have the same detrimental effect and audience to provide equal rumour spreading power as a tabloid regarding “gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news.” The natural progression from press regulation to the censorship of all unlicensed social communication and networking could seem a drastic case but possible if the charter would to be introduced. The likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google would undoubtedly be detrimentally effected. However opposition to the charter has already been expressed, the major papers have already suggested legal action – and the known blog “The Spectator” has already stated it won’t oblige.

“A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny… where free institutions are indigenous to the soil and men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the Fourth Estate, the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.”

– Sir Winston Churchill

Although it may seem so – I am not out as a right of left wing commentator to “diss” the governments every step. I believe in a free and democratic society – one in which people have choices, liberties and the freedom to express beliefs and opinions on a matter. Yes, the press needs reforming but not in a blanket draconian way that discriminates 80% of Internet users. It is just not feasible. The Sun today published an article on the Charter and rightly had a headline “You’ll need to send warship to California to stop me”; and this is true the government has no physical method of preventing bloggers from all around the world. So with everybody either publishing from the UK or targeted primarily at an audience in the United Kingdom; facing the firing line – it would be chaos to enforce. The decisions they make do not just effect our society but the global Internet society as well. We set an example to be world as a respected and ‘moral’ state. The British press has been seen as a tough cookie, with world defining journalistic skills – their actions sometimes controversial and yet the internet has welcomed journalism with open arms. The internet is a platform for free global communication – it should remain that way. We fight, not over trivial political promises but the basic imageprinciples of freedom we take for granted on the internet. Regulating the press to fairly represent a story is now required – but applying this to the web will later open the doors to Internet control and censorship. We do not need more quangos to litter our democracy – the government and society need to collaborate to achieve a charter that actually protects freedom of speech on all frontiers, in every form, and allows for a fair representation of information in the public eye. An independent regulatory body, established and negotiated by the press, may possibly work – but currently it has been cobbled together by ministers and the government, resulting in political interference with the press. We do not need political interference in a free press, we do not need a regulated internet. We do not need a state controlled press and Internet.

To read the full draft Royal Charter click here.

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