Democracy Relies on Freedom of Speech but It's Vital to Know Your Libel Law If You Are Going to Blog Online; the Proposed New System of Press Regulation Goes beyond Printed Titles, and Could Have Serious Implications for Websites and Social Networking Sites, Says Legal Expert Hugh Hitchcock. Here He Explores What Impact the Changes Will Have on Freedom of Speech Online

Article excerpt

Byline: Hugh Hitchcock

DAVID CAMERON has insisted the cross-party deal reached earlier this week on a royal charter on press regulation defends the principle of a free press. But what will it mean for freedom of speech online? The Prime Minister, who was granted an emergency Commons debate on the proposed new system in response to Lord Justice Leveson's report on press standards, said the new regulator would not be set up by legislation - an approach he claimed was "fundamentally wrong in principle".

But he acknowledged that legislation was necessary to establish a system of exemplary damages for newspapers that did not sign up to the regulator.

The proposed new system goes beyond printed media however, with all publishers of news, comment and "gossip" being encouraged to join the regulatory system. This means that blog and news websites are equally as affected as printed titles, with bloggers potentially facing high fines if they don't sign up to the new regulator.

Under the charter, the definition of "relevant" bloggers or websites includes any that generate news material where there is an editorial structure giving someone control over publication.

Kirsty Hughes, the chief executive of Index on Censorship, which campaigns for press freedom, said it was a "sad day" for British democracy.

"This will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on everyday people's web use," she said. She says she feared thousands of websites could fall under the definition of a "relevant publisher" in clause 29.

She pointed out that exemplary damages and costs imposed by a court to penalise those who remain outside the regulator could run to hundreds of thousands of pounds, enough to close down smaller publishers.

The exemplary damages clause was recommended in the Leveson report but has been opposed by some newspapers, which have been given legal advice that it could be contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the principle of free speech.

Under sustained questioning in the commons on Monday night the Culture Secretary Maria Miller said publishers "would have to meet the three tests of whether the publication is publishing news-related material in the course of a business, whether their material is written by a range of authors - this would exclude a one-man band or a single blogger - and whether that material is subject to editorial control".

She said the new rules were designed to protect "small-scale bloggers" and to "ensure that the publishers of special interest, hobby and trade titles are not caught in the regime".

However, sites that rely on a network of bloggers with a clear editorial structure, such as the Huffington Post, would be covered under the new rules.

Crucially, blog sites would not be at risk of exemplary damages for comments posted by readers.

While there has been an outcry over the proposals from those concerned about freedom of speech online, there is a danger here that we could miss the wood for the trees. …