What happened when the DCMS met some bloggers


1:44 pm - April 12th 2013

by Sunny Hundal    


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On Tuesday morning I was part of a small round-table meeting at the DCMS, to discuss web regulation. It was one of several they’ve had with bloggers and organisations. As I reported earlier, the DCMS is currently trying to draw up a framework so newspaper websites (or major entities that go entirely online in a decade’s time) can still be regulated, while bloggers are not.

There has been criticism that the current definition in the Crime & Courts Bill (the vehicle for this law) – makes a vague reference to excluding ‘small blogs’. This criticism is misleading as we were told weeks ago this was simply place-holder legislation while a more rigorous definition was found.

The politics roughly goes like this: I’ve been told repeatedly by Labour’s media team that they are absolutely not interested in regulating blogs. They didn’t realise the definition they used before the place-holder would catch big blogs, and quickly moved to change it once some of us pointed this out. The biggest resistance to change apparently comes from Maria Miller’s team, who see this as a distracting sideshow. The Lib Dems seem to be curiously silent. But since the Royal Charter on regulation is meant to have assent from all parties, the DCMS is trying to see how our concerns can be accommodated.

So what did we ask from the DCMS? Roughly, two things:

First, we said the earlier definition was too broad, and it would have a chilling effect online on free speech if people were unsure they could be hit with ‘exemplary’ damages in libel cases. We wanted a simple definition that was clear to understand, and set the bar high enough that the vast majority of web publishers would be excluded. Websites should be able to opt-in to an independent regulator rather than have to be excluded through a legal definition.

In our meeting the most popular proposal was to draw the line at the definition of an SME, so any entity with a turnover of less than £6.5m or less than 50 employees would be excluded. Another alternative was to include any company that was VAT registered (over turnover of £79,000).

The DCMS reps said their legal advice had indicated the SME definition would allow big companies loopholes to avoid regulation. I don’t buy this excuse – I think it’s more that they think the SME bar is too high. We asked them to publish this legal advice and they agreed to do so. Watch out for this.

The second request tied in with the first: that if the bar is changed and set higher, we wanted the option for smaller entities to be able to join the regulator and have access to the benefits (arbitration services). So I requested that they also consider changing the wording so the goodies weren’t just limited to a ‘relevant publisher’. If the definition was set to a higher bar, then smaller entities would be legally excluded from the benefits even if they joined.

The DCMS said they would consider both proposals and submit them to ministers. The deadline is less than two weeks away so this process won’t be long.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Media ,Westminster

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Reader comments


As ever, more ignorance here.

VAT registration is optional for a company at any amount of turnover, however small.

So if I am the owner of a limited company whose only income is generated by internet advertising, it may still be in my interests to register for VAT. Why? Because if the business buys equipment for blogging (g a laptop, smartphone and contract, etc) it can recover the VAT.

This would be a significant disincentive.

Sunny,

The DCMS legal advice on an SME exemption is correct because it would permit publishers like Trinity Mirror, Associated Newspapers and Northern and Shell to hive off many of their local title into subsidiaries that would fall within the legal definition of an SME.

I should add that I was only invited after I got told about this by someone else, and contacted them.

The DCMS today told me this wasn’t a full, open consultation so others couldn’t necessarily feed in their views via email or a web form.

If readers have alternative suggestions, I’m happy to hear them and perhaps try and feed them in too. Leave a comment for me or email me.

Sunny:

Don’t be a useful idiot, hijacked by ‘slebs’ and left obsessions about press intrsuion. The dead-tree press is dying. Forget Labour’s obsession with newspapers, and remember that free speech in print, person or on the web is precious! I want you, the Mail, the Maily Telegraph, the Grauniad, Tim Worstall, Guido, etc, etc to say what you like….Don’t you?

This is the tricky bit, isn’t it? As Unity points out, big companies have experience in other areas to make this a loophole. However, if it can be overcome here then it can be for those tricky tax arrangements too.

Tone – I see that you’re carrying on the tradition of never actually reading what is written above the line.

Sunny @ 6:
Sarcasm will get you nowhere. The fact is you are prepared to discuss the ground rules for potential censorship with the agents of the state. You are not a liberal – you are an authoritarian!

8. The Inspector

It’s not like people weren’t warned that the net would probably be cast wide. Politicians, no matter what their inclination, will try to regulate as much as they can. It’s in their nature.

Stolen from Wikipedia: “The Crime and Courts Bill 2012-2013 is a proposed Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom introduced to the House of Lords in May 2012. Its main purpose is to create the United Kingdom National Crime Agency which would abolish the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Part 2 of the Bill would relax the rules on filming court proceedings under controlled circumstances, whilst also amending the rules on ‘self-defence’.

In addition to its original purpose, the Crime and Courts Bill was used in March 2013 to put into law changes to press regulation in response to the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics and behaviour of the media.”

In which case, it would be fair to ask the bill’s supporters to return to the original topics.

This would be inconvenient for Leveson hangers on who wish to push illiberal laws. Free press legislation should not be a coat tail on a bill intended to address judicial niceties.

If the Leveson Inquiry demands change, it should be acknowledged in a bill *about it*. This may be inconvenient to parliamentarians who have to review and vote on a separate bill. The Leveson Inquiry demands a lot of thought — which I have given — so I am an unhappy, grumpy liberal.


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