Earlier this week, Britain saw the toughest restrictions imposed on free-press in the last 300 years. As a result your blog could also be at risk.
On the 19th of April the publishing industry received a sudden shake when an all-party decision was made to introduce a powerful arbitrary press regulator with the power to impose fines as well as the ability to demand that articles undergo salient changes. Furthermore, under new regulations courts will be given the power to impose exemplary damages on publications that fail to sign up to the new regulations body.
The new regulator was set up after the three leading political parties came together to set up a new 'watchdog' to regulate the press as a result of the Leveson Enquiry and the phone hacking scandals. This could have a catastrophic effect on any website that transmits a blog. Under the new legislation anyone who is considered a 'relevant publisher' is covered. The term 'relevant publisher' is very oblique, under clause 29 of the crime and courts bill introduced on Monday night, it is defined as any person(s) who in the course of business publishes news-related material.
So, how could this affect your website? Well, at the foot of the issue there seems to be confusion revolving around what exactly the term 'relevant publisher' means and who it applies to. By definition, any website that produces a blog that generates news material; where there is an editorial structure, thus giving someone control over a publication, counts as a 'relevant publisher'. Due to the fact that 'relevant publisher' and its definition are two very broad factors of the matter, fears have been roused; who exactly qualifies? Worryingly thousands of websites could fall into into this definition as broadcasting news-related material is often a mandatory facet of a company's business blog.
According to the culture secretary, Maria Miller, these rules were tailored to protect "small-scale bloggers" and to 'ensure that the publishers of special interest, hobby and trade titles such as the Angling Times and the wine magazine Decanter are not caught in the regime'. Included in those apparently exempt from the legislation also includes 'one-man band or a single bloggers', 'student and not-for-profit community newspapers' and 'scientific journals, periodicals and book publishers would also be left outside of the definition and therefore not exposed to the exemplary charges and costs regime'. Apparently bloggers would also not be at risk from comments posted by readers.
Exemplary charges are a matter that seem to be causing fear to online publishers. As a result of the new legislation, bloggers could be hit with draconian libel charges. If a website has failed to sign up to the new regulator and its work generates complaints then it would be liable for exemplary charges. This means that bloggers could be restricted from writing on topics such as local politics, sport corruption and other topics whereby an individual's or organisation's activities are scrutinised.
Kirsty Hughes, the chief executive of Index on Censorship said, '"Bloggers could find themselves subject to exemplary damages, due to the fact that they were not part of a regulator that was not intended for them in the first place." She also added that (the 14th) was a 'sad day' for British democracy and that, 'This will no doubt have a chilling effect on everyday peoples web use". The punitive exemplary damages and costs imposed on publishers by a court could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, which would easily be enough to close down a small publisher.
So, I return to the question I posed earlier, how could this new legislation affect your website? Well, due to the fact that the term 'relevant publisher' as well as its explanation is still lacking any consistency, judging from what information has been released, anyone whose blog contains news or information on current affairs and consequently opinions on these matters is subject to the legislation; as are those who release gossip about celebrities and public figures that are in the news.
That would essentially mean that the vast majority of bloggers would be subject to the regulation? Take for a hypothetical example, say an artist caused a public stir with a sculpture; if we wrote an article expressing our distaste of the artist and his practice could we then be held liable for libel charges should the artist choose to make a complaint against us? While this is a vague example it demonstrates the possibilities of what the new regulation could bring to online bloggers.
So if your blog, by the (definition of the charter) publishes 'news-related material' it could be subject to the new regulator. This potentially could even include your micro-blogs or social networking sites; such as your Twitter or Facebook. At the moment it remains uncertain as to how far the regulator will govern blogs, but if it is decided that the regulator will govern this area of publishing, then there could be a chilling effect on the world of online communication.
What are your thoughts on the new regulator? Do you think that personal and company blogs should be covered by it? Get in touch, let us know hat you think.