March 19, 2013 | Simon Phipps

Royal Charter or Star Chamber For Stars?

The new Royal Charter being rushed through the UK Parliament includes some drafting that appears to drag blogs, Twitter and other social media into the penalty net. This is an extremely worrying development that needs rapid response from the meshed society of citizen creator-consumers (that almost certainly means you).

(Hat tip to Alec Muffett for pointing this out

Unpacking all the nested definitions in the draft Charter, a person who:

  • publishes in the United Kingdom or for an audience mainly located in the United Kingdom
  • news or information about current affairs or
  • opinion about matters related to the news or current affairs or
  • gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news, on
  • a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)

falls within the remit of this Charter as a “relevant publisher”. This is the only clear scope I can find in the whole proposed regulation.  Yes, that clearly includes my blog, Twitter, public posts on Facebook and pretty much any other social media channel. I do not believe this is a drafting error; I believe it’s an intentional gag on whistleblowers and individual attention, on anyone who doesn’t have a boss someone powerful can call to have them shut up.

Of course, the proposals have no regard for this meshed world of creator-consumers. All the thinking revolves around Big Media, so there’s no representation for me or you in the regulatory body it creates, nor accommodation for the realities of the meshed society we inhabit. By including the new meshed world of creator-consumer citizens into this measure intended as a leash for dinosaurs, nothing is achieved in terms of realistic regulation.

But a new, deadly weapon is created to allow the rich to chill and punish any of those creator-consumers who dare to challenge them. When an established publication publishes a diatribe, they provide an umbrella for its author to shelter them from the new threats made available through this new regulatory mechanism. They are already pretty good at shielding authors; as long as they have jumped through the new hoops and behave reasonably, there’s not much more threat here than before.

But when the same writer tweets an opinion, or when I post my opinion about it on my personal blog, this new regulation allows the well-resourced members of the media elite to subject us to weapons tuned for deterring the Murdochs of this world. The penalties involved are out of all proportion to any harm as well as way beyond your and my means even to buy insurance, let alone to pay.

Just the threat that we might get dragged into this Star Chamber for the stars would be enough to chill most of us. Until they were caught public figures, politicians and police were quite happy with the old arrangement, under which they and journalists committed illegal acts that benefited both sides. I’m sure those same people will be pleased to see a new arrangement that can be used to shut us all up, in prison if not in word.

You say such an abuse could never happen?  Tell Paul Chambers. Tell the security researcher imprisoned in the USA for longer than teenage rapists under a similarly ”misdrafted” regulation. Tell Matthew Keys. Tell the family of Aaron Swartz, hounded to his death by over-empowered investigators. Legislation aimed at powerful individuals and corporations kills people like us when it’s misapplied.

Cory Doctorow puts it this way:

In a nutshell, then: if you press a button labelled “publish” or “submit” or “tweet” while in the UK, these rules as written will treat you as a newspaper proprietor, and make you vulnerable to an arbitration procedure where the complainer pays nothing, but you have to pay to defend yourself, and that will potentially have the power to fine you, force you to censor your posts, and force you to print “corrections” and “apologies” in a manner that the regulator will get to specify.

The problem is not regulation; it’s that the politicians appear to have bought the acquiescence of the media industry to this limited restraint on their abuses by providing them with a new way to prevent inconvenient independent expression from further eroding their power. As Nick Cohen wrote in The Observer, “Did you not notice that Leveson hurt no one in power?”  The big story here is not erosion of press freedom; it is rather the chilling of the voice of the citizen.

(Also published on ComputerWorldUK)

Comments (3)

  1. WillTovey:
    Mar 19, 2013 at 11:57 AM

    While the Government has again failed to define "website", which could cause confusion (would a blog have to have its own domain name to count? Is an individual twitter post or account enough?), suggesting that the Royal Charter alone imposes any obligations on bloggers is misunderstanding what the Charter does; it simply creates a process by which any independent Regulators (of Relevant Publishers) which do exist can be 'recognised' as being sufficiently independent, and carrying out adequate regulation. There is nothing in the Charter which would require the creation of a regulator, require that anyone join one that has been created, or require that a regulator apply to be "recognised."

    There are the issues of additional damages and costs in the Crime and Courts Bill, but the definition of a "Relevant Publisher" is much narrower there, and the changes to the underlying law (for those of us not covered by a recognised regulator) seem to be fairly minimal (although I need to do more research on that).

  2. Simon Phipps:
    Mar 19, 2013 at 12:39 PM

    The section in the amendments that defines "relevant publisher" (NC29) is indeed thinner; I'd not seen it when the text was written (it's been added since then). All the same, I think Facebook, Tumblr, Blogger and Twitter could all be interpreted as coming under its aegis, perhaps also hosted Wordpress. That creates a new threat to be made against us small people. I think NC29 and its exclusions (NS5) both need redrafting by someone who understands the topic.

  3. David Strange:
    Mar 21, 2013 at 08:38 AM

    'those parts of the press which are significant news
    publishers '

    The above taken from page 1 para 5 is nowhere defined.

    Although the deatiled text appears to have a broader application, without this key point being established many 'relevant publishers' could claim exemption.

    Given the nature of what has brought this about could the NOWT, Sun, MAil, claim they published 'insignificant news'?

    I am a freelance so do have vested interest