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Internet Freedom of Speech under Threat: UK Judge Seeks to Curb Press & Internet Freedom

Sites include . Published on November 30th, 2012. Written by Anthony West.

The phone hacking scandal which embroiled the Rupert Murdock-owned News Corp. in the UK looks set to unleash a torrent of censorship and repression of free speech. But more than that, it looks set to put the clamps on what you and I are able to say openly on the free web.

Shortly after the scandal broke and several key figures either ended up in jail or dead, the UK prime minister, David Cameron ordered a commission of inquiry. The inquiry was to establish among other things, how the press in the UK, especially newspapers owned by Murdock was able to carry on for years hacking phones of citizens—including the royal family. The man commissioned to complete the inquiry was prominent judge, Brian Leveson and his report which has just been released calls for sweeping measures to be put in place.

Parliament-backed press regulator

Judge Leveson has recommended that a newly established press regulator be set up with government backing. This regulator would presumably have the power to levy heavy fines against any newspaper (and by extension any internet website) which in its eyes, breaches the codes of ‘independence’ and ‘transparency.’ According to Leveson, the British press has paid little attention to its own established code of conduct on “far too many occasions over the last decade, causing “real hardship” and sometimes wreaking havoc with the lives of innocent people.”

That Rupert Murdock and his band of tabloid-hunting cohorts have damaged the reputation of journalist in Britain is beyond question, but for most people looking on, the scandal is now being used as a backdoor for censorship. Many people point to the fact that phone-hacking is already on the books as a crime and so no further regulation is needed to keep newspapers in check.

And interestingly enough, the BBC and SKY broadcasting already does heavy censorship on all their web properties. Try to leave a comment on either of their sites and your success would be akin to Jesus walking on water.

News Corp. chimes in and politicians are divergent

Understandably after all the trouble News Corp. has caused the press in in Britain, the company is keen to see new regulation coming out. But News Corp. seems intent on keeping any such new regulation devoid of any legislative teeth, whilst at the same time retaining the power to levy fines. “We accept that a new system should be independent, have a standards code, a means of resolving disputes, the power to demand prominent apologies and the ability to levy heavy fines,” said a release from the company.

Politicians are not so squared on Leveson’s recommendation. David Cameron believes that any new regulatory body should be established without parliament backing, whilst Ed Miliband, leader of the opposing Labour Party believes that it should have legislative backing.

The danger with this level of uncertainty surrounding the way this new body should work is that it could balloon into a much broader tool for curbing public opinion. Recent moves by parliament to take greater control over internet freedom of speech has shown that there is indeed an agenda. This latest push, albeit by an established member of the judiciary, could just be another step forward in censoring the web.

Leveson’s report and recommendation is still being debated in the public arena, but what all defenders of freedom of speech must do is watch the situation closely. It is very dangerous to allow any new regulatory body to be established, without oversight from the people that it will affect most. A call to monitor the press with any greater scrutiny in this age of democratized information is an open attack on the free web

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