Culture Secretary outlines rights and responsibilities to media audience

By Chris Lee

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, a fact highlighted by UK Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s speech at the Oxford Media Convention last week. Miller’s core message was to outline rights and responsibilities in the internet age, as well as focus on the internet as a core part of UK business innovation.

With all the potential for positive actions that the internet offers, there remains a sinister flipside that the UK internet industry has a responsibility to address, Miller warned.

“We have to get the internet right if we’re going to get the creative industries right. We have to foster the internet we want,” Miller told delegates. “We have a responsibility to work together to ensure that everyone can approach the internet excited about what we can learn, what we can find, not frightened of where it might lead us.”

Not the ‘Wild West’

The internet is not a place where different rules apply and different behaviour is acceptable, Miller warned.

“It isn’t the Wild West. To put it simply, the rules that apply offline are the same rules that apply online,” she said. “This is at its most clear when it comes to the law. If something is illegal offline, it is illegal online. We have laws in this country to protect our freedom… it is no different online.”

Whether it is images of child abuse or terrorist material Miller said the Government would use the full force of the law, national and international, to take down that content and pursue the perpetrators.

“If you have vilely insulted, or threatened to attack someone in person on the street, you do so expecting to be arrested and probably charged. The same already applies on social media,” she added. “The legislation is already in place. And we have the guidelines by the Attorney General on contempt of court – and the Director of Public Prosecution’s on prosecutions involving social media communications – put together they present a strong and durable framework.”

Miller cited the recent imprisonment of two people for the abuse suffered by campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez as an example of how the law can be applied. In 2013, 2,000 people were prosecuted for sending electronic communications that were grossly offensive or menacing.

The changing web is a challenge for media

The advent of new technology from smartphones to tablets is changing the way we access media content online – from news, to celebrity gossip, to our favourite TV shows – and Miller recognised that a fast-changing environment presents challenges for those in the internet industries.

“Different media are governed by different rules – we expect impartial news coverage on a TV news bulletin, but not so on social media where people are actively seeking personal viewpoints,” she said. “We expect traditional broadcast television to meet a ‘gold standard’ of accuracy and quality, whereas when we view a user-generated video online we know to be more circumspect.

But with people old and young alike increasingly able to access not only broadcast channels on their TV, but hundreds of YouTube channels, as well as videos on social media, in just a few presses of the family remote,  it can be unclear to consumer which standards apply and to parents what broadcasting controls apply, if any, she added.

“It is important that viewers can be confident about what they are getting at the press of a button,” Miller argued. “This works both ways. If the viewer is confident, then businesses can be too, and that can only be a good thing, which is why so many of you – from the BBC to YouTube – are already active in signalling to consumers – for example, the age appropriateness of material. I think there is a responsibility to help make this clearer still.”

Miller said she would like industry and regulators to come together to assess how they can most effectively give consumers  clarity about the standards that apply across different platforms, and how they complain if those standards are not met.

“That is why I have asked Ofcom to kick-start this work, and I look forward to seeing how that progresses,” she concluded. “Transparent media standards will help deal with the world as it is today rather than the world pre-internet.”

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