A Hacked Off investigation has revealed that Russia Today, the Russian media outlet accused of peddling Kremlin-backed disinformation, is set to benefit from an exemption in the Government’s forthcoming plans for regulating social media in the UK.

The Online Safety Bill, which Secretary of State Nadine Dorries has described as “world-leading online safety laws”, has a wide exemption for news publishers.  In order to qualify for this exemption, an enterprise needs to do no more than meet minimal formal criteria.

Hacked Off criticised the terms of the exemption in the draft legislation as open to exploitation from extremists and others intent on committing harm online.

But the largest newspapers in the UK, including the Daily Mail, The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Mirror, have lobbied in favour of it.

They were successful in that when the bill was published last week, the exemption was still in it.

Now it is revealed that Russia Today stands to benefit from the exemption, with extremist and other discredited “media outlets” likely to meet the statutory criteria for an exemption as well.

As a result, under the Government’s proposed legislation, publishers like Russia Today will be able to post disinformation with impunity on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms, despite the fact that only last week OfCom revoked the outlet’s broadcasting licence – finding its ownership was not “fit and proper”.

There are seven criteria which a publisher must meet in order to qualify as a “recognised news publisher” in the Online Safety Bill – and so become exempt from social media regulation.

The first of these is that the publisher in question publishes “news related material… created by different persons, and is subject to editorial control”.  There is no requirement for any commitment to accuracy in the publication of such material.

Other criteria include that news is published in the course of a business, that it has a registered office in the UK, that there is a person with legal responsibility for what it publishes in the UK, and that the details of those running the publication are published.

In respect of Russia Today, all of this information is available on its website and Companies House.

Finally, it is also a requirement that publishers have a standards code and a complaints process.

Russia Today’s complaints process requires complainants to send an email lodging any complaint.  As there is no detail in the bill of what the complaints process must entail, this is likely to be sufficient.

In respect of the standards code requirement, the statute again provides no detail.  Russia Today must meet various standards requirements issued in the form of legislation by the Russian state.  As a registered “media product” in Russia, Russia Today’s parent company RIA Novosti is regulated by the Russian mass media regulator, Roskomnadzor.

The statutory provisions affecting the media in Russia includes, for example, a 2013 law which prohibits promotion of “non-traditional” sexual relationships.

Hacked Off had warned that the provisions of the bill would allow publications subject to irrational and discriminatory standards to qualify for the exemption, but the Government didn’t listen.

Hacked Off’s Chief Executive Nathan Sparkes said,

The press exemption in the Online Safety Bill is unjustified, poorly drafted, and a threat to the interests and the safety of the British public.

You might expect that national newspapers, from the Guardian to the Daily Mail, would be raising the alarm about this dangerous exemption.  But they can’t because it was for their benefit, and their industry association has supported it every step of the way.

There is only one group of publishers which can claim a legitimate reason for an exemption under this bill, and it is those which are properly and independently regulated by a recognised regulator, IMPRESS.

Any attempt to give special treatment to others is unjustifiable and bound to be exploited by extremists and agents of disinformation.

The Government must decide whether it is on the side of Russia Today and the Daily Mail or that of the British public, who deserve to be able to use social media without encountering disinformation and other harmful content.

This post originally appeared on the Hacked Off website and is reproduced with permission and thanks