Minister for Communications Richard Bruton has today announced plans for a new online safety regulatory regime which would oversee the appointment of an independent commissioner, tasked with prosecuting and fining corporate entities in violation of the proposed guidelines.
This ‘Online Safety Act’ would empower the regulator to order internet companies to take down content that is deemed 'harmful' to children and other vulnerable users. Under existing laws, internet service providers and online platforms such as Facebook are obliged to remove certain types of content. However, at present the only content that they are legally obligated to remove is that which is criminal offence to disseminate - including incitement to violence, terrorist propaganda and material relating to the abuse of minors.
In order to adequately police their communities, tech companies have had to create user-led content flagging systems. Once certain content is reported as being contrary to community guidelines, it usually appears before an internal moderator and a decision is made as to whether or not the content should be removed. As we explained in an earlier article, once the ISP decides not to remove the content, liability may attach. This has become a huge issue as online communities grow – particularly with user-moderated sites like Reddit.
Under the proposed regime, it is expected that the new Online Safety Commissioner will oversee all aspects of online behaviour, with broad powers to order the removal of content, as well as overseeing the prosecution and fining of companies in breach of the new rules. Companies will also be forced to draw up a ‘safety code’ which outlines their procedures for preventing 'harmful content' - likely to include things like cyber bullying and content which encourages self-harm.
Interestingly, the new plan has been announced in the immediate aftermath of what has become known as the ‘Momo hoax’, whereby police forces and media outlets were tricked into thinking that a strange-looking character was appearing in children’s videos and telling them to commit suicide.
In a press release, the Children’s Rights Alliance welcomed the news, stating that this step marks the end of the ‘self-regulation age’ for internet companies. Chief Executive Officer Tanya Ward stated:
‘Children and young people represent one third of global users online... The digital environment shapes children’s lives in many ways, creating opportunities and risks to their well being… The development of an Online Safety Act means that the industry could be compelled to adopt the principle of “safety by design”. For far too long, providers have developed services and apps without considering the safety implications for children and young people.’
This plan follows on from earlier comments made by Minister Bruton on 21 February 2019, where he remarked that any plan to police online content could not proceed before he had arrived at the correct definition of ‘harmful’ – something he had been working on in consultation with the Attorney General.
Speaking to the Oireachtas Communications Committee in August 2018, Facebook’s head of public policy Niamh Sweeney said that a commissioner would be useful in cases where there is a disagreement between a platform and a user about what constitutes a ‘harmful communication’ or where online platforms have failed to uphold their own policies. However, she noted the absence of clear definition as to what is to be considered ‘harmful’, even though the aim seems to be to include conduct that is not simply criminal.
In the modern era, it is becoming more and more difficult for parents to police the online habits of their children. Legislative intervention in this area should therefore be seen as a welcome step. That said, the ultimate success of this planned regime will no doubt depend on the eventual form of the legislation. Today’s announcement by Minister Bruton is a mere statement of intent as the minutiae have yet to be ironed out. A six-week consultation period will now follow before the proposal is brought before the cabinet.
Note: This article is not intended to be relied upon as legal advice. Any errors should be notified to the editor and will be dealt with accordingly.