Tough powers for cyber safety chief

Minister Richard Bruton.

A crackdown on harmful online material has been promised with the announcement of new laws to empower a cyber safety commissioner to fine, prosecute, and name and shame offending services.

Long-awaited moves to regulate online safety will be announced by Communications Minister Richard Bruton today, including what constitutes harmful material and how this will be monitored.

The era of self-regulation is over for providers and social media companies, Mr Bruton says, and the new laws and a regulator with powers are needed to ensure that children can be protected online.

Under the proposed Online Safety Act, harmful content will be targeted. Areas the minister has decided are considered harmful for internet users include where there are signs of serious cyberbullying and where content is threatening, intimidating, or harassing.

Material that promotes self-harm or suicide will also be deemed harmful as will online content that encourages nutritional deprivation.

While a short consultation period will begin on the new laws, the Government have not committed to any timeline. This also comes after previous promises to appoint a digital safety commissioner.

Measures to be taken include:

  • Companies operating an online safety code, which includes a complaints procedure;
  • A new online safety commissioner who can bring criminal proceedings against providers;
  • Fines for providers who fail to comply with orders to remove materials;
  • The naming and shaming of online providers who fail to co-operate with the commissioner;
  • Regular reviews of the online industry and plans for content moderation.

Speaking today as he announces the moves, Mr Bruton will say: “While it would be impossible to remove every danger from the internet or from the adaptation of new technology, what we need to do is to ensure that parents and children are better equipped, that the State can provide regulation and enforcement, and that online platforms take responsibility.

“I will bring forward an Online Safety Act which sets out how we can ensure children are safe online.

“This will involve, for the first time, setting a clear expectation for service providers to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of the users of their service. A regulator, an online safety commissioner, would oversee the new system.”

The commitment comes after sustained pressure from campaign groups, children’s rights bodies and the Opposition for a cyber safety regulator with real powers and legislation to restrict online content.

Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire has proposed legislation on this area which received cross-party support at the Oireachtas Communications Committee. However, the Government held off backing it until it decided on how to define harmful content. Advice was also sought from Australian authorities about their e-safety commissioner.

The Law Reform Commission has already proposed laws for an online commissioner to regulate service providers, search engines, social media platforms and websites.

The Government has proposed merging the new online commissioner role into the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland as part of a media commission.

Alternatively, two new regulators would be set up. One would involve restructuring the BAI and assigning it responsibility for editorial content, such as traditional television and radio, while a second online safety regulator would oversee online content that is not subject to editorial controls, such as social media and video-sharing platforms.

Separately, it will also be announced that the new online commissioner will apply a new European law to video sharing. Video sharing platforms will have to ensure protection measures, such as parental controls and age-verification, are in place. EU changes will also apply to on-demand and traditional TV services that share videos.

Mr Bruton said he would begin a six-week consultation period on the new measures and wants parents and schools among others to make submissions. Draft legislation will then go to Government.

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