Fines warning to social media giants

Facebook and other social media giants could be hit with fines “large enough to hit the profit of the company” for breaching online safety guidelines, the Taoiseach has warned.

Leo Varadkar confirmed massive fines based on companies’ advertising revenue could be imposed after what he described as “shocking and most unacceptable” cases uncovered in recent days. Those fines could reach into the hundreds of millions of euro.

Communications Minister Denis Naughten will meet Facebook chiefs for an “urgent meeting” in New York today regarding the Channel 4 Dispatches programme which involved undercover filming of Dublin-based moderators and raised serious concerns over what was permitted on the social media platform. It included racist memes and violent video clips and prompted the company to issue an apology for having fallen below its own standards.

The undercover filming was conducted at the Dublin offices of Cpl Resources, which provides staff and services to Facebook for content moderation at its Ireland operation.

“What’s of most concern, most shocking and most unacceptable, is that Facebook appears not to have lived up to its own community standards. The very least you expect is people to live up to their own standards,” said Mr Varadkar.

“We need to hear a response from Facebook and an explanation from them as to why they haven’t upheld their own standards.

“Now we have to examine legislative mechanisms, whether we can bring in a system of fines to ensure that companies such as this uphold basic standards of decency. It is the worldwide web and it is international, but that is something we have to do.

“The fines would have to be commensurate, so that it would cause a change in behaviour. There is no point in having fines that could be easily absorbed. They would have to be large enough that it would hit the profits of the company and cause them to change their behaviour.”

The Oireachtas communications committee has also invited officials from Facebook to attend an emergency meeting next Wednesday. Committee chairwoman Hildegarde Naughton said: “We want to know how they safeguard users on the social media platform.”

Data Protection commissioner Helen Dixon has been asked to attend the hearing at 12 midday on Wednesday and Ms Naughton said: “It is unclear what issues fall under her remit. Compliance issues can transcend borders now. But Facebook’s [European] HQ is based in Dublin.

“We need to see that they comply, we need to show leadership in this area and that there are proper procedures there, that content is moderated where there is suspected abuse, and that rules are in place. We need a plan of action.”

Retail Excellence, the country’s largest retail representative body, has suspended its relationship with the platform following Tuesday night’s programme on what was permitted on the social media platform.

In a statement Cpl Resources said: “On becoming aware of this programme we, in conjunction with Facebook, reviewed the issues being raised and took immediate action to address these. This has included refresher training conducted by Facebook personnel so as to ensure that our relevant employees remain up-to-date with Facebook policy and its implementation.”

It said it would be supporting its employees in a “very stressful time for them” and would continue to work closely with Facebook to ensure its community standards are enforced appropriately. Tanya Ward, CEO of the Children’s Rights Alliance, said the Dispatches programme demonstrated the need for a digital safety commissioner.

Elsewhere, Google has said it will appeal the €4.3bn fine applied by the European Union for abusing the dominance of its Android mobile operating system.


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