Communications Minister Denis Naughten has rowed back on a commitment to appoint a digital safety commissioner this year, claiming the process is “far more complex” than he expected.
The Government’s Action Plan for Online Safety has been described as “another talking shop”. Children’s organisations and opposition parties claim it does not go far enough in regulating multinational online and social media companies.
While Mr Naughten gave a commitment last January that a digital safety commissioner would be appointed this year, he appeared to backtrack on this promise when launching the action plan yesterday.
“What we’ve done with this action plan is actually take the education and co-ordination aspect of the digital safety commissioner role out of that and we’re proceeding with that immediately now, implementing that over the coming months so that we have the groundwork in place for this new office when it is established,” said Mr Naughten.
We are proceeding with aspects of this that we can proceed with, which is the co-ordination aspect and the education aspect.
Mr Naughten said he is working with Sinn Féin justice spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, who brought forward a bill on the issue, but added that there are “complexities involved” in it.
The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) said it cannot support the self-regulation of online companies.
“For several years, the ISPCC has described online safety as the child protection issue of our time, and called for enhanced regulation, enhanced education measures, and law reform, as part of a national strategy on online safety,” said ISPCC director of policy Cliodhna O’Neill.
She said there is “some good practice” in the self-regulation area but “experience shows that legislation and regulation is needed to ensure consistent compliance by all providers”.
She said: “A digital safety commissioner with real powers and authority would be required to ensure this. There is support in this plan for some aspects of such an office but this may not go far enough.
Labour TD Seán Sherlock also slammed the Government for failing to appoint a digital safety commissioner.
“There are 25 goals outlined in the plan but the only mention of a digital commissioner is in goal 18,” he said. “This is a sure sign that there is no intention by Government to establish such an office, despite their previous commitments. It should be front and centre of any proposals.”
Mr Ó Laoghaire said the action plan contains many positive aspects but said it is weak when it comes to industry regulation.
“My bill to establish a digital safety commissioner, which passed second stage in the Dáil earlier this year, would do just that,” he said.
While I welcome Minister Naughten’s stated support for the bill, which is positive, this needs to be backed up with tangible action. At present, the action plan acknowledges the bill, but it merely commits to working with the committee on the bill.
Attending the launch of the plan, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said multinational companies generally have a good record on taking down offensive or abusive content quickly but social media firms must invest more resources in this area.
“You can pass any law you like in any jurisdiction but the internet by its very nature is the world wide web so companies have a global reach that governments don’t have and them taking action, I think, can be very effective,” said Mr Varadkar when asked about self-regulation.
However, Fianna Fáil’s James Lawless said self-regulation will not work.
“The Government’s apparent deference to the big tech firms is no excuse for not putting in place a proper, robust regulatory regime,” said Mr Lawless.