Social media giants should be legally exposed to being sued and their directors liable for criminal prosecution if they breach proposed laws to regulate the industry.
The Oireachtas Justice Committee heard claims that the industry is currently a “wild west”, where multinational corporations are earning “billions” of euro without any of the legal regulation governing traditional industries.
Senior gardaí told the committee that they need to be able to sit down with social media bosses and “tell them our problems” and work with them more closely to fix them – but added that where that cannot be done the State should “legislate” for it.
The Oireachtas Justice Committee has begun a detailed examination of online harmful communications, including cyberbullying, harassment, stalking and image-based sexual abuse, also known as revenge porn.
Parallel with the committee's hearings, the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 is going through the Oireachtas.
The proposed legislation is based on a private members bill from Labour leader Brendan Howlin, which in turn seeks to implement the recommendations of a 2016 report from the Law Reform Commission.
Fine Gael deputy Colm Brophy said social media platforms were “completely unregulated” and that there was a “wild west scenario” operating.
He said the companies can act without any of the rules and legal regulations governing traditional publishers like newspapers but continued to earn billions of euro.
He said that if victims had the right to sue the platforms and a few substantial settlements resulted that companies might “move quickly” to act.
Agreeing, Caroline Counihan, legal policy director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland, said victims should have the right to sue, saying that “a few hefty settlements might soften the cough” of companies not acting appropriately.
But she said victims really wanted a quick, private mechanism for getting offensive material off the internet and that this should be done by the companies. If they fail to do so, people should be able to appeal to the proposed Digital Safety Commissioner.
She said there should be a legal provision whereby directors could be held criminally liable for an “indefensible failure” to take down material that has been notified to them.
Professor Joe Carthy, founding director of the UCD Centre for Cybersecurity and Cybercrime Investigation, said the cyber world should be regulated in the same way as the automobile industry. This would require social media providers to register their users, requiring appropriate evidence of identity and that people who have been bullied or harassed online should be legally entitled to find out the identity of the person.
He said there was “no technological reason” for not establishing identities, only a commercial one.
John Church, CEO of the ISPCC said the issue was an “awful lot of users” who are anonymous or have fake accounts would drop off, resulting in loss of advertisement revenue to the platforms.
Chief Superintendent Mick Gubbins of the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau said children were “increasingly” engaging in and sharing sexual explicit images within a chat group.
He said this can give rise to bullying with the added danger of the images circulating further to people who may use them as a trap or in fake accounts.
Chief Supt Gubbins said social media companies were employing a lot of people and were making big money, but added there was a “responsibility on them to protect users”.
He said gardaí needed a system for talking to these companies and present them with issues regarding their products and ask them to help gardaí.
“We need to tell them our problems and work more closely with them,” he said.
He said that when gardaí seek to have material taken down, most of the companies quote their "community rules" and might say the material does not breach those rules and therefore can’t be taken down.
Chief Supt Gubbins said this situation “will have to be legislated for”.
Questioned by Independent TD Catherine Connolly about the resources given to the GNCCB, he said more resources were “necessary”.
His colleague Detective Superintendent Pat Ryan of the GNCCB said the bureau currently had 32 members, but that Garda Commissioner Drew Harris had approved a plan to bring the total complement to 120 within the next two years, which would also include the staffing of new divisional cyber units.
In his presentation, Mr Church of the ISPCC said a 16-year-old had told Childline that she had sent images to a former boyfriend, who then shared them with others without her permission.
He said that with these images being circulated widely, the girl told Childline that she could not face going back to school and was "contemplating suicide".