Cyberbullying, eating disorders, depression and suicide are some of the toxic behaviours and dangerous thought patterns often spread online that new draft legislation aims to protect children from.
If passed, the bill would establish the role of an Online Safety Commissioner to set safety codes for online services, audit companies, and apply “significant” sanctions for non-compliance.
The Online Safety Commissioner would work within a new regulatory body called the Media Commission which would replace the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI).
The Media Commission would regulate the audiovisual sector, including broadcasters, on-demand services, sound media, and online platforms including social media sites like Youtube, Facebook and Twitter.
Minister for Communications Richard Bruton, who introduced the bill, said that “the era of online safety self-regulation was over".
He said that the bill is the first of its kind in Europe and is “part of a suite of measures” to bring legislation up-to-date with technology in Ireland.
It aims to balance peoples' rights to freedom of expression with protecting people from harm, Minister Bruton said.
Under the proposed laws, the new regulator would have the power to audit services, issue compliance and warning notices, and impose sanctions for non-compliance.
Sanctions would include unspecified but “significant” financial penalties, blocking an offending online service and compelling an online service to take certain actions.
Although the new rules will not be enforceable on online services based outside of Ireland, the Minister said these services would have a "responsibility" to comply, and that the Media Commission would have the power to name and shame them if they did not.
He also said that as this type of regulation is introduced in other jurisdictions, Ireland could work within a wider network of European countries to regulate international service providers.
Hildegarde Naughton, TD for Galway West and Chair of the Oireachtas Communications Committee, said the bill was "a welcome development in the way we keep our children and young people safe online".
The Minister is to be congratulated for a willingness to take on powerful companies such as Facebook and Twitter – and for the fact that he is taking the lead on doing so with a first of its kind law.
“It is vital that we get this right and that we put in place a sustainable framework to ensure that there is real accountability in place for online services," she said.
But Sinn Féin Education spokesperson and TD for Cork South-Central Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire criticised the Minister for failing to progress legislation he proposed in 2017 called the Digital Safety Commissioner Bill.
“It is two years since the Digital Safety Commissioner Bill passed Second Stage in the Dáil, but since then it has sat on the Minister for Communications shelf gathering dust.
“Online safety for children has been branded the child protection issue of our time by bodies such as the ISPCC, the Ombudsman for Children, and Ireland's Special Rapporteur on Child Protection. To date the Government have been very slow to act on this issue," Mr Ó Laoghaire said.
“Publishing a Bill of this kind weeks before an election is far too late...The Minister, in not progressing my Bill, and proceeding with his own, is in effect resetting the clock on an issue that is time sensitive."