New online safety laws welcomed but campaigners say 'major gaps' remain

New online safety laws welcomed but campaigners say 'major gaps' remain

Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance said the legislation “has the potential to be groundbreaking” but there were still 'major gaps' that needed to be addressed, particularly concerning the current lack of an individual complaints mechanism. File picture

A new Online Safety and Media Regulation (OSMR) Bill may be “landmark legislation” that influences EU law and has been broadly welcomed by campaigners.

The OSMR bill would establish a new regulator called the Media Commission which will replace the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and will include a new position of online safety commissioner.

Criminal sanctions can be pressed against senior managers of non-compliant websites and fines of up to €20m (or 10% of turnover) can be levied against non-compliant online services.

The new Media Commission would regulate online, broadcasting and video-on-demand services like Netflix; it will enforce online safety and have roles in child protection, research, education, media literacy, journalistic and creative supports.

Media Minister Catherine Martin received Government approval to begin recruitment for an online safety commissioner, who will act to regulate and enforce accountability in the sector.

'Bill a watershed moment'

“The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill marks a watershed moment as we move from self-regulation to an era of accountability by platforms for online safety and a more joined-up approach to audiovisual media regulation," Ms Martin said.

However, an individual complaints mechanism for harmful online content, which was called for by the Oireachtas Committee on Media and the #123OnlineSafety campaign, led by the Children’s Rights Alliance, has not yet been included in the bill.

Ms Martin said this required “further consideration” and an expert group would be established to report recommendations on how best to address this within 90 days. It could then be added to the bill, Ms Martin said.

Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance said the legislation “has the potential to be groundbreaking” but there were still "major gaps" that needed to be addressed, particularly concerning the current lack of an individual complaints mechanism.

“Ireland will be one of the first countries in the European Union to start to regulate social media," Ms Ward said.

“If Ireland has some success with this, other European countries will likely follow and it could end up influencing the development of EU law.

“Ireland has a special place because a lot of tech companies use Ireland as their European headquarters. 

“The new online safety commissioner will have a duty to develop [safety] codes.

"We’re hoping those codes and the powers of the online safety commissioner will allow them to say ‘children should not have access to harmful content, like pornography, gambling, anorexia'. They [tech companies] should be coming up with technical solutions to prevent a child from landing on those sites instead.

Media Minister Catherine Martin received Government approval to begin recruitment for an online safety commissioner, who will act to regulate and enforce accountability in the sector. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Media Minister Catherine Martin received Government approval to begin recruitment for an online safety commissioner, who will act to regulate and enforce accountability in the sector. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

"We need to see a commissioner with teeth – with powers to take action when platforms do not comply with the safety standards. This is an opportunity for this Government, and for Ireland, to lead at a national and European level on online safety for children.” 

Including an individual complaints mechanism, so that individuals, including children, could complain about a tech company through the new commission, would be fundamental to improving online safety, she said.

Concerns may be raised that a complaint system in Ireland would have to host complaints from all over Europe because many tech firms are headquartered here. 

But this should not prevent such a system from being established and funding should be found through Europe and the tech companies themselves, to ensure the new body is adequately resourced to process all complaints, Ms Ward said.

She called for children's rights and legal experts to be appointed to the expert group advising Ms Martin on an individual complaint systems which could be added to the existing bill. 

"We need real recommendations, not window dressing," she said.

“After a decade of discussing regulation of social media and big tech, today we will see a bill that promises to hold these platforms accountable for harms that occur on and through their services.

Digital platforms a tool of abuse

Noeline Blackwell of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre said digital platforms were being used as a tool of abuse and their regulation was badly needed.

“We welcome the fact that the State is looking at the regulation of online media and treating all media as a whole now."

Non-consensual sharing of images and using digital platforms to control and abuse leaves victims distraught and with limited forms of redress, she said.

“It can be very difficult to persuade a digital platform that information should be taken down. And it can be very difficult to find the persons who posted the abuse.

“As a society, we have to recognise that digital platforms are extensive commercial organisations. Their purpose, like a bank or a shop, is to make money. And it is the State’s job to protect and promote the safety of its residents and that’s what this bill has to do.”

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