FERGUS FINLAY: Government has chickened out when it comes to online safety

There are times when exasperation isn’t enough. Times when it’s almost necessary, for the sake of mental health, to curse and swear aloud. 

It usually happens when you’re confronted with selfishness or human stupidity (or Donald Trump). But it shouldn’t perhaps be the appropriate response to a piece of public policy.

But here’s the thing. Our government is confronted with an issue — internet safety. This means different things to different people. For some it’s about privacy, and trying to ensure that people aren’t turned into commodities against their will.

For others it’s about child protection, and seeking to ensure that young people, especially those with vulnerabilities, don’t get sucked into things they can’t control.

In the face of these and other challenges, our Government has completely, absolutely, and without any question, chickened out.

They have completely and totally abdicated their responsibility. They have responded in ways that deserve to be treated with nothing but contempt. Their entire approach to internet safety is a farce, and an obvious farce at that.

Many of you will have seen the Channel 4 Dispatches programme about Facebook last week.

There have been a lot of concerns about that company’s approach to privacy, and about the ease with which personal data can be harvested and used for all sorts of purposes it was never intended.

Last week’s programme revealed another dimension entirely, as it showed Facebook employees not bothering to address harmful and dangerous content on their platform.

It goes to show the pervasiveness of risk. It’s not in Facebook’s interests — in fact it is diametrically the opposite of their interest — for them to be seen as a potential home for dangerous material.

If they were to attract that reputation, subscribers mightn’t leave in their droves, but advertisers certainly would.

So it seems that Facebook, one of the richest companies in the history of the world, tries to cut corners and save a few bob in its training and supervision of staff. If that is the case with them, how is it possible to assume than anyone operating in this area is working to unimpeachable levels of safety?

Now, I’m not suggesting that on the basis of a television programme, the Government should turn up at Facebook’s door, like the sheriff of Dodge City, and threaten them with closure.

But there has to be a structure in place where clear breaches of safety standards, whoever commits them, are investigated independently and proactively, and prevented from reoccurring, with the perpetrators appropriately punished.

This is already pretty well the case in relation to the protection of private information. The European GDPR has given a powerful suite of weapons and punishments to Data Protection Commissioners, including our own, and there has been a mad rush towards compliance.

But when it comes to protecting young people from abuse, nothing. Zilch. Zero.

Oh, wait. There’s a link on the Government’s website. It’s called “Be safe online” — and the Government is spending money on radio ads to encourage people to go there. Click on the link and you’ll be whisked immediately to “Ireland’s official online safety hub”.

There you’ll find all sorts of things you should do — as a parent, a teacher, a child, or a member of the general public. Things you need to take responsibility for.

And again and again in this “hub” you’ll read the assertion that the Government can’t do it all on its own. Now try searching for what the Government is actually going to do.

Good luck with that. Because as far as the Government is concerned, it’s up to you, or the EU, or the internet providing companies, or the people who run the platforms. The Government is actually proposing to do nothing.

There’s a plan, of course, that you can open and read in the “hub”. It’s full of meaningless drivel and gobbledegook.

There’s a whole of government approach to nothing. The whole of government approach will be led by “sponsors” — another way of saying that no-one is actually accountable. Stakeholders, God bless them, will be endlessly consulted about nothing. Oireachtas committees will be “worked with” about nothing.

In the face of scandals in the charity sector, the Government (eventually) established a charities regulator. It took a couple of years to get going, but it’s now a trusted, efficient operation. (I should declare an interest because as well as working for a charity I’m on the board of the authority.)

It operates proportionately — which is another way of saying, stick by the rules and we’re on your side. Mess with the rules, and we’ll come after you. But in the face of clear and present danger from the internet, the Government waffles.

A meaningless piece of legislation was passed recently that set out to raise the digital age of consent to 16, and those in favour of that proposition seem to think that the job is now done. But it isn’t, and it won’t be until the Government accepts that the self-regulation of the internet industry, in all its aspects, is entirely phoney.

The Government “plan” actually refers approvingly to a code of practice and ethics drawn up by the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland, which represents the vast bulk of the companies in the industry.

This so-called code of practice, about which I’ve been writing for years, was written and adopted five years before the iPhone was launched. It can be updated, of course, but only if 75% of its members agree. As an effective contributor to regulation, it’s palpable nonsense.

The Government’s response? Well someday, maybe soon and maybe not, it’s going to reconfigure and strengthen the Internet Advisory Council (bet you didn’t know we had one). And every year on Internet Safety Day (whatever that is) it’s going to cause an annual report to be published. So you can sleep soundly in your beds.

And if you do come across dangerous content online, stuff you’re really worried about, well then, by all means, report it.

Not to the gardaí, or to any independent body responsible for children’s safety. You get to report it to Hotline, a body that is owned, trained and ridden by the industry.

The last time they published an annual report, a couple of years ago, they recorded the largest ever number of concerns reported to them — more than 7,000 — and found less than 400 illegal.

The great bulk — in respect of which no action was taken (no warning, no intervention) involved adult pornography. In a tiny number of cases (about 150) internet service providers were “advised to consider removing” material classified as “child erotica”.

It’s a joke, like so much else about this business. But the biggest joke of all is a government that pretends to be vitally concerned about internet safety, and yet absolves itself of all responsibility, and leaves it to the industry to regulate itself.

Hypocrisy about internet safety is a national disgrace.


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