The Government is set to introduce groundbreaking legislation to improve online safety and protect children from harmful content on the internet, providing for the regulation of social media for the first time.
A six-week public consultation process begins today, after which the new Online Safety Bill will be brought forward in the Houses of the Oireachtas by Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Richard Bruton.
It follows work on the issue by the Oireachtas Committee on Communications, which is chaired by Fine Gael TD for Galway West Hildegarde Naughton.
She said that current situation was “untenable”, whereby online and social media companies are not subject to any state oversight or regulation regarding content shared on their platforms.
“The inviolable freedom of expression must not be compromised in any way by the new legislation, but we do need to find a means of protecting children from harmful content and keeping them safe online,” explained Deputy Naughton.
“It is envisaged, therefore, that service providers will be made responsible for ensuring the safety of their users; and that an Online Safety Commissioner will oversee the new system introduced by the legislation.”
Deputy Naughton, who was part of the International Grand Committee that met in Westminster last year to discuss online safety, said that the definition of “harmful content” would be a complex element of the new Bill.
“We cannot and don’t wish to police content that we may find distasteful, but which is not necessarily harmful. Any move to do so would be contrary to the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
“A clear definition that avoids any unintentional restriction of freedom of expression may include serious cyber bullying, threats, harassment, intimidation or humiliation, as well as material that promotes suicide or self-harm,” she said.
The Fine Gael TD added that the Online Safety Bill would place requirements on operators to maintain an Online Safety Code, which would be subject to approval by the Online Safety Commissioner.
“Such a code would be expected to prohibit cyber bullying and provide a complaints procedure through which people can request that material be taken down within a specified timeframe,” she explained.
“The Online Safety Commissioner will also be conferred with significant powers to ensure compliance with the new legislation and companies’ safety codes, including the imposition of fines and to seek injunctions or prosecutions.”
In the course of her involvement in this issue, Deputy Naughton met with the EU commissioner in December to discuss the prospect of legislating for the regulation of social media at a pan-European level. Currently, Ireland is leading the way.
“I would urge all parents, students, teachers, industry representatives and other groups who have views on these issues to engage with the six-week consultation process, so that they can help shape this important step towards safeguarding children from harmful online material,” concluded Deputy Naughton.