I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak before it today. SpunOut.ie is Ireland’s youth information website run by young people for young people. We provide free, reliable, non-judgmental information services to more than 150,000 young people in Ireland each month. At the core of what we do is a mission to reach our peers where they are, which is online. Consequently, we have developed a real and practical understanding of the realities of youth engagement on the Internet. It is important in any debate that touches these issues to consider both the challenges of better digital citizenship and the great capacity for good that exists in an open and accessible Internet. Too often we find ourselves talking about "online safety", by which we mainly mean restricting the capacity of bad actors to do harm but that kind of framing does not always recognise the ways in which online services can also enhance the safety and well-being of young people or the rights of children, enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to association, education, participation, expression and information. That is whether it comes through online mental health services access to a supportive community for the otherwise isolated or the kind of information on sexuality, health, employment or education that so many thousands of young people access every day online.
Our focus needs to be on preserving the possibility and promise of an open Internet while being clear about those areas where there can be no substitute for smart and effective regulation. SpunOut has a long history of engagement with the service providers that dominate young people's experiences online. We have worked for a number of years with Twitter’s global trust and safety council and as part of Facebook’s suicide and self-injury advisory committee. Where we can work with and influence the big platforms in the technology space we have done so and we have seen results. Our partnership with Facebook and our colleagues here from the DCU anti-bullying centre, for example, has helped train and resource young people and teachers in the area of better digital citizenship.
We can tell the committee, from experience, that possibilities exist in platforms and civil society groups like SpunOut, working together, to voluntarily improve the online space. That experience has also taught us what are the limits. It has taught us that, for all the platforms can do to try to improve their impact on the world, there are areas in which there is simply no substitute for intervention and regulation by the State. We come across the limits of not intervening, particularly with a platform like Snapchat. It is incredibly popular with young people, offering a service based on the promise that all messages being sent are private and temporary. However, Snapchat is domiciled outside of the European Union and routinely makes no effort to engage with non-governmental organisations on issues of privacy, transparency and safety of young people on the platform. Like any private company, the main goal is to maximise shareholder value and, like any non-profit, organisations such as ours can only involve ourselves as far as our limited budgets will stretch.
Government has a role that is inescapable in this as the only democratically mandated force within our society with the authority, ability and resources to intervene and tilt the balance from multinational global corporations back towards the individuals and communities that use our shared online space. We need to start reshaping how we view the relationship between us as service users and the companies that shape our online experiences. The nature of these companies' business models is simply not properly understood within our current laws. There is an assumption, for example, that when I set up a profile with Snapchat or another online platform, it is fundamentally and legally a relationship of equals and that the pages of terms and conditions I probably sign without reading, much less understanding, somehow mean I am fully informed of every way in which my data might then be used. This is a legal illusion we need to break. The reality is when we deal with an entity of that size, influence and power, it is a relationship not between an ordinary customer and a regular provider of services; it is a relationship in which we are at a profound information disadvantage.
The answer to how we manage those relationships better is by accepting first and foremost that when we access a service, such as a doctor or solicitor, where their level of knowledge so outstrips the client, and where the client relies on the provider not just to provide a service but also to do so in a client's own best interest. Those services must have a legal responsibility to a client above and beyond their obligation to turn a profit.
The answer is accountability. We do not necessarily need a Hippocratic oath for Snapchat or TikTok but we need the Government to recognise and enforce the accountability these services owe us for the disproportionate influence they have over our lives.
What does that level of accountability look like in practice? As a country, we have surely learned that regulations can only be as effective as the regulator. That is why we need a powerful and independent digital safety commissioner as we have outlined in our submission to this committee. That commissioner needs to be empowered by legislative change, specifically new laws that clearly define online harassment and hate speech and that make it an offence to share intimate images without consent, regardless of the platform used. Our current laws in this regard are largely from a predigital age and are long overdue an update.
So too is our conception of privacy. The idea that we have an exclusive right to our personal data is under relentless challenge by companies for whom mass data profiling is the model for doing business. Whereas the general data protection regulation has gone some way towards validating our individual rights in this area, it is still simply untrue to assume a multinational organisation with a legal department and an individual consumer are somehow operating on an equal playing field. Our right to privacy, like so much else, is only meaningful when we can be confident it is underwritten by a State system that is willing to wade in and defend it actively rather than just telling us our rights and expecting that we enforce them ourselves. It is no use just guaranteeing rights in theory. The digital safety commissioner will need a framework that lets it receive and respond to reports as quickly and effectively as possible.
If we are waiting for young people to call into the Garda to report that they are being bullied or harassed, we may be waiting a very long time. A single, clearly advertised central point of contact by text or online is far more likely to encourage young people who have been wronged online to come forward and report what has happened. They will also need to know that their complaints will not just gather dust. The Garda must be funded to deal with these reports in a timely way. We have had very positive experiences with cases brought to the child exploitation unit recently and I hope that ethos can be applied just as well to young people aged 18 and over too.
The question of funding really gets to the heart of this. From what I can see there is widespread support in the Oireachtas for the Government taking a bigger role in this area. Without meaningful resourcing and hard money behind the project, no new regulator, legal change or Garda unit will be able to make much headway. That is why we are calling for a minimum budget of €10 million on day one of the online safety commissioner taking office, if necessary funded by an industrial revenue-based levy on many highly profitable online multinationals that have chosen to make this country their base of operations. Accountability needs to be a watchword for all of us in this, including the Government, non-governmental organisations and service providers. Until we have a firm commitment to the resources we will need in creating a safer Internet, we will not be holding ourselves accountable to the millions of people, young and old, who deserve a better, more secure, more responsible online space.