Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Questions (48)

Timmy Dooley


48. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the timeline for the establishment of the office of digital safety commissioner; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14176/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

On 27 September 2016 the Law Reform Commission published its report on harmful communications and digital safety. The report noted that the revolution in telecoms and digital media had some negative aspects. Examples include the intentional victim shaming of individuals, sometimes referred to as "revenge porn". Other negative developments include intimidating and threatening online messages directed at private persons and public figures. To combat this, the Law Reform Commission proposed the creation of an online regulator. Until recently this recommendation had been opposed by the Government. There has been a welcome, though long overdue, change in that position. When does the Minister propose to bring a Bill to this House to establish such a commission?

On 4 March, I announced my intention to bring forward a new online safety Bill, which will set out how we can ensure children are safe online. There is broad consensus within the House that this is necessary. Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Independents have indicated that they are keen for such a Bill to be progressed. The online safety Bill I am proposing would place new requirements on operators to operate an online safety code that would set out the steps they take to keep their users safe online and to include within that code a number of issues such as, at a minimum, a prohibition on harmful content, addressing serious cyberbullying and providing a complaints procedure whereby people can request material be taken down, with timelines for addressing complaints.

A regulator in the form of an online safety commissioner with appropriate powers would oversee the new system. The online safety commissioner would have a number of powers, which may include certifying that each online safety code is fit for purpose or requiring changes to it; requiring regular reports from the industry; reviewing the measures which a service has in place, including its content moderation systems; and requiring the removal from an online platform of content deemed harmful.

The new law will seek to protect Irish residents using online platforms based in Ireland with appropriate provisions and to implement EU law in regard to video-sharing platform services, on-demand audiovisual media services and traditional television on an EU-wide basis.

Although it is impossible to remove every danger from the Internet or from the adaptation of new technology, we need to ensure that parents and children are better equipped, that online platforms take responsibility and that the State can provide regulation and enforcement. I am determined to make progress as quickly as possible and look forward to working with Deputies across the House in that regard. A consultation is currently under way and will close on 15 April. I urge all interested stakeholders to provide their views in order that they can be considered.

The Deputy will be aware that the Taoiseach indicated that he would like to see the Bill enacted by the end of this year and that is the schedule to which I will be working.

I welcome that indicative timeline because the concept and issues surrounding a digital safety commissioner have been well ventilated through various Private Members' Bills and motions in this House. There is a high level of understanding within the Oireachtas of the issues at play and the hurdles to implementing such a measure. Fianna Fáil is committed to completing the process of the introduction of such a commissioner as quickly as possible.

It is important to move away from the self-regulation regime, which has fallen well below expectations. It is obvious that it has not been successful in protecting the vulnerable in the sector. As I made clear in a Bill worked on by Fianna Fáil, it is vital that the regulation has the appropriate teeth and that that is apparent. In that context, I know the Minister previously referred to considering the imposition of fines on companies for any breach of the law. I ask him to set out what he has in mind at this early stage in terms of penalties and deterrents for organisations that fail to meet their requirements under the proposed law.

I accept the points made by the Deputy in terms of the need for an effective regulator and that the time for self-regulation in this area has passed. Obviously, regulated companies are subject to criminal law. Where they breach criminal law, that is a matter for the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Garda. However, the type of offences envisaged under the proposed Bill would involve a company failing to act in accordance with directives from the online safety commissioner. The approach normally taken in law and which I expect will be reflected in the Bill is that there would be an issuing of a notice in the first instance and that a failure to comply with the notice would lead to an offence. We have not yet decided what the precise fines will be, but they will be regulated in accordance with the seriousness of the offence. This is an issue on which consultation is now under way. If the Deputy wishes to put forward ideas regarding the penalty regime, we would be happy to receive them.

Fianna Fáil certainly will do so because, as the Minister is aware, the technology platforms in respect of which most of the concerns arise have turnovers of billions rather than millions of euro. We have recognised that some harmful content is used by certain digital platforms to attract eyeballs, whether for gratification or in disgust. Regardless of the reason for viewing such content, it retains people on the platforms and provides a mechanism to sell advertising and capture the dollars attached thereto. Whatever code is put in place and whatever laws flow from it to run alongside the digital safety commissioner, it is imperative that the deterrents are commensurate with the size and profits of these companies rather solely being linked to the offence as described because we have seen the capacity of these companies to fail to even meet their own standards. They recognise the value of keeping people online. Fianna Fáil will be happy to contribute to the development of appropriate sanctions in that regard.

It is very important that we have effective penalties. In addition, the industry must recognise that as well as being a legal obligation, it is at the heart of its business to ensure that its users are safe online. Interestingly, in Australia, which is far ahead of Ireland in this area, there are strong penalties but it has not been necessary to use them. It is interesting that there is a growing consensus even within the industry that it needs regulation and that, from its own point of view, the period of self regulation has not been good enough. It is to be hoped that we will get very considerable co-operation from the industry. Notwithstanding that, I agree with the Deputy that where there are abuses, the penalties must be meaningful from the point of view of these very large companies.