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Bogus abortion site still appearing on Google - but new law would enable takedown of 'harmful' content

The creation of a digital safety commissioner has been mooted as a way of tackling the effects of harmful online content.
Feb 7th 2019, 6:11 AM 7,324 20

A LINK TO a bogus website calling itself ‘My Options’ – but not run by the HSE – still appears on the first page of a Google search, and TDs want to bring in legislation that would force the search engine and other tech companies to take down “harmful” content.

Abortion services began to be provided by the HSE last month, and its official site MyOptions.ie provides information for those seeking to access the service.

The HSE, however, is already set to take legal action against a website with a similar name that is not linked in any way to its services. 

This website has appeared highly in Google searches and carries an anti-abortion message

It has also been linked to the alleged leak of a patient’s details after she had an abortion at a Dublin maternity hospital.

Sinn Féin’s justice spokesperson Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire told TheJournal.ie that the creation of a digital safety commissioner would enable the take down of such sites deemed to be harmful, and stop them appearing on search engines.

“The aim is to create a national minimum safety standard,” he said. “When it comes to things such as abusive behaviour, or a website purporting to be what it’s not, it’s important we have the ability to respond quickly to it, and take it down if needs be.”

My Options

As of yesterday, the My Options site which is not run by the HSE still appeared on the first page of Google searches when you search “my options” – a phrase advertised by officials in relation to crisis pregnancies.

The website features a mobile phone number, and advises people they can avail of a free ultrasound. It also shows a video claiming links between abortion and cancer.

The HSE’s own website now appears atop Google searches for ‘my options’, but it was reported by the Irish Times and Times Ireland earlier this week that the HSE is increasing its spending on Google adverts to outbid anyone trying to put a rogue agency atop the results page.

TheJournal.ie understands that Google does not take action to remove rogue agencies from its search and only does so in limited circumstances, such as when required to by law.

The search engine, however, says it does make efforts to prevent harmful content from rising high in search results if users aren’t searching specifically for that content.

This is never limited to just one search result though as Google takes action by developing algorithms to address an entire range of queries rather than just one.

It cannot remove such a website from the internet, but it’s understood it would cooperate with the removal of a site from its search in order to comply with local law.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the HSE said it was taking measures to try to remove the “my options” name from the site in question

A spokesperson said: “The HSE works hard to ensure its content is optimised for search so that HSE content, where possible, appears first in search results for common terms on a range of health topics.

In the interest of patient protection, the HSE has written to the owner of the website providing misleading information requiring him to cease using the phrase “my options” in the title of his website.

This has since escalated to legal action, with Minister for Health Simon Harris saying yesterday the idea someone would set up a “fake” My Options website is “despicable”. 

He said he was “extremely disturbed” that despite the referendum having passed that some people still believe it is acceptable to treat unplanned pregnancy services differently than other legally regulated services. 

“We are not going to stand for it,” the Minister said. 

Upon his request the HSE has initiated “cease and desist” legal proceedings against the owner of the website. Proceedings were initiated on 2 February, he told the Oireachtas Committee on Health.

Harris thanked the HSE director general for “showing leadership” and taking “swift action” in relation to this matter.

‘Harmful communications’

Legislation put forward by Sinn Féin’s Ó Laoghaire, however, would allow the creation of a Digital Safety Commissioner that would ensure the oversight and regulation “of a timely and efficient procedure for the take down, that is, removal, by digital service undertakings of harmful digital communications”. 

In effect, it would give the commissioner the power to order the take down of material deemed to be “harmful”.

When representatives from Google and Facebook appeared before the Oireachtas committee considering the legislation in November, its representatives raised concerns over what exactly would be constitute harmful communication.

Facebook Ireland’s head of public policy Niamh Sweeney said: “There is no definition included in the draft Bill but it does appear from the draft that this concept is intended to be broader than content that is clearly criminal in nature, much of which has been touched on.

The exact parameters are left undefined, which could lead to uncertainty and unpredictability.

Ó Laoghaire is of the opinion that it shouldn’t left to tech firms to decide what constitutes “harmful” when it comes to information online. 

He told TheJournal.ie that he had submitted a draft wording of that definition to the Minister, who is working with the Attorney General on the correct, legal wording.

There is cross-party support for measures to be taken to protect people online but the Cork South Central TD said that if the government was serious about creating a digital safety commissioner, then work should be under way now.

“Setting up a body like this requires an awful lot, and they should be beginning that work now in terms of the level of staffing, and the costs involved,” he said.

Once we have established that national minimum safety standard, the digital protection commissioner could go to Google and say that something had to be taken down (removed from searches). 
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Sean Murray

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