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Fines social media companies will get for breach of care will be 'significant, Foley says

“There’s [the] exchange of very inappropriate images, extortion, just content that really no young person should be exposed to,” Norma Foley said.

EDUCATION MINISTER NORMA Foley has said the fines social media companies will get for breach of care will be “significant”, which she believes will help improve safeguards for young children.

The Fianna Fáil TD, who was speaking to reporters at the party’s Ard Fheis today, said she has met and discussed the issue with Coimisiún na Meán – the body being given substantial enforcement powers over social media and video platforms in the area of policing illegal and hateful content.

It follows on from her party leader and Tánaiste Micheál Martin earlier calling the damage caused to young people by social media the “public health” challenge of our time.

Coimisiún na Meán has placed ten major platforms, including Instagram and TikTok, on a designated list of video sharing platforms, which is fast becoming a battleground for the regulation of online platforms.

If the commission is successful, it would allow it to hold the platforms to future legally binding rules around online safety – with the proposed laws promising fines that can reach as high as €20 million, or up to 6% of the company’s national turnover.

Foley said she has “incredible concern” around the area, adding that she found it quite appalling that children as young as six and seven who have a smartphone have found themselves “groomed online”.

“There’s [the] exchange of very inappropriate images, extortion, just content that really no young person should be exposed to,” Foley continued.

While she said safeguards need to be in place, Foley believes that potential fines for companies from the media regulator hold promise.

She said it was “right and proper” that they may face such penalties for “not taking sufficient” care on their own platforms.

She added that families need to have the “maximum amount of information to make informed decisions” that will help discourage them “in the short-term” from purchasing smartphones for younger children.

Minimum age

The Fianna Fail leader said there is a need for a serious public debate around the issue, saying that the Government needs to engage with social media companies.

He also said he “didn’t agree” with the decision by social media giant Meta to lower the minimum age to use WhatsApp.

The change, which reduces the age limit from 16 to 13, came into force in the EU and UK on Thursday.

“I don’t agree with that. I think this is the serious stuff we’ve got to engage with and we will engage with the technology companies,” Mr Martin said on Saturday as the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis got under way.

“I think the elephant in the room today, and there is maybe a few elephants in the room, but one crucial one is the damage social media is doing to young people and to children.

“We need a real serious public debate.

“The research is there and emerging in terms of the damage that’s been done to children and young kids.”

“I think that is the big elephant in the room.

“I think that is the public health challenge of our time.”

He said he believes that “we’ve all backed” off the issues cause by social media.

“People are very concerned about AI. This is huge industry,” he added.

“I also feel that we were all brought along on the tide of it, that this is wonderful new technology, that is fantastic.

“And there’s huge positives in online and social media – huge positives.

“But in terms of education, in terms of connectivity of young people, in terms of bullying, in terms of psychological impacts and the manipulation of algorithms, the apps that underage children are on.

“There are huge issues. I think we’ve come late to that side of the story around the internet, social media and so forth.

“It’s interesting, (there is) a lot of that focus on AI, there was a greater preparation around that. But there wasn’t the same sort of alarm bells ringing.”

Mr Martin said he does not use TikTok on government phones but was aware the Taoiseach Simon Harris had been posting on the social media giant in his government office, despite warnings.

“I don’t use TikTok on government phones and we have far increased security around our government phones and government email systems,” he told Newstalk.

In December, Mr Martin took legal action against Google over ads that were linked to him in the public interest.

He launched the court action against the tech giant over ads that were “linked” to him, with the High Court issuing a court order to force the multinational to hand over information about the adverts.

Mr Martin said the ads suggested he was endorsing cryptocurrency companies.

He said he believes that there was cooperation from the company because of his position in government.

“But where’s the citizen? What opportunity has a citizen?” he added.

“I’m not finished with that job, because a lot of material has come in and what’s interesting is this could be part of the model.

“A similar thing happened just two or three weeks before the referendum.

“I was kind of plastered all over X (formerly Twitter), as endorsing (a fake ad).

“I’m encouraging people, apparently, to invest and that I found this ‘ingenious way’ – this is all fixed.

“Then X says it is taking it down but then it reappears again.

“Now the problem for us is in politics is what happens in the middle of a general election if more refined methodology emerges?

“We still have to go to court to get a court order.

“So I think the technology companies have to get to grips with their model, and really understand that they’re part of a society.”

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