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Minister says Online Safety Bill has 'real teeth' but campaigners highlight lack of complaints procedure

An Online Safety Commissioner is set to be recruited to enforce the new regulations.

Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Catherine Martin
Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Catherine Martin
Image: Leah Farrell

Updated Jan 12th 2022, 5:25 PM

A NEW BILL that will kickstart the recruitment process of an Online Safety Commissioner, as well as create a new Media Commission, has today been launched by the government.

Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Catherine Martin launched the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill this afternoon after it was signed off by a Cabinet meeting this morning.

The publication of the legislation paves the way for a new online safety watchdog to be recruited to help regulate online services and reduce the availability of harmful content online.

It will also see a new Media Commission established, a multi-person body that will include the Online Safety Commissioner.

In a statement, Martin said that the bill is a “watershed moment” as Ireland moves from self-regulation of online platforms to an “era of accountability by platforms for online safety”.

“One of the most important aspects of the Bill is that it establishes a new, powerful regulator to enforce accountability in the sector,” said Martin.

The Media Commission will include an Online Safety Commissioner to enforce not just this legislation, but also additional legislation and measures that will be brought forward at European level in the coming years.

The regulator will be tasked with overseeing a new regulatory framework for online safety and creating online safety codes that set out how regulated online services, including some social media platforms, will be expected to deal with defined categories of harmful online content on their platforms.

These categories include criminal materials, serious cyber-bullying materials and material promoting self-harm, suicide and eating disorders.

The Media Commission will be given a range of powers to ensure that services comply with regulations, including powers to require the provision of information and to appoint authorised officers to conduct investigations.

Additionally, the Commission will be able to seek to block access to certain online services, as well as issue content limitation notices to designated online services in respect of individual prices of harmful content.

The Media Commission will also be able to impose industry levies to fund its operations.

If online services fail to comply with these new online safety codes, subject to court approval, the new Media Commission will have the power to sanction non-compliant online services. This includes financial sanctions of up to €20 million or 10% of a company’s turnover.

Martin said that these provisions would give the Media Commission “real teeth”. 

“It will have a range of compliance and enforcement powers. That includes powers to audit, to investigate, to require provision of further information and reporting requirements,” the minister said. 

If a service is suspected to be non-compliant the commission can appoint officers to investigate this, those officers who have powers including obtaining search warrants and to to question people under oath. 

“Upon receipt of report of an officer, the Commission may decide the services is non-compliant, they then could seek that financial penalty of 20 million or 10% of turnover, whatever is higher.” 

“If they remain non-compliant the Commission then can again order them to comply and if the service continued to be non-compliant at that stage they could hold individual executives responsible criminally liable.”

Complaints

The minister told reporters today that the legislation does not allow for individuals to bring complaints against social media sites, instead only “nominated bodies can bring systemic issues to the attention of the Media Commission.” 

This issue was raised today by the  Children’s Rights Alliance, which said a specific complaints mechanism for individuals was among its main recommendations.  

“We emphasised the need for an individual complaints mechanism that would offer all individuals, but particularly vulnerable children and young people, an accessible solution when online services and platforms fail to protect them,” CRA’s Tanya Ward said today. 

With this mechanism, a person could raise a complaint with the Online Safety Commissioner when a platform fails to give them a satisfactory response, or any at all. An individual complaints mechanism represents a vital safety net for children and young people and would place a responsibility on platforms to make their services a safer space for children. 

The CRA is therefore urging legislators to “make critical changes to the bill” as part of further amendments. 

Amendments

While Martin says that a majority of recommendations from an oireachtas committee on the issue have been addressed, further recommendations will be addressed through some potential amendments when the Bill enters Committee Stage.

According to Martin, these include provisions for an individual complaints mechanism for harmful online content.

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However, she added that this introduces complex practical and legal issues, particularly around scalability, due process and timeliness. 

An expert group will be established by Martin to consider the issues posed by the recommendations. This group would then report back to Martin after 90 days with recommendations on how best to address the issues.

One of the issues the expert group is set to examine online is anonymity, which is not legislation does not address and which the minister today described as “a scourge”. 

“As someone involved in politics, those anonymous accounts, as as many journalists here will also be aware, are an absolute scourge. And I would foresee envisaged that this is something that the Media Commission will seek to tackle and deal with in those platforms,” she said. 

Broadcasting and video on-demand

The new Media Commission will also be responsible for overseeing updated regulations for broadcasting and video on-demand services as well as the new regulatory framework for online safety that has been introduced by the bill.

The Commission itself will take on the current functions of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and will regulate both television and radio broadcasters. The BAI will be dissolved under the new legislation.

With the Commission being responsible for video on-demand services, new regulations are to be set out in media codes and rules, that will address issues around programme standards, advertising, sponsorship, product placement, accessibility among other matters.

A new 30% quota for European Works will be created for video on-demand services. Currently, there is a quota of 50% for European Works for transmission time for television broadcasters. 

- Additional reporting by Christina Finn and Rónán Duffy

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