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Opinion: Ireland is in prime position to hold social networks to account - and we must

Lawyer Paul Tweed says it’s ‘absurd’ for such companies to claim they are ‘merely a platform, not a publisher’.

Paul Tweed

SEVERAL DECADES AT the coalface of defamation, privacy and harassment litigation have led me to recognise that we have hit a crucial moment in time.

Last week I wrote to the Justice Minister, Helen McEntee, urging her to set up a committee to consider the regulation of Facebook, Twitter and other online corporations that have their European Headquarters based in Dublin.

Unfortunately, while there has been much talk from governments around the world of taking action to curtail online harassment, hate speech and misinformation, there have been few or no tangible steps taken to deal with what I believe to be one of the most pressing issues facing this generation.

It is absolutely absurd for global online disseminators to continue to claim that they are merely a platform as opposed to a publisher, particularly when they are also extracting enormous commercial and other benefits from the sourcing of investigation reports and crucial advertising from the mainstream media.

Unaccountable

While doing so, the social networks remain to all intents and purposes unaccountable under the laws of defamation, privacy and harassment. To add insult to injury, in 2018 Facebook apparently moved the data of 1.5 billion users to the safe haven of the United States shortly before the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force in Europe.

Much has been written in recent times about the plethora of misinformation and fabricated stories that have been circulating on social media arising from unstable countries such as Libya, resulting in breaches of personal security and endangerment to life. However the reaction of the powers that be has been, at best, sporadic and inconsistent.

In the meantime, the spread of fake news and propaganda on Facebook and Twitter, serves to perpetuate and exacerbate the chaos surrounding the warring factions in Libya. All this misinformation is of course disseminated around the world, resulting in as much devastation as that caused by any missile or economic sanction.

My frontline work frequently crosses the political divide in the controversies spanning the Middle East and North Africa. In common with their counterparts in other parts of the world, these clients are becoming increasingly frustrated and perplexed by the social networks’ failure to deal with online incitement on the one hand, while on the other hand the clients are faced with termination or suspension of their own accounts without explanation or justification.

Acts of incitement

The social networks are often reluctant to accept responsibility for blatant acts of incitement or false allegations appearing on politically motivated publications emanating from various places ranging from Turkey to North Macedonia, other than at their owndiscretion and on very selective occasions.

Why should the Irish Courts and legislators be concerned with the misinformation carnage that is being disseminated in far off countries such as Libya? The answer lies within the decision of Facebook and the other online corporates to establish their European, Middle East and Asian (EMEA) headquarters in Dublin in order to take advantage of very significant tax and other lucrative benefits.

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However, just as these global corporations have had the luxury of choosing the most appropriate jurisdiction to suit their financial objectives, perhaps best described as “tax tourism”, they have also been equally selective in diversifying their locations to the most favourable jurisdictions that may protect them from inconvenient legal proceedings. This is an observation that applies across the board to Google, Amazon, Twitter and others in choosing their jurisdiction of convenience and increasing the challenge for lawyers seeking to protect their clients’ international reputations and brands.

Ireland should take a stand

If Ireland is not prepared to take a stand and lead from the frontline in attempting to deal with these divisive issues, whether through legislation or regulation under the Press Council and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, then who is going to accept the responsibility for doing so?

With Libya emerging as the new social media battleground, resulting in an inevitable and troubling impact on Europe never mind nearby countries in the Middle East, Ireland is likely to be a focal point in the quest for social media regulation in the months to come.

The old adage that “with great power comes great responsibility” must surely apply equally to the online conglomerates and the Government.

Paul Tweed is an international media lawyer specialising in defamation, privacy and data protection issues.

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