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'For us, there is a fundamental value in anonymity' - Twitter at Leinster House today

The Joint Committee on Transport and Communications heard from representatives from both Facebook and Twitter today.

Representatives from both Twitter and Facebook were before the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, as discussions on social media and its responsible use entered their second day.

The director of public policy for Twitter, Sinéad McSweeney, gave an indication of the huge growth that the service had seen, saying that while it had taken three years, two months and one day to reach one billion tweets, this same number of tweets were now being sent every 2.5 days.

She did note, however, that there were people who used Twitter “without the best of intentions” and that she was “acutely aware of our responsibility to address that”.

Responding to the ability of Twitter users to remain anonymous, she said that “the privacy of our users is very important to us” and that a balance needed to be struck between respecting their wishes and those who felt aggrieved.

“For us, there is a fundamental value in anonymity,” she said, adding that it could give a voice to those that wouldn’t otherwise be heard.

Accessing help online

Outlining the steps that users could take to report abuse, she said that breaches had led to accounts being suspended.

I want to state clearly at this point that there are Twitter rules.

“We are conscious that there are different people using the platform,” she said, saying that help articles existed which catered to teenagers, teachers and parents.

Similarly, the policy director for Facebook in Ireland and the UK, Simon Milner, said that the company had rules already in place. “This is not a free-for-all,” he said.

The public policy manager for Facebook, Patricia Cartes, stressed that it had “special privacy protection for younger users” and that it was their duty to “ensure that we protect them”.

Speaking of politicians wishing to protect their constituents, McSweeney said that it was important that people didn’t lose “sight of the opportunities that social media has opened up.”

Recourse

On the subject of legal redress, she said that Twitter’s policy was to ask that users complied with the rules of the country in which they operated, and that relationships existed with various law enforcement agencies throughout the world.

Asked if she believed whether there were any legal gaps in Ireland with regards to social media, McSweeney said that this was a question for Minister Rabbitte and the Attorney General.

The issue of accessing justice through the courts was raised again, with Fine Gael Deputy Noel Harrington saying that the biggest issue facing many people was gaining access to the judicial system.

This was echoed by Fine Gael TD Patrick O’Donovan, who said that Ireland’s courts were the “preserve of the rich”. Conscious of shining a “nanny spotlight” on the issue, he said it had reminded him of the Fr Ted episode where people were shouting “down with that sort of thing”.

Bullying

Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley said that he found Twitter to be “exceptionally useful”, and said that he was “somewhat bemused” by the level of coverage being given to online bullying. “There’s no new phenomenon here,” he said. “This hype and panic isn’t warranted.”

We should be looking at bullying rather than the channel by which bullies seek to ply their trade.

Fine Gael John O’Mahony disagreed with this view, saying that as a former teacher it was easier when bullying could be seen in the schoolyard, whereas now “it doesn’t finish at four o’clock”.

Solutions

Saying that she believed that a Press Council-like structure would not work for social media, McSweeney said that a greater understanding of the existing resources that “all companies have in place” would be beneficial.

She also said that parents needed to know the tools that their children were using.

As parents, we have to stay in touch with this. We owe it to our children.

As a mother herself, she said that just as parents warn their children as to the dangers of the offline world, these same warnings needed to be given about the online world.

Cartes said that Facebook was already working with a number of organisations in Ireland to help address the issue of online abuse and inappropriate content, such as Webwise and the Irish Internet Hotline.

Milner also said that users needed to become more aware as to what they could do to control their online experience, saying that it was very easy to control the visibility of what you did on Facebook.

Read: Rabbitte: ‘Bullying didn’t come in with the advent of the internet’ >

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Paul Hyland

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