Naughten to discuss social media watchdog plan with Ministers

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten will meet next week with ministerial colleagues to discuss how to proceed with plans for the establishment of a new watchdog with statutory powers to compel social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to take down offensive or abusive material posted on their sites.

Mr Naughten will discuss the proposed new digital safety commissioner with Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone and Minister for Education Richard Bruton.

In December, Ms Fitzgerald received approval from Cabinet to legislate to make cyberstalking and revenge porn criminal offences, making it illegal to intentionally post intimate images of a person online without their consent and extending the offence of harassment to ensure it includes activity online and on social media.

Harmful communications

The legislation is based on recommendations by the Law Reform Commission in a report published last September on harmful communications and digital safety published last year, which also recommended the establishment of the digital safety commissioner.

At the same Cabinet meeting, Mr Naughten indicated his support for proceeding with the new digital safety role. The statutory position, which is modelled on comparable offices in Australia and New Zealand, would promote digital safety and encourage positive digital citizenship among children and young people.

It would also publish a statutory code of practice on digital safety to set out nationally agreed standards on the details of an efficient take-down procedure.

This reflects a particular concern on Mr Naughten’s part to address the difficulties which parents and others currently encounter when they seek to have offensive or upsetting material removed from social networks.

Users have complained of slow responses, long delays and a failure to remove such material despite repeated requests.

In Australia, the office of the children’s safety commissioner describes its mission as “helping young people have safe, positive experiences online and encouraging behavioural change, where a generation of Australian children act responsibly online– just as they would offline”.

Complaints service

It also addresses online safety education for Australian children and young people, operates a complaints service for young Australians who experience serious cyberbullying and addresses illegal online content .

While there will be a similar focus on children and young people in the role of the Irish commissioner, the remit of the office will extend to anyone concerned or affected by abusive, threatening or dangerous online behaviour.

It is unlikely the new procedures will cover potentially defamatory behaviour, as this is a matter for the civil rather than the criminal courts.

The Law Reform Commission report noted the “enormous positive benefits” brought by the digital revolution, but also described negative aspects including victim-shaming, threatening online messages, voyeurism and harassment.

Under the proposed system, individuals would initially apply directly to a social media site to have harmful material removed in accordance with agreed timelines.

However, if a social media company does not comply with the standards in the code of practice, the individual could then appeal to the Digital Safety Commissioner, who could direct a site to comply with the standards in the code.

If a social media site failed to comply that direction, the commissioner could apply to the Circuit Court for a court order requiring compliance.