Online Safety Bill approved but stakeholders call for further measures

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A number of groups have expressed concern with the timeline of the Online Safety Bill and certain recommendations not being included.

The Irish Government has approved the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, designed to regulate online services and reduce the availability of harmful content. However, a number of groups are calling for further commitments in the final legislation.

Under the bill, Ireland will establish a new regulator called the Media Commission, which will replace the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). It will take on the current functions of the BAI but will also be responsible for video on-demand services such as Netflix.

The Media Commission will include an Online Safety Commissioner who will enforce safety laws for online services including social media sites. Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin, TD, is in the process of recruiting an Online Safety Commissioner.

“One of the most important aspects of the bill is that it establishes a new, powerful regulator to enforce accountability in the sector,” she said yesterday (12 January) when the bill was published.

The Children’s Rights Alliance supports the bill, with CEO Tanya Ward saying it could “open the window to a safer online world for children and young people in this country”.

Under the proposed legislation, the Online Safety Commissioner will have a range of powers, including the ability to appoint authorised officers to conduct investigations. Online services that fail to comply with safety codes could face fines of up to €20m or 10pc of turnover.

“We need to see a commissioner with teeth, with powers to take action when platforms do not comply with the safety standards,” Ward added. “This is an opportunity for this Government, and for Ireland, to lead at a national and European level on online safety for children.”

Individual complaints mechanism

But Ward said there are “major gaps” in the bill that need to be addressed, most notably the inclusion of an individual complaints mechanism, which would be a way for young people to find a solution when they don’t receive a satisfactory response from online platforms.

Martin acknowledged that there are a number of recommendations, including those regarding the provision of an individual complaints mechanism for harmful online content, that “require further consideration” and that she plans to address through “potential amendments” at the committee stage.

This mechanism has been pushed by the 123OnlineSafety campaign, led by the Children’s Rights Alliance and including 16 supporting organisations.

“This is a red line issue for children’s advocates and we are encouraged to hear that further consideration is being given to how complaints will be handled and how they can be investigated further,” Ward said. “If this bill is going to have the capacity to truly hold platforms accountable, then it needs to take the reins of regulation out of their hands”.

CyberSafeKids, one of the organisations supporting the 123OnlineSafety campaign, welcomed the revised bill and said a number of joint Oireachtas committee report recommendations have been addressed.

But CEO Alex Cooney also said it is “imperative” that an individual complaints mechanism is included in the final legislation, adding that it was endorsed by a large number of stakeholders including the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection.

“This mechanism will provide a vital safety net for all online users, but particularly the most vulnerable including children, to get harmful content removed in a timely manner,” Cooney said.

A lack of urgency

Technology Ireland, the Ibec group that represents the tech sector, expressed support for measures in the bill but raised issues with the timeline for its implementation.

“This bill was first announced in January 2020 and the delay in getting to this stage does not reflect the urgency of establishing the Media Commission and implementing the Audio Visual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive,” said Technology Ireland director Una Fitzpatrick, referencing the EU-wide coordination of national legislation on audiovisual media.

“Ireland will be among the last EU member states to implement the online safety framework provided for in the AVMS Directive.”

She added that the policy landscape has “evolved significantly” since the bill was first announced as the EU is pushing forward with the Digital Services Act (DSA), a proposal to regulate online platforms on issues such as illegal content and algorithms.

“Based on the current expected timelines, the DSA will be finalised before this bill is enacted and it remains unclear as to how some provisions in this bill will be compatible with that,” Fitzpatrick added.

The DSA is due to be voted on this month after a related proposal, the Digital Markets Act, received overwhelming support in an EU Parliament vote last month.

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