Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022: Second Stage


3:27 pm

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this Bill, which has been a long time coming. Those of us who are members of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media have spent the past couple of years working on the Bill, particularly during the pre-legislative scrutiny process, and I am happy that it is finally progressing to the Dáil.

The Bill was amended in the Seanad and I thank Senators Warfield and Ó Donnghaile for their work on behalf of Sinn Féin in the Seanad.

The Bill is vast and wide-ranging, maybe too wide-ranging. There was certainly a case to be made for breaking it up into a number of smaller Bills, but we are where we are.

Any Bill designed to modernise Ireland's approach to the regulation of online content is welcome. It is past time and much needed, as I think we can all agree. This is particularly important for newer online services, which have been operating largely unregulated and unchecked for over 15 years. The world has changed drastically in that time, as has our consumption of media. It will be an enormous challenge for regulation to keep up with the pace set by the technology giants.

The new media commission will not be able to do it alone, and there will be a need for the Oireachtas to keep on top of it too.

There have been some recent moves on criminalising certain online behaviours. What this Bill needs to do, however, is to hold tech platforms to account. I am glad to see robust penalties in that regard in the Bill. It is important that the commission will have the powers and the manpower to hold these companies to account. They have shown us loud and clear that they are not capable of or willing to regulate themselves. They are purely profit-driven corporations that are happy to profit from content that promotes hatred, conflict, bullying and misinformation. Those of us on the media committee will recall Frances Haugen's powerful testimony on the algorithms employed by Facebook, which actively target and reward negative content, hate, violence and misinformation.

In regulating this type of content, there is a very fine line between personal liberties and freedom of speech and the protection of certain groups from harm. I am not entirely convinced that parts of this Bill sit on the right side of that. In particular, I have concerns about subsection 46J(1)(a), which reads:

A broadcaster shall not broadcast, and a provider of an audiovisual on-demand media service shall not make available in a catalogue of the service— (a) anything which may reasonably be regarded as causing harm or offence,

I would have serious concerns about legislating against something as fundamentally subjective as causing offence. I think that this section is a significant attack on people's right to freedom of expression, which is an essential component in any democratic society. There are concerns that this section of the Bill may even contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression not just with regard to ideas that are considered to be inoffensive but also with regard to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population. I understand that Senator Higgins proposed an amendment to this section during the debate on the Bill in the Seanad but I do not think the Minister accepted it. Will she clarify if she intends to replace this section with more appropriate wording?

On a more positive note, another one of my concerns about the Bill all along has been the lack of protection from what I consider to be harmful advertising. This includes infant formula advertisements, but also advertising of junk foods with high fat, salt and sugar content targeting children. Thanks to the work of Opposition Senators, those concerns are now addressed in the Bill, and I thank the Minister for agreeing to that. Protecting our children from advertising by multi-billion dollar global corporations is the least we can do as legislators. We have to do our bit to protect the health and well-being of our children, and the inclusion of these safeguards is a massive step forward.

The Bill also creates a significant new regulatory framework, coimisiún na meán. This will replace the BAI and will have significant additional powers. The commission will be responsible for the enforcement of new laws governing online content, will have the power to appoint authorised officers to conduct investigations and will be able to impose sanctions for breaches of compliance, including financial sanctions of up to €20 million or 10% of turnover. There will also be a power to seek criminal prosecution of senior executives of non-compliant platforms. The commission will have the power to create legally binding regulatory codes. On this point I understand that there will be Oireachtas oversight, and I would be obliged if the Minister could expand on that point. While the independence of the commission is of paramount importance, we have to ensure there is appropriate Oireachtas oversight too.

The content levy is another important part of the Bill. I understand that the Minister has been engaging with independent film producers on some of their concerns about the levy. They include seeking certainty around the timing of the levy, assurances that the levy will be available to independent screen producers, and the introduction of a quota for independent production companies for schemes under the fund. The sector has raised some valid concerns about the fund, and I hope the Minister will take those concerns on board.

The Bill needs to include a section on the well-being of content moderators. Their work can involve viewing very distressing content, and tech giants and their subsidiaries must be compelled to protect the mental health and well-being of workers in these roles. If we are happy to have the European headquarters of all these companies in Dublin, we need to be involved in maintaining basic standards for those who work for them. The Government needs to have a more hands-on approach in that regard. If we do not have that, it will place undue pressure on the new regulator. If it cannot be included in this Bill, the Minister could give a commitment that the Government will introduce legislation on this in the near future. The issue of content moderation was raised at the media committee when Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appeared before us earlier this year. She raised this issue and also the levels of expertise that will be needed by the new regulator. She estimated that we will need at least 20 algorithm experts with deep product expertise. The problem is that anyone with this expertise will have been trained in-house and, therefore, recruiting suitable candidates is extremely challenging. Without these experts it will be impossible to hold these tech giants accountable. Their technology is so advanced and developing so quickly that it is impossible to keep up. The report of the expert group reporting on the individual complaints commission has also stated that staff of this calibre will need to be recruited for the purposes of the complaints mechanism. What plans has the Minister to ensure this is done? The Government has been far too pally with these companies for too long. It is time to get tough on them and to impose appropriate regulation. Ms Haugen also spoke about the problem of misinformation. Can the Minister clarify if this will be addressed in the Bill? It represents a serious threat globally and must be addressed.

Another issue covered by the Bill is prominence of public service media. This is very important, and I welcome its inclusion in the Bill. Prominence is particularly important when it comes to the Irish language. I note that there is an amendment to the Bill from the Seanad relating to section 7 of the Bill, requiring coimisiún na meán to promote the use of the Irish language by communications media. That is welcome. My colleague Deputy Ó Snodaigh has been working on a significant number of amendments to strengthen the Bill in providing for the Irish language, and I look forward to discussing those on Committee Stage.

Last but certainly not least, I welcome the introduction of the individual complaints mechanism as recommended by the report of the expert group. This was identified by the joint committee as a central issue that needed to be rectified in our pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. I was surprised, however, that the Minister's Department did not send the report to members of the media committee. It is not a great way to do business to publish the report on the evening that Dáil Second Stage is due to commence, especially when the Minister has had the report since May.

I have a few questions about the report. Will EU-wide video-sharing platform services be included, and, if so, how will that be funded? Will the Minister accept the expert group's recommendations on putting timelines into this legislation? Can she provide detail on that, especially with regard to what media and online safety codes will be prioritised and the expected timelines? I see on page 25 of the expert report that significant resources will be needed to ensure the complaints mechanism is effective and efficient. Will the Minister outline her plans in that regard? I think I asked her at the committee meeting last week for a breakdown. I know she has mentioned a figure of 160 staff initially, possibly going up to 300, but also the sections and the grades of the staff that the new commission will need. Will the online safety commissioner be able to impose fines on companies that are found to be in breach under the complaints mechanism? What other sanctions will be made available to the commission?


No comments

Log in or join to post a public comment.