Wednesday, 21 September 2022
Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022: Second Stage
Johnny Mythen (Wexford, Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source
I thank the Minister for her work on the Bill to date. Also, the Seanad and the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media put in many hours of work to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny on this important Bill. I hope the Minister will listen to all recommendations made. Our thanks must also go to all the stakeholders who made written submissions and gave evidence to committee hearings to ensure their expertise and knowledge played into this process. Safeguards for people online, especially children, are vital to mental health and well-being. The Minister must ensure there are ample options for recourse to protect people's safety rights online, including the individual complaints mechanism.
I saw last night in the media that the report from the expert group on this issue was published. I thought I had missed an email from the Minister and I was disappointed to see that it was not circulated to the Members of this House, especially those of us who are members of the committee that recommended it.
It is unacceptable that the Minister had the report since May and it was only published at 5 p.m. the day before the issue was to be debated in this House. This is bad parliamentary practice and, frankly, it is disingenuous to the Members of this House who collaborated with her on the Bill. On initial reading, the expert group has put in extensive and comprehensive work to consider this issue. We thank them sincerely for their work.
There are several issues to be teased out about the individual complaints mechanism. The commission will require staff with a high level of expertise. This will require a serious funding commitment and cross-departmental work with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to ensure we have these experts available. Workers involved will need to have protection in place for their own well-being, especially if they are involved in the triaging of criminal complaints to relevant authorities. I hope the Minister will respond to these issues and be open to exploring these recommendations as the Bill progresses.
Another issue that was stressed to us during pre-legislative scrutiny was transparency and the importance of data collection by designated online companies. Online platforms should be held to the highest standard of transparency and be compelled to provide requested data for public interest research and evidence-based policy. Will the Bill include a mechanism for the commission to compel designated companies to provide data that is of public interest? If not, this is something we in Sinn Féin may table as an amendment on Committee Stage, and we would ask the Minister to work with us on that.
When we are talking about online safety, we must include well-being and workers' rights too. Reviewing harmful content is a role that requires safeguards to protect employees' mental health and well-being. How will the Bill ensure that online platforms will be compelled to protect workers' rights in this regard? I understand this might fall under the remit of Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, but there must at least be a collaborative effort as this Bill is where protections for workers can be enshrined in law.
Another issue I raise is gambling, although it is not covered directly in the Bill. Much academic evidence supports the belief that online gambling influences and increases the likelihood of problem gambling. This is largely attributed to specific targeting of users and constant online visual bombardment, and the covert nature of online gambling. As this Bill covers online safety, it is important that we discuss the advertisement and promotion of gambling on social media. I see a vital role here for collaboration between the Online Safety Commission and the new gambling regulatory authority. Will the Bill outline the relationship between these two vital arms of the State? It is important for this collaboration to be put on a legislative footing.
One sees the importance of robust structures, accountability and transparency in public bodies now more than ever, with serious concerns still outstanding in, for example, An Bord Pleanála. The new media commission must have the most thorough and strict process of accountability to ensure public confidence. I have two issues of concern in this regard. The first relates to the level of oversight the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media will have. Will the committee have the power to request information at any time, including that which relates to governance and tendering, as well as financial issues regarding the hiring of consultants and advisers? Will the committee be able to make recommendations on such issues?
The second issue of concern is around declarations of interest. I am aware the Bill covers conflicts of interest, but I believe we need to go further. Does the Minister agree that the commissioner should be required to fill out a full declaration of vested and commercial interests every year and that it be published in order to improve transparency? I also want to Minister to revisit the joint committee's recommendation that Ireland should introduce a mandatory quota for production of European and Irish works. Surely, as a legislative Parliament, we can make sure indigenous works are included, enhanced and protected. What extensive analysis is needed, as suggested in the Minister's response to the recommendations? The opportunity is now before the Minister to do this and we ask her to grasp it for the benefit of our talented artists.
I have several outstanding concerns around the Bill, some of which I have outlined. I look forward to the Minister's response.