Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022: Second Stage


4:37 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I am scheduled to share my time, so if my colleague shows up, I will yield to her. I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Bill. I know the Minister, the Department, the committee and a great many others have put a huge amount of work into it. I commend everyone on their significant work on this extremely important Bill which has been long called for and is even more important today than it was when it was originally proposed.

The creation of a new regulatory body that will implement, enforce and update rules on content is extremely important. The commission will also update the new online safety codes and help tackle and reduce harmful content, with Schedule 3 to the Bill listing a range of categories on the basis of the legislation, including sexual offences, rape, people and drug trafficking and other offences that will be included.

I will focus on the measures relating to cyberbullying, eating disorders and self-harm and-or suicide, which have the potential to cause extreme distress to young people engaging in the online world. It is extraordinarily important for the children of Ireland and it is long overdue. It also incorporates elements of the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission, which should not go unmentioned.

As noted by other contributors to this debate, online bullying can have devastating consequences. We know of many unfortunate incidents that have led to tragedies through many years. While the online element of bullying is not always the beginning and the end of those experiences as it is often done in person as well, the anonymity that is offered online is a massive problem with which global society must deal, but if we can tackle it in Ireland, we should try to do so. As Members of this House know only too well, bullying can be insidious and almost constant. Younger people may not be as well equipped as adults to deal with harmful content or cyberbullying, or both, and any measure the Government can take through the establishment of the commission is to be welcomed.

We can all speak about the more vulnerable members of society and the various tragedies that have befallen society in recent years with cyberbullying playing a significant role in tragic circumstances. I understand, however, that several concerns have been raised in respect of the Bill and are being given due consideration by the Minister and the Department. The Minister will be reviewing recommendations emerging from an expert group on this matter. It is important that we get the steps correct and that the Bill reflects stakeholder views as much as possible. I also recognise that the complaints mechanism is a complex area of legislation, not least due to the sheer volume of online content.

I will mention infant formula because it is important. I am pleased that the commission is being given the power to regulate this area, in line with public health advice. It is worth noting that the Broadcasting Authority has been given authority under EU law to ban the advertising of such infant formula by broadcasters in Ireland. There are certain things that some people might consider to be over-regulation and there are other areas that just make sense in terms of public health guidance and this is probably one of the latter. I am not necessarily in favour of banning things but, in this instance, this may be one that should be acceptable to all.

I note the creation of flexible legislation that will be able to incorporate forthcoming legislation and allow the commission to adapt to new measures. That is very much to be welcomed. As the Minister will know from her time on the Opposition benches, the most important aspect is the adequate resourcing of the commission. That is imperative. There is no point in giving the commission a role, particularly one that is this big, but not adequately resourcing it to carry out that role. I acknowledge that there are acute difficulties in the area of employment because the State is virtually at full employment and it is difficult to encourage people to join the ranks of the public service or a semi-State body, whichever the commission might be considered, but, ultimately, if we resource the commission adequately then it will be able to perform its crucial role. I have touched only on the role of the commission.

It is important to go back to the major issue of our time, which is online content. The ability of the commission to adapt to new platforms and new methods of communication and how that will interface, particularly with children, is of the utmost importance. A couple of minutes ago, I got my first text message from my 11-year-old son, who has just been given a mobile phone. He has three names in his phonebook and he will not be able to add to it, I am pleased to say. One becomes acutely aware of these things. As a public representative for 18 years, I have been subjected to horrors, quite frankly, as, I am sure, have all present. If we can do something in this House, however, to protect the children of today and those of tomorrow, it will be worthwhile.


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