Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 September 2022

Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)


1:25 pm

Photo of James O'ConnorJames O'Connor (Cork East, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for being present. It is important to note the impact this legislation will have on the future of media and how we interpret all methods of communication. There has been extraordinary change in the past three decades in how people communicate on a daily basis. I am probably part of the first generation of elected representatives, from the 2019 local elections to the general election in 2020, who have grown up as children, teenagers and young adults with social media platforms. I have seen at first-hand the damage this can do. As a consequence of social media there are many positives in people's lives by making it easy to communicate. It has shortened the distance of communication for people who may be living abroad or have family abroad. Social media can have significant positive ramifications. From an economic point of view it is important to us in Ireland given the scale of investment by social media operators in the State.

It must be said, however, that there are many areas that are hugely concerning, and that have long been concerns at EU level and domestically, in respect of the negative impacts that social media can have. It is having a detrimental impact on people's mental health and their interpretation of the quality of life they enjoy even in the respective countries in the EU, and it is also an issue when it comes to trying to tackle crime and violence. This is why we need to pursue this work. I welcome the establishment of the media commission and the work that the Minister has been doing on that. I commend her on her proactive approach on these issues, and I thank her for the work she has done.

However, it is important that we acknowledge the serious urgency around this particular work. I have significant concerns around prosecution that will come as a consequence of new legislation that we will bring forward. Section 12 of this deals with that. It is important that there is very strong back up when it comes to being able to prosecute people for illegal behaviour online. One thing that requires serious consideration in this legislation is how we deal with anonymous online activity. We have seen on social media platforms, particularly Twitter, very significant interference particularly in political dialogue by anonymous accounts. It is extremely important that we work with major social media operators to try to cut down on the level of interference that is happening. I am really concerned about the direction of travel when it comes to elections in our country and the external actors that we know for a fact are trying to influence democratic elections. That is not just necessarily in respect of Ireland but at international level. We cannot consider that we are not ourselves potential targets, particularly with upcoming elections. We have local elections coming in 2024. We know they will take place in May 2024 and there is potentially a general election between now and 2025. It is exceptionally important that the Government moves really rapidly in this particular are to ensure those standards are in place with the work the media commission does to monitor online interference in the election process and the activity of anonymous online accounts. These have been huge issues in the US presidential elections, for example, but also in European elections. I refer to what has come out about Cambridge Analytica and what happened with the Brexit referendum. It gives an indication of the significant impact that online activity can have when it is used for unethical purposes. We must also do more work around sitting down with the companies. There is an issue in Ireland because we rely on them so much. The elephant in the room is the level of corporation tax that we receive from multinational companies working in social media. It has a huge impact on people's quality of life in Ireland which is positive but I do not think it is wise for us to shy away from having those difficult conversations, which might have been an issue in recent years, around content moderation to protect vulnerable people and vulnerable users of online communications whether children or young adults as well as political discourse. There is a very fine line. Deputy Pringle spoke very eloquently about restrictions on freedom of speech. They are important but we need a level of understanding and a common denominator with the changes that have happened. If you go back 20 or 30 years, there were standards in place. If something was printed in the press, it had to go through an editorial process. Now, as the former Chancellor, Angela Merkel pointed out at European Council meetings, everyone is effectively an editor. That presents very significant challenges around policing that; not necessarily restricting freedom of speech but the responsibilities on each individual are enormous because you have a worldwide audience for everything you say. We have not quite come to terms with that yet. That is why it is important this legislation is being brought before the House along with the establishment of the media commission. The work it will do will be really positive and I am very supportive of it.

We are not the worst example internationally of illegal online activity. However, there is a lot of room for improvement for vulnerable users too. Tackling things such as online child pornography and the purchasing of drugs online, which is a major problem with some platforms, is something the Government needs to look at. There is also the negative impact it is having on antisocial behaviour. Very sadly, in recent months we have seen some extraordinarily disturbing scenes of antisocial behaviour here in Dublin. Thought needs to be given to the impact social media has in driving it on or making people feel that it is in someway acceptable. That is something that needs to be asked.

Education is key. It is really important that the primary curriculum teaches the dangers of online activity. I came through primary education in the 2000s when platforms like Facebook were only starting to grow and get established. We now have a generation of people who are being born into this as their way of life. It is important that we look at primary level and do further education around online activity that could put people at risk. It must be age-appropriate, that goes without saying, but we need to look at the younger age groups in society to teach what is acceptable and unacceptable. The number of devices connected to the web can range from a smart phone or watch to every games console which is connected to the Internet with web searching functions. The age of exposure that children in this country get to the online world has dropped dramatically over the last decade. That is something that the media commission should look into when it comes to the impact it is happening on younger members of society.

I do not want to go on too much about it but I am concerned that we are ill-prepared here for political interference in online activity in our elections. We must work with the Standards in Public Office and the media commission. I am confident that the Government will take my contribution on board. It is a major concern. We all see what is going on with foreign actors trying to influence elections on the European Continent. Ireland is no different. We have a seat at the table at European level. It is important that we work to protect the integrity of our electoral systems and online communications in this country. It should form a key part, along with prosecution powers, in the legislation that is being considered.


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