Thursday, 22 September 2022
Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)
I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to the House and for the amount of work she has done in the Seanad on it. It is really important and timely legislation and I commend her for her work. It is legislation that has been needed for some time. It is clear from our own regulation of politics and conversations with parents, schools and other actors, there is a need for regulation of social media. I respect all of the points that have been made about freedom of expression and the right to it. Freedom of expression is not and never has been an absolute right in this jurisdiction or any other. The points raised by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, and others concerning censorship and freedom of expression are noted but I do not hear those same organisations standing up against infringements on people's privacy, the democratic process or on democratically elected people who have suffered at the hands of unfettered freedom of expression either. It would be nice to see a little bit more balance in that dialogue that respects some of the players on the pitch who are actually trying to engage in the democratic process, protect freedom of expression more broadly and protect the democratic process itself just by their turning up and participating. I raise that because I am on the Committee on Gender Equality which is there to consider the recommendations of the 100 citizens who did huge work in the Citizens Assembly. A big piece of that work is about women in politics and women in public life more generally. Professor Yvonne Galligan, among many other notable experts, came before the committee last week. She noted in particular the insidious impact of social media on democracy and on democratic processes and particularly unregulated social media and the particular affect of that on women and minorities as Deputy Pringle and others have pointed out. We are concerned with generally enhancing and increasing women's participation in politics and public life as a measure of the success of our representative Chamber and how off-putting the social media abuse - which we have all in the House experienced, male and female - can be for anyone to come into politics. But it is obvious that it has been targeted at women in a different way, and I do not know there are many of us who might dispute that, or perhaps the nature of it is slightly different in respect of women so that it represents yet another barrier to getting more women into politics. That was a particular feature of our debate at the Committee on Gender Equality last week. It is important to highlight it here.
Look at the responsiveness of social media companies in practice to issues that are raised. In my experience, without naming any of the companies, the response from at least two of the companies was just appallingly poor to issues that were raised.
Whether it is complaints made through their own channels, complaints made more directly or complaints made through other actors of the State, the timeliness and quality of response are genuinely poor.
About a year and a half ago, one of the social media companies came to us with an idea in respect of the take-down facilities. Of course, if something that has important reputational effect is put up about a politician or any other person, the most important thing is to simply have it removed. Damages are not necessarily a remedy. It is not a real remedy; it is about protecting the individual in the moment. The company's suggestion was that the individual could go to the High Court at whatever time of the day. The individual would need to be able to pay the fees to access the lawyers, and do so at whatever time of the day because social media operates at every time of the day, to get an injunction or some other relief from the High Court. The individual would then need to come back to that social media company and show it the High Court ruling. Then the social media company would have a good old think about whether it would then take down the piece. By then the damage is done. It just shows how disconnected these companies are. Either they do not understand - which I do not believe - or they do not care about the impact these things can have on individuals' reputations.
That is why this balancing legislation the Minister has introduced is so important. It is important because it provides a counterweight to those platforms for freedom of expression which have enormous positivity but must be regulated. I hear these points about freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is a balanced right and not an absolute right. It has gone too far in respect of the damage that can be done to individuals and systems such as the democratic system as a consequence of the very small number of entities using it so negatively and wrongly.
I thank the Minister for the work she had done on the independent complaints mechanism. I know she gave great thought to that matter and had an expert group consider it. It relates to the timeliness of being able to respond and for people to be able to respond. My understanding is that the Minister will introduce it first in respect of children and minors, following the Australian model and then assess whether that could be rolled out further. I think that is exactly the right approach to take.
CyberSafeKids is a great organisation which works with children, parents and schools across the country to provide better online safety training and support to parents who find their children in difficulties. That was one of the key recommendations from its report two weeks ago. It interviewed 4,500 young people and their parents about their social media use, their Internet use and the difficulties they had faced. Parents faced difficulties in trying to protect their children where issues of bullying came up on Snapchat or YouTube videos that were being shared and linked throughout WhatsApp groups or different platforms that the children were using. Those were either directly related to a child or were being used to continue bullying activity through online platforms.
The most important thing for those parents was not some remote remedy, damages or other solution down the line but the protection of their child that night, dealing with the child's distress and protecting the child's emotional well-being. In other debates we speak about these concepts very frequently. We talk about mental health, the protection of children, removing bullying and all these different things. However, what mechanism is available to a parent at 7.30 on a Tuesday evening to stop whatever is exacerbating their child's distress? The only thing is to get the material down quickly, enabling the child to get on with things rather than having it escalating as these things do.
The independent complaints mechanism requires social media companies to respond quickly or else the matter will be taken up with the online safety commissioner. It applies pressure on the companies, not on the parent or the State. Introducing this mechanism will have a behavioural effect for social media companies. They will need to devote some of their welcome but very considerable resources to dealing with matters quickly instead of getting the sort of nonsense responses that people, including even elected Members of this House, get in response to complaints of a very serious nature.
I do not care whether I get a response. I am big and ugly and get on with things. However, in respect of that child on a Tuesday night at 7.30, the parent needs a response for the child. The step the Minister has taken with the independent complaints mechanism offers that. The social media companies should be on notice that they will be expected to behave differently in respect of complaints that are raised, particularly with children who are so vulnerable.
Other Deputies have spoken about the algorithms and how they are driven. It is so easy for any person to test. There is no question but that they are driven by negativity. I hope this new legislation, through the creation of the commission, will provide a better opportunity to understand, challenge and question that in a real way and provide a better balance to what is available on the Internet and in media content generally.
I congratulate the Minister and thank her for this piece of work. I wish her well with the rest of the Bill's passage through the Houses. In particular I thank her for the independent complaints mechanism which will make a genuinely practical difference and is something that parents can reach to on a Tuesday at 7.30 to protect their children. Without it I do not know what they would have done in trying to manage social media bullying of their children.