Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 September 2022

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

 

2:05 pm

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)

I am delighted to see this Bill progressing. It will take vital steps to define categories of harmful and age-inappropriate online content. It will empower the media commission to create binding online safety codes and provide a mechanism for complaints of harmful online conduct. These are all important steps in the correct direction and the Bill is Ireland's opportunity to change things in this space and to show our leadership on a global stage.

We are, as we know, an EU location of choice when it comes to the headquarters of many social media platforms, and that so many of them are based here gives us a great opportunity to become true leaders in this area. Democracy is fragile and there need to be laws to protect it and citizens throughout the globe, whether they are in Ireland or Myanmar or on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, however, as we have seen, social media companies can be weaponised and can threaten and destabilise democracy. Engagement-based ranking is dangerous - that is what Mark Zuckerberg told us - yet we are living in a metaverse where what we see on our social media platforms are the posts that will get corporations the most engagement and the most money. Mark Zuckerberg was correct; it is proving dangerous to our values, our health, in particular the mental health of our young people, and our democracy.

In Ireland, we used to look across the Atlantic at politics in the United States and thank our lucky stars that our politics was not fuelled by money in the way it is there. Unbeknown to us, however, platforms were changing that under the radar. The sad reality is that right now, someone can use money rather than message to influence the national discourse and shape democratic decisions. That is not the kind of society or democracy I want to live in. Social media poses amazing opportunities, especially for keeping families and friends connected, and it would probably pose nothing but opportunities if it were not monetised and had not become a global multibillion euro industry, but it did. That has meant that the threats are just getting bigger, such as the threat to democracy and stability through how easily people can engage in the viral spreading of disinformation. There are threats to our health, including our mental health and in particular that of young people, through the generation of patterns of online hate messaging.

Earlier this year, the Facebook whistleblower, Ms Frances Haugen, appeared before the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media to give her input into this Bill. It was fascinating to have her there given all the work she has done in this space. Her bravery and insight have had ripple effects across the globe. Her insight into how we can best protect young people online was not only fascinating but actually really practical. I was particularly struck by something she said about safeguarding children of 12, 13 or 14 years of age and how modern technology like facial recognition could be adopted to make a digital age of consent work. That is a really interesting point because we in Ireland constantly struggle with the idea of a digital age of consent and how to get it to work without needing or requiring someone to share private data as a child's proof of age.

Ms Haugen also had a comment on individual complaint mechanisms. She said they would have to be enacted in a way that does not lead to our new commission drowning in complaints, which is a really important point. I welcome the efforts of the working group to provide exactly this. I am pleased that the expert group recommended the introduction of an independent complaints mechanism for harmful online content on a phased basis that will prioritise children first. That is so important. It is our children and their mental health that most need the protection.

However, we need to strike the right balance between allowing people the ability to escalate their complaints without flooding the system to the point where it no longer works. That is where technology can be utilised for good. It is not that difficult to write software that can provide people with a way of making complaints. If it was done in that way, it could create a mechanism whereby a broad range of complaints could be channelled through our NGOs. That would highlight where we have hundreds or even thousands of people who are all complaining about the same issue. It would enable us to identify and address these issues which, as we can see, the social media companies will not do on their own. Doing that in a manner where takedowns are also required immediately would be so important because they only work if they happen when they should. We have amazing NGOs in our country such as Webwise, CyberSafeKids, SpunOut, Bodywhys; the list goes on. They could be crucial here and they have already been crucial in shaping this Bill.

One concern I have about the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill can be framed as more of a question. Is it overly focused on content as opposed to the systems set up to optimise and target the content? Perhaps we need to look more at the root of the problem and the algorithms used, and the fact that they need to revert to what they were before 2018 so that reactions and engagements are no longer the driving metrics of social media companies. Investment needs to happen in artificial intelligence around local languages and moderating content so that we are minimising the human cost of censorship. We need mandatory risk assessments that relevant NGOs, like those I mentioned, and other bodies can chime into in order to return accountability to the social media companies, thereby ensuring it is the polluter who pays.

The EU Digital Services Act is a really impressive piece of legislation. There is an awful lot to be learned from looking to Europe on this. The EU Act will ban targeted advertising based on sensitive data like race, political opinions, religious beliefs, health and sexual orientation. It will ban practices aimed at misleading users and using deception or techniques to influence users’ behaviour through what it calls "dark patterns". It will provide for a crisis response mechanism to analyse the impact of the activities of very large online platforms and search engines on a specific crisis. This is an addition to the Act in light of Russian aggression in Ukraine. It will also allow us to seek compensation for any loss or damages resulting from platforms not complying with their obligations.

Ireland is in a unique position. We will benefit from this legislation as an EU member but we are also the European headquarters of so many of the companies about which we are talking. We need to be a leader in online safety. I congratulate the Minister for prioritising this legislation to make us so. This Bill is an opportunity for Ireland to become a global leader in the digital age. It is an opportunity for us to positively impact on children's health and well-being and to positively impact on the mental health of every social media user right across this country, whether he or she is from Lucan, Longford, Clondalkin or Cork. I am really glad that the Minister is grasping that opportunity. I thank her, the NGOs, her steering group and task force for all working so collaboratively on this Bill. I hope to see it strengthened further. I know it will have a real impact on people's lives.

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