Thursday, 22 September 2022
Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)
Richard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
I welcome this Bill and congratulate the Minister on making this progress. I was Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment when we started this journey and it certainly took much innovation and thinking about what other countries had done and what would be most appropriate in Ireland. I know the team put a lot of work into assessing the choices that have led to the Bill that has finally been presented here. It is really important that we create obligations on these platform companies in the areas the Minister has singled out. We need to create codes of conduct with independent oversight by the commissioner. It is correct that the Minister has created the scope to evolve new arenas where codes may be needed.
Looking back through history, the printing press was a revolution that transformed society in terms of education, freedom of expression, research, scientific endeavour and political debate. The Internet and social media platforms are another such revolution. They provide almost barrier-free access to information, the ability to express one's view and access to entertainment. As other speakers have said, while the Internet has extraordinary potential and has transformed people's access and opportunity, it is also the avenue to fake news, manipulation and vulnerability for people who could become victims of what happens online. It seems to me that it has taken us hundreds of years to evolve the sort of protections that are in place for print media in terms of defamation, responsibility for what is published, privacy, protection of the weak, protections against discrimination and so on. That has been a continuing evolution over hundreds of years. The reality is that much of this has to be reinvented in the digital space, but we do not have the luxury of waiting hundreds of years for that to evolve. It is changing the way in which people live so dramatically and quickly that we need to collectively develop approaches. This is a very important first step but in reality, it is only a first step.
The gains to society from these opportunities are, of course, enormous. They will give, and are giving, a new fillip to education, research, innovation and, indeed, democratic participation. We are still a long way from seizing the opportunities in education that digital transformation offers us and we need to come to terms with that. These side effects on our society are ones we need to think long and hard about. As outlined in the Bill, the online world must be safe. We are just starting on that journey.
One of the features that makes it very different from traditional publishing is that the Internet and social media is a two-way system in which customers and consumers surrender the most intimate details of their lives to the providers. The gathering and use of this information is an instrument of incredible power and penetration, with all the algorithms and unknown and possibly unknowable biases that are built into how people are targeted. It can target people, however. It can publish what it likes to a large extent. It can create the impression of a bandwagon in artificial ways. It can create the impression of equality between fact-based science and fiction. As Deputy Higgins said, its aim is audience, not evidence. This creates hazards. We are not trying at this point in this Bill to regulate much of that, although no doubt the codes of conduct will start to touch on how this gathered information is to be deployed. It is really important that we see the Online Safety Commissioner break new ground and become very much aware of what is happening in other countries.
Open and pluralist democratic societies like ours need to respond. Social media generally has not created a great commons in which democratic debate proceeds and we have the great ferment of ideas and exchange. The tragedy is that it has created insider camps and capsules in which people do not hear any views other than those of like-minded people. The more divisive the message, the more attractive some of those groups become to build audiences. At its heart is not truth, justice and the dignity of the person, which ought to be at the heart of the democratic engagement we try to create. We have a problem here. We see that other states which take a different approach to their citizens have rigorously controlled these platforms. Unlike us, they have extraordinary controls and use the two-way system I have described to track and trace what their populations are doing and to cut down on any activity that would be seen as inimical to the interests of the governing elite. We are living in a world where some states approach social media in that way. In the democratic world, we are at sea as to how we will manage this. People who use social media live in a world in which they can vote every minute with their likes. This gives people a certain satisfaction, but it is far from the deliberation that politics needs if we want to nurture and protect policy based on evidence and respect for individuals. We need to see evolve, whether at European or national level, new institutions tasked with fact-checking and evidence-checking. We must create authorities, not just codes of practice that try to catch the most damaging extremes of what is happening. We also need some form of regulation that allows quicker fact-checking and access to institutions in which the public can have confidence. Such structures must achieve a standing within communities whereby citizens value what they say rather than the free-for-all that is out there.
We have all seen that the connection between us, as politically elected people, and our voters has become more difficult over time for all sorts of reasons, including changes in society, communication and the way people live. We must find a substitute for that and find ways in which people can have a connection with those whom they elect. It is a challenge to us and the parties we represent to think how that can be done. In my party I have been involved in the creation of what we call a policy lab, which tries to reach out to a wider range of people and interest them in the shaping of policy. It is one small way in which we can do that as a party. We must think more broadly as a political community about how that can happen. The Ceann Comhairle had a very useful session that I was fortunate to attend where that sort of outreach was happening on a non-partisan basis.
It has been argued that there is a risk of overreach in terms of the restrictions we may be putting in this Bill on freedom of expression. The comment has been made that we are seeking to make something illegal online that might be legal offline. The power of online communication and the way it can be used within that system is so dramatically different that we are right to stray a bit beyond what we have been used to as standards within the print media. To be fair to the Minister, the democratic control that she has put into the Bill - how new areas of harm would be identified for the evolutions of codes and so on - is pretty robust. If we continue to be worried, perhaps we could elevate the online commissioner to something akin to an ombudsman with presidential appointment, or different ways of appointment, and direct reporting to the Dáil to acknowledge the importance of that role.
The codes to be developed by the online commissioner are very much to be welcomed. The one point I worry about is that if these platforms do not have a duty of care within themselves, and we are waiting for the online commissioner to catch up with a code that regulates the use of algorithms or whatever it is, like most financial regulators, we will always be arriving breathless and late to the crisis point that we need to address. There needs to be a duty of care and a precautionary approach built in as an obligation of these platforms. The commissioner can vet whether they are adequate.
There is no doubt that the generation of local and cultural content is threatened by online platforms. The advertising models they have depended on are hugely undermined. This is something the Minister recognises. I congratulate her on her efforts. We must continue to strive in that regard. The Bill will take some steps in that direction to create the opportunity for local, relevant and reliable cultural and sporting content to continue to be generated to create that commons within our communities that is so important and which is very much at risk from those I call political buccaneers, whom we have seen in many countries trying to undermine the values we hold so dearly.