Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 September 2022

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

 

2:25 pm

Photo of Catherine MartinCatherine Martin (Dublin Rathdown, Green Party)

I thank the Members of the House for their valuable contributions. The level of engagement during pre-legislative scrutiny and legislative scrutiny here and in the Seanad has been most welcome and of considerable benefit in ensuring this Bill meets our needs, both today and in the future.

I apologise to the members of Joint Oireachtas Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media for the delay in sharing the report of the expert group on an individual complaints mechanism. This was an unfortunate and unintentional administrative oversight, especially as the committee was so involved in the work that led to my decision to establish the committee.

Members have raised a range of important issues. While I cannot address them all today, I will briefly respond to a number of points. Deputies Munster and Mythen raised the issue of Oireachtas oversight of the activities of coimisiún na meán. The Bill as it stands contains numerous provisions relating to Oireachtas oversight, including the direct accountability of the executive chairperson and the commissioners to relevant Oireachtas committees. However, as legislators we must be mindful that an coimisiún will be an independent regulator, as required by EU law. As such, it will be responsible for carrying out its day-to-day activities, subject to Oireachtas oversight. For example, regulatory codes such as media codes, media rules and online safety codes will be subject to negative resolution procedures before these Houses.

Deputies Munster, Mythen, Kelly, Cannon, Kenny and Patricia Ryan raised the issue of appropriately resourcing coimisiún na meán, including with expert staff. At present, the recruitment process for the roles of executive chairperson, online safety commissioner and media development commissioner is ongoing and is expected to conclude in November. Work is continuing with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to finalise the estimated medium- and long-term staffing and resourcing requirements of an coimisiún. A key part of this is identifying the necessary expertise required by coimisiún na meán in order to fulfil its functions. In this regard, recruitment is expected to take place in tranches over a period of time following the appointment of the commissioners and the establishment of an coimisiún. I agree that there are specific skill sets required and that this is a rapidly changing environment. I am committed to supporting an coimisiún in delivering on its goals in this respect.

Deputies Mythen, Ó Cathasaigh, Gould and Patricia Ryan raised the regulation of gambling. As Deputy Mythen noted, my colleague the Minister for Justice is in the process of bringing forward a Bill to establish a new gambling regulatory authority and, to that end, has recently recruited the CEO for that body.

On Report Stage in the Seanad, I tabled a Government amendment to ensure that coimisiún na meán would work with this new body to strengthen both the regulation of gambling and media and online safety. I am confident that this approach will enable the two regulators to collaborate effectively in addressing their shared challenges.

While freedom of expression is a key value and virtue of this House, Deputies Munster, Kelly, Cannon, Tully and Barry specifically raised concerns in relation to protecting freedom of expression and striking an appropriate balance of rights within the Bill. More specifically, a number of Members raised concerns in relation to section 46J(1)(a) which concerns duties on broadcasters and video on-demand services, including a duty not to broadcast or make available anything which may reasonably be regarded as causing harm or offence. I must state that this provision is carried over from the 2009 Act and is currently a part of Irish law. However, during the Seanad debates on this Bill I committed to examining this issue further with a view to potentially tabling an amendment on Committee Stage in the Dáil and that is what I am presently doing. Therefore, I acknowledge the concerns that have been raised and I am examining them.

Deputies Munster, Tully, Kelly and Gannon raised the working conditions of content moderators working for online platforms. While I agree that this is an important issue, it is a matter of employment law and is something that the Tánaiste and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment have been examining. I will ask my officials to liaise with their colleagues in that Department on this matter.

Deputies Munster, Kelly, Gannon, Kenny, Barry and James O’Connor raised the issue of disinformation, which is a significant and complex issue and requires a distinct and targeted response. At EU level it is being dealt with through the completed and strengthened code of practice on disinformation, which will be linked to the Digital Services Act. The Act will set out standards for platforms in dealing with this issue. Coimisiún na meán will ultimately be the main regulator for the Digital Services Act in Ireland. Therefore, this is how we plan to regulate operationally for disinformation in Ireland, bulwarked by the EU code of practice. In addition to this, my Department is planning to establish a working group, comprising relevant Departments, agencies and key stakeholders, including the European Digital Media Observatory hub at Dublin City University, to progress the recommendation of the Future of Media Commission to create a national counter disinformation strategy in order to complement the work of the EU in tackling disinformation.

A number of Deputies raised matters relating to media sustainability. In this regard, Deputies Canney and Michael Collins raised issues in relation to local radio, including access by local radio stations to the journalism bursary provided in the Bill. I can confirm that I intend to propose an amendment on Committee Stage in the Dáil to ensure local radio stations have access to the bursary.

In relation to a potential content production levy and scheme, it is intended that this levy will be introduced by an coimisiún subject to an assessment of its viability and of whether it would have any negative effects. This is because there are risks as well as benefits for the Irish audiovisual sector in the introduction of a levy. Some stakeholders have asked whether I would set out the exact percentages of and process of the levy in the legislation. I think that such an approach would be inflexible and that an coimisiún, as an independent body, should have the power to design and enforce the levy and to change it over time. I expect that an examination of the content production levy will be among the priorities of an coimisiún upon its establishment.

Deputy Higgins raised the question of algorithms. Online safety codes made by the online safety commissioner can address the use of algorithms to deliver, recommend and moderate online content. This is key to this systemic framework to regulate online platforms and to tackle the availability of harmful online content. Deputy Pringle raised issue of private messaging services. These services are covered by the Bill but only in respect of offence-specific online content of which there are 40 categories linked to existing criminal offences. This means that coimisiún na meán can set out obligations for these services through online safety codes for how they address this type of content. This includes standards for complaints handling, reporting requirements and technical mechanisms to reduce the availability of such content.

Deputy James O'Connor raised the educational role of coimisiún na meán. The online safety commissioner will have a role in carrying out educational initiatives, such as public information campaigns, and will work with existing educational bodies such as the Department of Education through webwise.ieand the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. An coimisiún will also be empowered to work with local, community and sporting bodies on training and educational initiatives, including media literacy and online safety. The commissioner will also be able to endorse third-party providers of online safety educational materials which will help schools to source appropriate and robust online safety materials. There have been some suggestions that an coimisiún should have a role in accrediting certain educational materials. I would not consider it appropriate for this regulatory body to overstep into the field of professional accreditation, but I think a good balance is struck by allowing the endorsement of such materials and allowing the delivery of educational initiatives and the provision of support to educational bodies.

I thank the Members of the House for their engagement with this vital legislation. While it is complex and expansive, it is necessary. In this regard, a number of Members have raised concerns that the Bill is too large. I take a different view. The Bill is comprehensive and sets out regulatory frameworks for media and online safety which are responsive and adaptable to changing circumstances. In our fast-paced, information-driven era, this is sorely needed. I know that a number of Members intend to table amendments to the Bill as it passes through this House. In this regard, my officials are available to meet with any Deputy who intends to introduce amendments in order to tease out any issues that may arise.

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