Dáil debates

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]

 

4:25 pm

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I propose to share my time with Deputies Marc MacSharry, Shane Cassells and Jack Chambers. I will set out the purpose and context of the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017, go through the sections and deal with the main objectives of same. We are aware that we live in an age when online platforms are increasingly influential in political debates and in shaping public opinion. This is to be welcomed and is a progressive and positive step. There are opportunities for citizen engagement, further debate and a more accessible medium so it is very much a welcome development. However, it also poses threats and challenges to our democracy and the integrity of that debate at times.

The debate today comes on a day when the UK equivalent of the Standards in Public Office Commission published a report which, among other things, called for greater regulatory powers to control social media platforms and certainly to engage in political debate on those platforms. The debate comes at a time when we have seen congressional hearings and the Mueller probe in the US find that up to 126 million false Facebook accounts were involved in influencing public opinion during the US presidential election. It also comes at a time when we believe the Brexit debate was similarly shaped by similar malevolent actors and when we are probably gearing up for another referendum in this jurisdiction possibly in the next six months. Of course, there will be more referenda and elections to come in the months and years ahead.

While the online space has many benefits, authentication and identification are difficult. There is an opportunity for more advanced actors to game the system in the technological space and to pretend to be other than who they are, operate multiple fake accounts or run sponsored advertising, which is the main interest of this Bill. Sponsored advertising covers paid advertising intended towards a political purpose and the political purpose is defined in the Bill as seeking to promote the popularity of a candidate for office of a political party or to influence the outcome of a vote before this Oireachtas, industrial dispute or referendum. It is quite a particular definition.

In respect of those who seek to place money on the table to influence our electoral outcomes, the Bill proposes that there must be a transparency requirement that they are who they say they are so it essentially brings honesty to the debate. Similar to lobbying Acts and provisions relating to disclosure and transparency in the electoral Acts and standards in public office legislation, this Bill should be seen as a transparency initiative in the same vein. I would say that this should be seen as the 21st century equivalent of the electoral Acts. I did not know that our electoral Acts contained 22 electoral offences until I started researching this Bill. I doubt many practising politicians have ever fallen foul of them - certainly not intentionally or knowingly - but they remain on the Statute Book. However, they are really a relic of a bygone age as they date from 1992 and beyond. Some of them are still relevant, such as the restrictions on print materials and posters, which must carry a ticker tape notification as to who published or sponsored them. This information is already on posters and election leaflets at election time.

The proposal is that the same means be provided in respect of online advertising so if someone engages in a sponsored promotion online and puts money online for the purpose of influencing an electoral or political outcome, they would have to state who they are by means of what is called a transparency notice. A transparency notice is proposed as a notice somewhere in the advertisement or, in the case of social media platforms, within the system where someone can click on a link or button to display a notice that would say who the person is. It would be an offence under the legislation to give false information to the advertising portal at the time of registration in the same way as it is already an offence to give false returns to the Standards in Public Office Commission.

There has been evidence in the past of interference or certainly interest in our election campaigns from external sources. I am sure many of us remember when UKIP placed 100,000 or possibly one million leaflets through doors during the Lisbon treaty referendum campaign. I remember the Ancient Order of Hibernians took out a full-page advertisement in the Sunday Independentprior to the vote on the Good Friday Agreement encouraging us all to vote against it. These are just two examples that spring to mind at a time when it was far more difficult to interfere in the process because someone had to commission one million leaflets and put them through every door or take out an advertisement in the Sunday newspapers. Now that someone can do the same thing at the click of a switch on Facebook or other online portal, it is all the more important that we update our laws and ensure that they are still relevant for the digital age and that the electoral Acts, which have been there since the early 1990s and before the Internet, broadband and social media era, are updated to reflect the modern tools available to us. The growth of political advertising in itself is a positive step and this Bill has no provision against it. Indeed, it encourages it. It is seen as positive and progressive. However, it imposes a transparency requirement that those who advertise are who they say they are.

Most social media platforms, at which this Bill is particularly aimed, already engage in these developments anyway. I know that in Canada, Facebook is beta testing the same type of transparency notices I mentioned. I met representatives from Facebook at its Irish office earlier this week. Google and Twitter are similarly inclined. They are all very aware of this problem and have been dealing with it since the US presidential election, the Brexit referendum and the French presidential election and in Germany recently. There have been issues in Hungary, Norway and Turkey so the social media giants have been battling this phenomenon on multiple electoral platforms and, in many cases, are updating their systems to reflect this and apply this integrity, transparency and robustness to the online debate.

We have to choose, as a jurisdiction, whether to allow them to dictate the terms and wait and play catch-up or whether we will have some role in shaping the form it will take by expressing our views as a legislature on how electoral law should be managed online.

The content of any materials advertised is completely immaterial. The legislation is ideologically and content neutral. What somebody says has no bearing. How he or she says it and the fact he or she is paying to say it is only relevant if a person does not disclose his or her identity. It is about bringing honesty to the debate. There are low-tech solutions for scenarios in which a social media provider is not in the loop, whether it is a local website or a national new website. It is not that difficult for a graphic designer to put a tick at the bottom of an ad saying who the sponsor or publisher is in the same way posters and leaflets already do. There is often great ingenuity shown by designers at election time in incorporating it into the ad. I am sure we can do it again.

The next part of the Bill is on a slightly different matter and addresses concerns that have been raised in the public domain and the media about what appears to be a pet project of the Taoiseach. That is the strategic communications unit which was announced at the time of his arrival into office. There was widespread concern and apprehension that €5 million of public money was put aside for what is regarded in many quarters as a very slick and well-oiled public relations machine. It appears from the newspaper pull-outs and multiple online ads on Merrionstreet.ieabout different initiatives that it is a uniquely good news service. Bad news does not seem to make the cut. I submitted a parliamentary question on the matter to the Taoiseach last week and, funnily enough, I only received the response about an hour ago which does not explain the criteria for how those initiatives are selected. The good news engine seems to power on with €5 million in public money. There is a provision in this Bill that would prohibit the use of public money for political purposes, using the definition of political purposes contained within the Bill. The Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach, Mr. Martin Fraser, is reported in the newspapers as having expressed concerns about the strategic communications unit. He warned officials within it to maintain the independence and political impartiality of the Civil Service and that the core values of neutrality and impartiality were to be respected. I understand he issued instructions in that regard. Mr. Fraser has done the State some service.

This Bill will address that issue. It is an opportunity for the strategic communications unit to set the record straight. We can put it behind us and welcome and embrace the Bill. If it is of a non-political nature as is suggested then this provision merely clarifies that and moves ahead with it. It is also worth noting the McKenna judgments on the European referenda of the 1990s and the McCrystal judgment of 2012. In 2012, Mr. McCrystal challenged expenditure on the Children's referendum. It was found that the Government, of which many members are still in place, mis-spent €1.1 million of taxpayers' money advocating a particular side in the referendum. That was €1.1 million and with €5 million on the table, the risk is much greater. It would be better to be safe than sorry. Hopefully nobody is afraid of transparency.

Section 6 of the Bill deals with people with multiple fake accounts and would make it an offence to misinform or mislead the general public malevolently by running 25 or more fake accounts in a deliberate and systematic manner managed by software in such a way as to present as 25 individual accounts and deliberately manipulated by an online user. The offences, in line with existing Electoral Acts, come within the framework of the gardaí and the DPP.

There have been suggestions that SIPO could play a role. I am very open to that and I am open to any suggestions that come out of the Second Stage debate. If the Bill progresses, which I hope it does, because there is support in the Chamber, issues can be thrashed out on Committee Stage. I have never seen a Bill go through without multiple amendments.

I will yield to my colleague, Deputy Marc MacSharry.

4:35 pm

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Sligo-Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for taking the time and I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Lawless, for his Private Members' Bill. It is very useful. The Government should accept it and use pre-legislative scrutiny and Committee Stage to improve it if it feels there are anomalies in the Bill. Deputy Lawless has outlined the many positives in the Bill.

I will focus on the strategic spin unit. Given the brilliance of John Concannon, in the same way that buildings throughout the world are lit up with green, will we now have buildings throughout Ireland lit up in blue in honour of Leo the Vain? At the Committee of Public Accounts last week, I had the opportunity to question the Secretary General about a number of issues, one of which was the fantastic ad for invalidity pension. It is very informative, just like the ones that were around for years from the Road Safety Authority, the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Justice and Equality and so on, except at the end of this ad there is a lovely footer saying it is a Government of Ireland initiative. Clearly somebody somewhere is trying to take the people of Ireland for fools. This is a cheap abuse of public funds to create a false complexion of political, Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar ownership and creation of the people's entitlements. It is wrong and dishonest and it impairs the integrity of the Government. I am very surprised the Minister, as an Independent member of Government, stood over a €5 million wastage. What would €5 million have done for the A&E in Roscommon hospital, for example? How many home care packages could it have given to the people of Roscommon and east Galway? How many more blue light ambulance cover hours could we have in the Minister's county? This is about the "me, me, me" approach. It is the "Enough about me; what do you think of me?" approach of the Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, who is now wasting €5 million in public funds to make himself look better. He is tweeting and recording from the Government jet and from the office every morning. My colleague, Deputy Thomas Byrne, submitted a parliamentary question asking who is paying for the Facebook boosts on the little messages coming out of the office on Merrion Street. All of a sudden they stopped for a while. Perhaps the way the account is funded has changed. This €5 million is being used to create dishonestly a complexion of political ownership of citizens' entitlements. It is Mugabe-esque; one could choose another name - Chavez, Pinochet or Goebbels - but that is what it amounts to. It is the worst possible kind of propaganda. As an independent and very honourable member of the Government, I expected better of the Minister and thought he would hold this man to account for the abuse of public funds in this way.

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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That is hard to follow. Back in 1996 when I commenced my degree in journalism, as part of the photojournalism module we had to learn how to develop our own pictures in a darkroom. Within a short time of passing the exam, digital cameras had become the norm, darkrooms were no more, photo film companies were going out of business and I was left with a redundant skill. Within another short period of time, online platforms were gaining a foothold when it came to the presentation of news. Following that came the advent of social media with Facebook and Twitter. I mention all of these things because the amazing technological changes that happened in a very short window of time changed forever the traditional print media structures that had existed for centuries. It also changed how news was presented and it eroded the foothold of print media. The standards in reporting were also eroded because instead of journalists who had been trained in college or in the field reporting, everyone walking down the street saw themselves as a journalist.

The lightning pace of change has also taken its toll on traditional television stations. I have discussed already with the Minister how people choose different platforms to get information and entertainment. Despite the huge differences between traditional print media, traditional TV platforms and social media, the one common denominator is advertising. The financial survival of all media, whether print, TV or social media, depends on advertising. If they cannot pay the bills, they do not have a viable media organ. In that respect, social media is king. The need for transparency and authenticity is essential. The political world is not exempt from the impact this is having.

We have two key concerns. First, as Deputy MacSharry has said, is that the Government is using this highly influential platform to pedal spin it is passing off as information, brought to the public by An Taoiseach on planes, trains and automobiles, the sequel. Second is the issue of the manipulation of this platform by bots that could distort political facts. We have had examples from the US presidential election where one Russian company used 470 fake accounts to buy approximately $100,000-worth of political advertising, which were styled to look like the work of American activists. In Ireland, we had an attack on our own presidential election through fake tweets, which distorted a campaign. As Deputy Lawless said, people are very conscious of how the same thing could happen again in upcoming campaigns on very hot political issues.

The Bill, on which I commend Deputy Lawless, has very strict areas in terms of the transparency around paid political advertising and the use of bots. I would like to see further areas tackled later, such as the protection of traditional forms of media. One might ask what it matters if the other strands die. Industries evolve and things change. So long as we are getting what we are getting, who really cares about the platform on which it is presented? I care. I care about traditional print media, be it national or local media, such as the Meath Chronicleor the Drogheda Independentgroup where I worked for a decade. If all we are getting is Donald Trump-like spin in the form of Government spin on the one hand and plethora of looney spouting garbage on the other hand, we will not live in a very media-friendly world.

4:45 pm

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank my colleague, Deputy Lawless, for his work in publishing the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill. As Deputy Cassells mentioned, this has an important international context. US and Russian media bots with fake accounts sought to influence, manipulate and dent the democratic process. In the Irish context we are seeing the democratic process itself try to dent reality and news. We saw similar fraudulent online accounts with Brexit. This tsunami and splurge of online influencing seeks to undermine democracies. We are calling for accountability and transparency in that.

It is important that we modernise and progress what is fundamental in a 21st century democracy. The Bill focuses on ensuring transparency over the source of political advertising. If the Electoral Act 1992 requires transparency on posters, why can it not be brought online and why can the Government not support this important Bill?

The source of information and political advertising were traditionally always clear and transparent and codified in law. The Bill seeks to upgrade that to an online context which will only continue to grow. It is welcome that Government and political parties advertise online: no one has a difficulty with that. However, it is important that we see the source of the information so we know the motivational context in which that information is displayed. People need to assess the source of that information so they can assess its reliability, its background and its context. If the US people knew that Russian bots were funding and trying to undermine their democratic process, they would have had a different view of the information itself.

The strategic communications unit has been mentioned. It is interesting that one of the first things the Taoiseach sought to do was not to establish a strategic healthcare unit, a strategic education unit or a strategic housing unit; it was to establish a strategic communications unit. He said, "Communication to our citizens is an essential public service". However, it seems the programming and the attempt to cocoon and silo communications to the people through this communications unit is trying to undermine other core public services that he should be prioritising ahead of this spin unit.

The Government is using a legislative vacuum to normalise poor policy outcomes in key areas to try to fool the people. It also represents and reflects a worrying politicisation of the Civil Service when we have a political unit at the core of the Department of the Taoiseach, operating to the benefit of the Taoiseach and what he wants to spin. It is a strategic propaganda unit, a strategic political unit, a strategic diversionary unit and a strategic distraction unit that puts socks over substance. It is a shame on the Office of Taoiseach that he is promoting this unit ahead of other policy outcomes that should be at the core of his office.

I welcome the Bill which should be supported by all sides in this House in order that we can see transparency in political advertising and not the diversionary tactics we are seeing from the Office of the Taoiseach today.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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Attempts to thwart democracy are as old as democracy itself. There is a long and less than distinguished history of state and non-state actors alike engaging in such activities. Moreover, many states, including Ireland, have adopted a series of measures to reduce the risk of this occurring, including rules on the transparency of media ownership and the use of funds from international sources for political activity.

As everyone in the House will be aware, there are significant indications that various recent elections around the world have seen concerted attempts to manipulate public opinion by exploiting online media, including carefully targeted online advertising and the use of social media to manipulate the views of small but significant components of the electorate. This is a very serious issue. It appears that entities are exploiting the legal protections we have regarding freedom of speech, online as well as offline, to turn social media and online advertising into an antidemocratic tool.

These technologies and services are rightly heralded as being profoundly useful for democracy. They allow discourse and debate on political issues to be opened up to everyone, no matter where they live. However, it seems clear that they also allow actors to target and manipulate public opinion in previously unheard of ways. Moreover, this activity is particularly invidious because available countermeasures are so few and so difficult for democracies to grasp. These techniques work precisely because democracies allow for and facilitate freedom of speech. Democracies do not censor media or intimidate journalists. Democracies do not control access to the Internet or seek to control political speech on online platforms. Those who seek to manipulate elections in Europe and America know this and see it as a weakness they might exploit.

As Deputy Lawless has outlined, there is a significant issue here, one that we as a Parliament and as a democracy cannot ignore. Action is being taken in this area, but more can be done. I thank Deputy Lawless for facilitating this debate. While I recognise the Bill seeks to raise important issues in respect of the proper functioning of our democracy and of the security of the State, I am afraid that I cannot support it as it stands.

The Bill seeks to engage in extremely complex issues in a very broad and general way. While it has a number of practical and factual issues and a series of inherent difficulties in terms of implementation-related issues perhaps the most serious issue with the Bill is the unintended consequences it would have for the democratic process itself.

I fully acknowledge that the thrust of the Bill is aimed at reducing the risk of external actors seeking to create false political campaigns. However, it seeks to legislate for very specific issues in an extremely broad manner and in a way that would likely give rise to a number of unintended consequences that would make the situation worse rather than better.

First, the definition of a "political end' is so broad that the Bill essentially prohibits the spending of public money of any kind on advertising online any matter dealt with by the State or funded by the State in any way, for example, the Bill as it stands could prohibit a public meeting organised by a local authority on the proposed closure of a landfill. Equally, because the Bill makes no provision for the enforcement of the measures contained in it, it essentially places the responsibility for making the decision on what is or is not political advertising in the hands of online advertisers and social media companies.

In both the case of the prohibition of the use of public funds in section 3 and the proposed transparency notice system in section 5, it means that private operators based outside the State would be required to make decisions fundamental to the functioning of democracy as to who is or is not allowed advertise. In that context, it is entirely possible that reputable companies would chose not to carry political advertising.

Perversely, parties based outside the State are not bound by this measure at all, meaning that the Bill summarily fails to deliver on its stated purpose of providing greater transparency in online advertising and may even make the situation worse because of its effect in suppressing legitimate advertising by the State or anyone in receipt of State funding.

The Bill provides the Minister, currently me, with significant powers regarding the standards to be set. These could be implemented without recourse to anyone else with the simple stroke of a pen on the cusp of an election. That is a significant power to place in the hands of any one individual.

The legislation is weak in ignoring the rightful role that should be played by the Standards in Public Office Commission.

Having read the Bill, I, as an Independent Member, believe that it gives significant powers to a political party's headquarters over individual candidates and also over Independent candidates. Having experience of being within and outside political parties, I would have concerns about that. Perhaps most critically, the Bill could have the effect of placing unintended prohibitions on political advertising in a number of ways, including by potentially banning the advertising of Deputies' clinics, both online and offline, if the paper is published in electronic form. Identifying the owner of a social media account is not an easy or straightforward task. In many cases, both the platform and the individual will be outside the State and beyond the reach of this Bill. In addition, the majority of online advertising is programmatic and placed by third-party online advertising sales houses rather than the online platforms themselves.

At the very heart of this discussion is the set of principles that are central to the way we deal with both media and the emerging challenges associated with the Internet. As Minister, I have stated repeatedly that Ireland will continuously promote an open, global, free, peaceful and secure cyberspace where fundamental rights and freedoms, particularly the right to freedom of expression, access to information, data protection and privacy and security, as well as the EU core values and principles, are fully applied and respected both within the EU and globally. Once we start to tamper with online free speech or try to police who does or does not have the right to use social media, we run the risk of becoming more like those who would abuse the system in the first instance.

Deputy Lawless has identified a very serious issue but I am concerned that this draft legislation will create more problems than it solves. I respectfully suggest that the best way of dealing with this would be to draw together a group of experts to examine the issues, including us, as professional politicians, electoral law specialists and people from within the relevant Departments. The best entity to structure this group is the Committee on Procedure, which is headed by the Ceann Comhairle.

4:55 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Minister very much.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I also suggest that this should only happen once the key investigations into recent events have been completed, including those of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

It is critical to note that we are far from defenceless against any future attempt to manipulate democracy here. Leaving aside the rules in place regarding political funding from abroad, ensuring that we have properly funded and independent public service broadcaster is a critical backstop to democracy, as is our system to ensure media plurality in the context of mergers. Ensuring that our education system continues to teach media literacy, which is the case even in the civil, social and political education, CSPE, curriculum at junior certificate level, is a critical aspect as well.

On the specific issue of social media, I am assured that social media companies are paying increased attention to multiple and fake profiles on sites and that they are taking them down on a daily basis.

There are new and evolving challenges in terms of the abuse of targeted online media. I agree entirely that the State may need to take action in this area in the future. I have a general problem in principle with using 18th century tools to police online media because the online environment is changing rapidly. By the time we bring legislation through the Houses and have it enacted, it is out of date. We have seen that with legislation that has been introduced regarding protection of vulnerable adults and children in particular. We need to examine new, innovative legislative tools to deal with this issue.

I agree with the thrust of the Bill but the vehicle Deputy Lawless is proposing does not meet the necessary requirements. I agree that we need to deal with this issue and, through the Ceann Comhairle's office, we should pull all the players together in order to do so. We should proactively deal with it and bring forward a new structure that deals with the ongoing challenges and that can be adopted and changed as the people who want to thwart democracy adopt and change procedures as well. For that reason, sadly, I cannot support the Bill but I believe the principle needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Simply put, the Bill puts forward a number of important provisions, particularly the one that political advertisements would indicate who paid for them. The intent and basic principle of the Bill in regard to transparency is a welcome step forward. However, the scope is beyond the political party, the politician and the political process and if the Bill is to progress, it will need to be heavily amended.

The question arises as to whether the transparency notice that would be legally required under the Bill will have any power. What power will it have? What about the penalty or obligation on the social media platform itself? How would it deal with accounts outside the State? I read the Bill very carefully in order to ensure that I understood what is involved but some of the provisions are very broad. In terms of the transparency notice, who will have the power to say "Yes" or "No" to provide this notice and, ultimately, the power to prevent online political advertising? That is a strong power to give to anybody and that aspect will need to be clarified. On my reading of the Bill, the Minister, or his or her appointee, will have a strong power and we could possibly have censorship. I am not saying that the Minister, Deputy Naughten, might have inclinations to censor anybody but I refer to people who have sat in his seat. When people such as Conor Cruise O'Brien - "The Cruiser" - and some individuals from this side of the House were seated over there, they had strong inclinations to censor various organisations on different grounds. I am concerned about the intent and scope of the Bill in this regard.

On the provisions of the legislation, there is merit in the provision in section 6 relating to the offence of using a bot and multiple accounts. The word "bot" is new to the English language. The Bill would create a new offence of operating a bot for political purposes, defining a bot as a user with 25 or more individual accounts or profiles online, operated by a single user but masquerading as a range of individuals with separate accounts.

We have to examine the overall scope and intent of the Bill, as drafted, and the potential broad application of its provisions. We have to examine who and what would fall within the remit of Bill. The definition states "directed towards a political end" but the application of that wording is very wide. For example, it encompasses a matter of political interest or a matter that is intended to go before the Oireachtas, the Assembly in the North when, please God, it is up and running soon, the EU Parliament or even a local authority. That could be a county or town council. What constitutes a “matter of political interest”? How would that be treated before the courts as the Bill is currently drafted? How many matters in society are of political interest?

I often ask people who say they are not politically minded if they are worried whether there is a footpath outside the door or water coming out of the tap. If they are, they need to be interested in politics. People make political decisions to have water coming out of taps, provide footpaths, street lighting, tar on the road and hospitals. Very few things in society are not based on political decisions.

The Bill also indicates that a "political end" would include issues relating to trade unions and disputes in the workplace. That is going into dangerous territory in terms of industrial disputes. We question the placing of that in the Bill. Section 3(2) states, "Online political advertising shall not be paid for from monies ... voted by the Oireachtas". What does that take in and how far would we go with it? Where is the policy behind the Bill directed? Is it directed at the Government's communications unit, which was referred to earlier? I call that unit the "Ministry of Truth" of the Fine Gael Party. I do not see the Independents figuring prominently in the advertising campaign overseen by the unit. In fact, I have not seen an Independent feature in it yet. The Minister has responsibility for communications but I have not seen him appear in any of those advertisements. Perhaps his hour will come. The Government's communications strategy, paid for out of public funds, is completely inappropriate and the nature of the establishment of this unit is leading to the politicisation of the Civil Service and a great deal of cynicism.

Of course Governments have to give out information, but we must be very careful about how this is done. The €5 million unit is paid for by the taxpayer essentially to promote a single party. This might reveal something about Fine Gael in terms of its past and the strain of totalitarianism in it.

To put this sum of money into perspective, the Government put only €7 million into the renewable heat scheme to combat climate change. We welcome any funding for that, but we would like to see more funding for it. The €5 million might have been added to the €7 million so that €12 million in total was dedicated to the renewable heat scheme. If the intent of the Bill is to address issues such as the communications unit we welcome this intent, but why is there such a broad overall interpretation in the Bill? When we are talking about trade unions and industrial disputes we are really getting into dangerous territory.

To return to the broad scope of the Bill, it mentions promoting candidates for election under the definition of "toward political end", but it goes beyond politicians and political parties. If its intent were related to electoral issues and political candidates why is it not placed within Acts specific to that area, such as the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995, the Standards in Public Office Act 2001 or under the Electoral Act 1997? It is not being placed within such legislation where it might be better positioned. As it is drafted, its direction is beyond the political sphere or the politician and one has to be careful how far one goes with that.

I understand we are in a new area and that the correct wording in legislation can be difficult to find, but it is extremely important that we draft legislation that is specific and that has clear intent. We are in danger of crossing the threshold of free speech and censorship in this Bill as it is currently drafted when we try to regulate a legitimate method of political expression and give this power to a Minister or the State. It mentions that people might seek to influence local authorities. A local residents' group may want to run a small campaign to get a water scheme on a road or for street lighting. The broad definition currently opens up all sorts of dangers for even localised issues such as those outlined.

What of the media platforms themselves? The obligation will not be on the online social media platforms as the Bill currently stands and if there is no legal obligation on these platforms I do not see how this legislation would work in practice. Without specific obligations and penalties on these platforms I am not sure how this Bill will function. We are talking about paid advertisements. Should those benefitting financially from the advertisements not face obligations?

In terms of the offences under section 5 of the Bill, a breach of this legislation will potentially carry a fine of up to €10,000 or a five year prison sentence, or both, for using an advertisement without the transparency notice and the consent of the State. If an individual wanted to use an online advertisement, for example in support of an industrial dispute going on within the State, they could face five years in prison and a €10,000 fine. These are heavy penalties. It is a pity some parties in this Chamber were not as forceful when the public wanted them to go after the bankers.

This Bill does not directly address "fake news". Some of the media today have created a diversion by saying that this Bill will go after fake news. It does not in itself give direction in regard to the content of a message, but it does create some accountability around the source of the advertising. It should be remembered that the idea of fake news was not brought about by social media. In the 19th century Punch magazine was popular in England and it was fake news. There were other examples of it in this country. It has always existed in some form of media content.

Social media is a legitimate platform for political debate and messaging. It is a good avenue for giving people a voice and allowing political expression. Some people may go overboard with it sometimes and often TDs and county councillors do not get treated fairly on social media. However, we have to be careful that the individual is not prevented by an arm of the State from legitimate political expression. Social media is used by many community groups to put forward a message and aid their campaigns. Preventing or hampering this in any way should not be put in legislation. This is referred to under this Bill.

As legislators we are not off the blocks when it comes to the online world and issues such as online bullying. I believe a large body of law will develop in this area in the very near future. We need to be careful and not have State involved in censoring online political expression.

The Bill does not appear to deal with people operating outside the State, which is unusual considering the allegations about Russia and America. There have been cases in the past were people have sought to influence elections or campaigns in this country. There was an example during the Brexit referendum, when a wraparound which cost £500,000 was supplied courtesy of an organisation called the DUP. It appeared in the London Underground, much to the bewilderment of commuters in the greater London area. The issue of people who might seek to influence what happens here from outside the State must be taken into consideration.

If this Bill is to pass to Committee Stage it will require extensive amendments. We have to test whether it can withstand that and if it is amendable. The spirit and intention of the Bill is very good and I compliment Deputy Lawless for bringing it forward. Overall we are in favour of it going to Committee Stage to see whether changes can be made to the Bill to improve it. Our observations are not intended as an attack on anybody, but are made in a constructive way to highlight some of the dangers and weaknesses we see in the Bill. I recognise that it is a difficult area to legislate for and I believe it will need extensive work at Committee Stage. It may be worthwhile having some experts into the committee. It can then be brought through to Committee Stage and amended. The debate that has started is good. It is a matter which must be addressed. We cannot insulate ourselves from it. It is an issue that is going to come up over and again.

The Minister for Communication, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, is an Independent Minister. I would appreciate it if he would speak to other members of the Cabinet about the €5 million that has been allocated to the communications unit. It could be better spent. I do not have an issue with a Government communicating what is available and changes to budgets and things of that nature. However, when the unit is being used to promote individual Ministers belonging to one part of the Government we are straying into dangerous territory.

5:05 pm

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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It appears that there are no other Members offering, so I am left with no choice but to call on the Deputy who moved the motion to conclude.

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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Other Members are due to address the House over the next hour.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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There may well be, but-----

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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Perhaps they did not expect to be called so soon.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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It is 5.20 p.m.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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Am I allowed to respond to the points raised?

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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No, but the Minister of State is allowed to contribute. Perhaps we can suspend for five minutes.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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There is a lot of work going on and people are working late.

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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People from other parties have not turned up. I cannot control that.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy should control himself. We are about to conclude.

5:15 pm

Photo of Ruth CoppingerRuth Coppinger (Dublin West, Solidarity)
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I apologise to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I was at a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. There is obviously huge interest in this Bill. This Bill has had huge media attention. I think the reason for that attention is that social media has become a favourite scapegoat of politicians, particularly of politicians from certain parties. They want to crack down on it and to introduce legislation to curb it. There is a number of reasons for this. Sometimes politicians feel that they are getting criticised on social media but it also is because social media has become a resource for ordinary people, for protest movements and for political discourse that is not allowed or permitted within the mainstream media. The idea that people could be prosecuted for putting out what some might deem to be fake news on social media is - I am sorry - absolutely reprehensible.

The first argument used is that social media is sucking advertising money away from responsible newspapers. The second is that social media does not play by the correct rules. I will give a couple of examples. The most recent example in Ireland is the campaign against water charges. For a time all of the mainstream media neglected the huge movement of opposition against water charges which was building up. It was left to people themselves to learn about it on social media. For example, the march of 100,000 people which took place in October - the famous first Right2Water march - was completely organised through social media. It is not accidental that the mainstream media had no interest in promoting the issue. It is because the mainstream media are owned and controlled by a few billionaires who do not have an interest in austerity being challenged in any way. Over a number of protests, people turned out in their hundreds of thousands. O'Connell Street was packed. However, if one examines the media coverage of the water charges protests, some of the reports would lead one to believe there was only one man and a dog out on them. It took a huge amount of time for the mainstream media to catch up.

The other, more recent, protest which has become a very convenient justification for cracking down on social media was the Jobstown protest. When the court case happened, the mainstream media reported what suited them. The headlines were about terror and bad language. They never spoke, however, of the contradictions in the evidence in the case at any time. Thankfully, when it came to the court cases themselves that evidence was brought out.

Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags have been used as organising points to put pressure on politicians and to facilitate broader discussion among people outside the realms of the mainstream media and the Dáil. Pro-choice activists have organised protest meetings and published information on the campaign on social media. These sites are absolutely vital hubs for people to organise, to highlight votes, to put pressure on the political parties and to support their demands. This should be supported and defended. During the Jobstown trial, social media played a key role in publicising some of the key issues central to the case. Videos were produced by the campaign, some of which were viewed more than a million times. The campaign's hashtag was tweeted hundreds of thousands of times. The clear differences between the opinions of some journalists and politicians and those opinions expressed on social media were stark and showed how out of touch those journalists and politicians are.

This Bill would be highly dangerous in respect of industrial disputes. Fianna Fáil has said that the Bill is not aimed at the right or the left and that it is not ideological, however the provision which seeks to include social media campaigning in respect of industrial disputes shows that it is clearly aimed at those who would challenge the system or take action against employers or powerful corporate interests. Workers and campaigners should have the right to defend their interests using the media they control, not the millionaire and billionaire-controlled media which they do not. The Luas strike in 2016 showed what would happen if workers sat around waiting for the mainstream media to report their strikes fairly. They would be waiting a long time. Every day, media outlets were calling for them to be sacked and for scab operations to be put in place. They were claiming the workers were holding the country to ransom. It is rare that the media find a strike they are not against, in any case.

If social media is closed to the vast majority of people for campaigning on political issues it will become a swamp controlled by the establishment parties, product placement and corporate interests. People have the right to use whatever forum they want to speak out, campaign and organise. This Bill attempts to curtail free speech. I notice the Bill only seems to apply to some people on social media. In the last general election, Fine Gael apparently spent €140,000 on social media advertising. Clearly when politicians want to use social media, they do. The Bill should be opposed.

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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Has the Deputy read the Bill?

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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First, I thank Deputy Lawless for bringing this matter to our attention and for bringing this Bill before the Dáil. We have heard a lot about the Taoiseach's new strategic communications unit which is, in other words, a spin machine. He will spend €5 million on this project which will aid Government Ministers and ensure the favourable political fortunes of the Government. While there has been a long-standing convention that the State does not favour one party over another or over Independent candidates at election time, this new initiative has pushed the boundaries of that convention to a new level with sponsored posts on social media, online advertisements and multiple page pull-out sections in the print media.

When I hear the figure of €5 million, I think of the patients on the waiting list for cataract surgery. When I think of those people who have been waiting three or four years, I first wonder where the money the HSE is getting is being spent. However, if they are short-changed and need more money, this funding would cater for many of those on the waiting list, some of whom we are taking up to Dublin or Belfast next Saturday and Sunday. It is highly regrettable that 70, 80 and 90 year-old people have to travel this distance to get the procedures so that they can see their families for Christmas.

This Bill is also about modernising the Electoral Acts and bringing them to date with new technologies. The existing Electoral Acts set out various rules about conduct during an electoral campaign including rules on materials and posters. We all know about the rules on posters. They must be signed and accounted for by the director of elections, whether in the case of parties or independent candidates. It is only fair that this new system, which is available to everyone, be accountable to the nation and the State. We should know who is putting up these posts and who is making these representations because Twitter has massive exposure and messages can be seen by many different people in many areas. It could have a massive effect on an election campaign, especially in its dying days. It could bestow an unfair advantage, especially if the Government parties of the time are using Exchequer funds to further their own fortunes.

That would be very regrettable. We need new legislation to bring the Electoral Act 1992 into the modern era. There need to be transparency notices on any online ads. That could be as simple as text in a box or similar but we need to know who is sending what. It is only fair that people know who is sponsoring or organising whatever is being sent out online and on social media.

5:25 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I too am delighted to be able to speak on the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017 and I compliment Deputy Lawless on bringing it forward. It provides for transparency in the disclosure of information in online political advertising and related matters. The word "transparency" can be interpreted differently and we need to focus on it. I am happy to make some brief remarks on the Bill. Anything that encourages a greater level of safeguards and respect online is to be welcomed not solely in respect of the political arena, but all online content and, in particular, in regard to cyberbullying and similar areas. The Bill does not go far enough in that respect but it is a start, tús maith leath na hoibre. I note that it refers to persons having online accounts under multiple names, which can offer great anonymity. As Members know, that is a method of hiding one's identity in order to convey messages or political views about which the person does not have the courage to be upfront and open. It can be very sneaky, deliberate and nasty.

All Members accept there is significant need for radical reform of how society engages online, in particular in regard to political engagement. It is not today or yesterday that legislation was needed in that regard. However, who will enforce the law? Amnesty International is currently flouting the law in regard to the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. I welcome today's statement by SIPO, which has reaffirmed its position. The chief executive of Amnesty, Mr. Colm O'Gorman, has said Amnesty will not obey the law outlined by SIPO and by which every Member of the House, county councillor in the country and registered voluntary, political or third party organisation must abide. For Amnesty to baldly state the law is not suitable or satisfactory and it is keeping the €137,000 it got from George Soros is outrageous and an affront to democracy, the laws of the land and, in particular, to the House and Parliament. That needs to be swiftly dealt with and I hope that the Taoiseach or the Minister, Deputy Naughten, or others will make a statement on the matter. No Deputy could get away with such behaviour and rightly so. We must be accountable and there are clear guidelines that state a person or organisation may collect €100 from a donor on the shores of America or elsewhere. However, Amnesty has received €137,000 and will not pay it back. That is an outrage.

The level of anonymity afforded to people online is staggering and can be a very serious threat to personal and State security. If one wishes to buy political advertising, there is a clear obligation to be honest and upfront about the ends and aims of such purchasing. It is significant that legislation is needed to remind us of the simple truth. We get carried away with so much media and spin and so many media consultancies and agencies. We can get caught in a bubble, and often are, such that we do not know what is going on in the real world and how ordinary people are suffering and trying to fend for themselves from day to day. We get caught up in tweeting and Facebooking and God knows what kind of spin.

I, too, am hugely concerned about the €5 million of taxpayers' money sneakily taken to fund the PR machine for St. Leo, the Taoiseach, "hashtag Leo". He was unable to answer any of the questions asked of him today in the House in spite of all the media reports. He came back and clarified he was correct that the Labour Party was in Government under the then Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, God rest him, when community employment schemes were set up. He is entitled to the truth and the truth must be there for everyone. However, that €5 million would have gone a long way to dealing with those with cataracts or waiting for knee or hip operations or the children waiting to be seen in regard to their teeth or eyes and so on. It would have gone a very long way to dealing with the widows who are discriminated against on a daily basis in the House or, in particular, the women who had to retire from the Civil Service when they got married many years ago and are being discriminated against to the tune of between €30 and €90 in their pensions. That €5 million would have been a good start in that respect. We cannot allow such blatant naked discrimination to continue. I support the Bill, which is badly needed.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I commend my colleague, Deputy Lawless, on introducing the Bill. Its purpose is to provide for transparency in the disclosure of information in online political advertising and to provide for related matters. There have been many changes in the House today. As W.B. Yeats wrote: "All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born." Many things are currently changing. Online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google allow users to pay for adverts which appear in people’s newsfeeds. The posts are marked as sponsored to make it clear they are advertisements. Such advertising has been heavily relied upon in political campaigns in recent years. One reason for that is that the potential now exists to target advertising at very specific groups. Certain firms now specialise in analysing data in order to build up profiles of individual social media users, determine how they may be persuaded to vote and specifically target advertising at them.Such companies were reportedly instrumental in the victory of US President Donald Trump in the 2016 US election and that of the Vote Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum.

There are serious issues with regard to the transparency surrounding that method of advertising. For example, a Facebook user can only see an ad if it has been specifically targeted at him or her. He or she does not know what other ads the advertiser may be running and targeting at other people. It is therefore possible that one advertiser or campaign may send contradictory messages to different groups of people but that is not open to scrutiny. In September 2017, Facebook announced that it was taking steps to combat the problem. Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, said:

Going forward - and perhaps the most important step we’re taking - we’re going to make political advertising more transparent... Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser’s page and see the ads they’re currently running to any audience on Facebook.

It is crucial that we introduce legislation to prevent that happening in Ireland. As a nation, we fought for too long to gain political autonomy to jeopardise it in this manner.

The Bill also updates existing electoral legislation to reflect the increased use of online advertising, the need for which is self-evident. Through the various electoral acts, the Standards in Public Office Commission, broadcasting guidelines, and the lobbying Acts, Ireland has a strong regulatory framework around our political process. That is crucial because no democracy can function without transparency and accountability. Given the increasing importance of online media to political debate, the values that have served us since the establishment of the State urgently need to be applied to online media as they do to traditional media. Given that it only applies to paid political advertising, the Bill will have no impact on ordinary citizens and social media users, who will remain free to post any type of political content on their personal pages - all Members have experienced that - with or without displaying the source of the content.

As regards paid political advertising, the Bill does not in any way censor or dictate what counts as permissible political advertising. Instead, it applies the same principles of transparency required of print and traditional media to political messages circulated online. In no way does it impinge on free speech.

Under current legislation, any poster or advertisement for an election candidate must clearly display the publisher and financial backer of the advertisement.

The legislation also addresses the proliferation of bots, which are fraudulent social media accounts created to look like many different personal accounts but which are the work of just one person or organisation. Like many of my colleagues, I have been targeted by these. These accounts are then used to flood social media platforms with particular political messaging. Due to the algorithms used on social media, this can lend considerable legitimacy and prominence to content that is in fact fabricated by one malicious actor.

I will hand over to my colleague, Deputy Byrne.

5:35 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas to my colleague, Deputy James Lawless, for introducing this very important Bill, which has rightly gained worldwide attention. Why has it gained worldwide attention? The reason is that two recent polling events in the western hemisphere were influenced and continue to be influenced by bots. I refer to the American presidential election, including ongoing American political affairs, and the Brexit referendum. One of the most influential Twitter accounts discussing and describing Brexit was an anonymous one purportedly based in the south of England but only operating during Moscow working hours. That is the reality we face. As Deputy Butler said, everything is changed. The whole system of passing information to people and receiving it has collapsed from the old order into a completely new order. This legislation is an honest, serious and necessary attempt to catch up very quickly. We need to catch up with who exactly is pumping money into our political system. It is very important that Deputy Lawless's provisions regarding a transparency notice are introduced as soon as possible. We need to know who is spending money. We will have a referendum next year and people from all over the world on both sides of that potential debate are seeking to pump money into this country. As things stand, they will be able to stay outside our jurisdiction and target Facebook or Twitter ads here. That is wrong and unconscionable. They should stay the heck out of this country and let the Irish people decide these issues for themselves. I am talking about both sides of the debate that is coming up. This is a matter for the Irish people.

This has already happened in the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election. The result has been utter instability in the traditional democratic world order. Facebook and Twitter ads have turned out to be a threat to democracy but they can be an opportunity and something good. It is incumbent on Facebook and Twitter not only to examine this kind of legislation and the regulations that might come before them, but also to ensure that political advertising is treated utterly differently. It is incumbent on them to recognise that democracy is worth fighting for and holding on to and that it is worth ensuring that no nefarious influences are at play in our democracy. They should examine not only potential laws coming down the tracks, but also how they themselves do things. They have acknowledged the Russian bots that interfered in the American presidential election. One famous Facebook page, The Heart of Texas, a Texas secessionist page, organised protests around Texas. It is closed down now because it was discovered to be a foreign-influenced Facebook page. There were organisations on the liberal side organising protests in New York from anonymous Facebook accounts from outside America. This is the way things have gone and we must catch up.

Deputy Lawless's Bill seeks to target bots, which I have dealt with in what I have already said, but also the strategic communications unit, which is an absolute disgrace. Let us be clear that the Minister, Deputy Naughten, is not getting a slice of the advertising pie because he is not in Fine Gael. The broad shoulders of Fine Gael have elbowed into all these paid ads. The latest one, promoting Deputy Leo Varadkar and Deputy Paschal Donohoe in his own constituency, had 400,000 viewers and was paid for entirely by all the taxpayers of Ireland. This is wrong and should be illegal. I have already put it to my party that we should introduce legislation to ban any Oireachtas Member from appearing in paid advertising by Government Departments unless it is required by law, such as in the case of a signature on an official order. I refer primarily to Ministers because they are the only ones to have done this so far. It is utterly wrong and disgraceful that the €5 million from the strategic communications unit, SCU, is being turned into paid Facebook ads for Fine Gael and the Minister, Deputy Naughten, should be clear that they are only for Fine Gael Members. While Dublin traffic was at a standstill on Monday morning because of the Luas works, a Facebook video promoting Deputies Leo Varadkar and Paschal Donohoe and the Luas was on air for well over 24 hours.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy means the opening of the Luas, not the Luas works.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Yes, but what was it? It was a professionally produced video made between Saturday and Sunday morning and put up on Facebook, with massive money pumped into it to ensure as many people in Ireland saw it and the good news story it showed. This happened in the space of a few hours between Saturday and Sunday and involved a massive amount of taxpayers' money. The Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, is not getting a slice of the pie either. It is his senior ministerial colleagues from Fine Gael, and not including the Minister, Deputy Naughten, who are using and abusing taxpayers' money to promote themselves on Facebook videos to give a good impression. It is wrong, it should be illegal and, quite frankly, I think it is illegal. It is certainly unethical that taxpayers' money is used in this way. Deputy Lawless's Bill goes some way towards dealing with this and I think it should go further. The Government needs to accept the Bill and get to grips with the ways in which the world is changing. I urge the Government to stop spending taxpayers' money to promote itself. It is wrong.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I call on Teachta Peter Burke who, I understand, will share time with the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne. They have ten minutes.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Private Members' Bill. There has been significant evidence that third parties, possibly including nation states, have sought to use a number of means to affect the outcomes of elections. This has been well mooted in recent times. These means include targeted online advertising and the use of social media to manipulate the views of small but significant components of the electorate. I note the Private Members' Bill seeks to redress some of these issues both by requiring all online advertising directed towards a political end to carry a transparency notice and by prohibiting the use of bots to create multiple social media accounts. I have a few concerns in this regard.

The first concerns the timeline surrounding the Bill. I think it was on 10 November that there was a press release announcing the Bill, yet it was not published until Wednesday of last week. It is very important, under the new reforms we have in the Oireachtas, that we scrutinise legislation at draft stage to ensure it does not have any unintended consequences. It is very important that we have moved on from the guillotine and various other such mechanisms through the Oireachtas. We now need to be careful to ensure that legislation is subject to proper and appropriate scrutiny from experts. I have a number of concerns as to what consultation was engaged in prior to the publication of the Bill. Was formal feedback sought from any social media companies as to how to regulate the proposed provisions and how they might be policed and managed? Was formal feedback sought from any civil society organisations that could be impacted by the legislation? Was any formal feedback on the Bill sought from any public representatives from Deputy Lawless's party? Was there external legal advice on the Bill and, if so, from whom? It has only been a month, I think, since the Bill was announced and the press release published, as I mentioned, and I cannot see the rush in this regard. The legislation could have a number of unintended consequences and could be described as legislation by press release.

I have a major concern about political advertising and the effects it may have on a public representative in his or her own right. Would the Bill make it illegal to advertise a Deputy's clinics online? There is a huge subjective element to the Bill regarding the definition of "political end", which needs to be fleshed out. Section 6 of the Bill proposes to create an offence of using a bot, in this case a piece of software, as previous speakers have illustrated well, used to create multiple accounts on social media platforms. While there are a number of political and factual issues with the definitions relating to this section alone, particularly pertinent are the difficulties associated with implementing the section. Identifying the owners of some social media accounts is often very difficult and in many cases both the platform and the individual will be outside of the State. We therefore need much more scrutiny, the best possible scrutiny, of the mechanics and logistics of how the legislation would work. I am concerned about the unintended consequences. I note concerns that have been raised about political advertising, but legislation should not be rushed and the Bill leaves one totally in the dark as to what consultation has taken place on this drafted legislation, which is a huge concern.

I do not agree that this is an emergency situation requiring emergency action. We should afford interested stakeholders time to consider the Bill in detail and identify any flaws it may contain. Effective scrutiny is a critical part of the process of producing good legislation in this House.

On the question of nation states interfering in elections, we must ensure social media outlets are precluded from hosting that type of activity. Several Members have brought forward proposals recently seeking to make it a criminal offence to engage in discussion about criminal trials on Facebook and other platforms. We must examine all of these issues carefully and ensure that any legislation we enact does not have unintended negative consequences for the public or for us as politicians in the carrying out of our duties.

5:45 pm

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I commend Deputy Lawless on bringing forward this Bill, which seeks to deal with an important issue that is very worthy of debate. However, I join my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Naughten, in recommending that these proposals be opposed on the basis that they are likely to have a number of serious unintended consequences. The issues we are discussing this evening are undoubtedly of grave concern. The idea that nation states are engaging in active subterfuge by orchestrating false political campaigns is a serious and ongoing threat to our democracy. While I acknowledge the effort in this Bill to address these concerns, there is an incoherence of approach in its provisions. In particular, there are insurmountable challenges in how the Bill deals with issues of implementation.

Accepting these proposals would pose a very real threat to the open and free political discourse that is so central to the Irish political process. On the European stage as well as at home, Ireland has consistently promoted an open, peaceful, global, free and secure cyberspace, where fundamental rights and freedoms such as the right to freedom of expression, access to information, privacy and security on the Internet, and data protection, are fully applied and respected. The requirement to determine and define what constitutes a "political end" is an extremely difficult one. The Bill leaves the question of what is or is not political to the online platform selling the advertising and makes no provision for any governance mechanism in this regard. The obligation to ensure a transparency notice is displayed on any online platform is placed clearly on the shoulders of that platform, as per subsection 3(1) of the Bill. This would be extremely difficult to implement in practice given that many online platforms are based outside the State and identifying the owner of an account on social media is not easily done. In addition, the majority of online advertising is placed by third parties rather than the online platforms themselves, the latter being merely a stage for others to disseminate advertising information. This is the mere conduit principle referred to by the Minister, Deputy Naughten. Consequently, political advertisements produced in other jurisdictions would not fall under the provisions of the Bill.

Reference was made to the activities of bots on online platforms, which has recently come to public attention as a serious problem. Section 6 of the Bill seeks to address this issue without properly engaging with it. The idea that we can track down bots and prosecute the persons or organisations behind them ignores the reality that if the person running the false accounts is based outside the State, as most of them are, then they will be beyond the scope of the Bill.

There were numerous references to the strategic communications unit, SCU, the purpose of which will be to streamline communications between Departments to enhance the delivery of Government campaigns. It will help us to produce clear, simple and citizen-focused communications, so that it is clear when the Government of Ireland is communicating or delivering a service. This will lead to more co-ordinated and cost-effective communications that will generate efficiencies and increased value for money. An internal audit of communications work across government found that more than €170 million is being spent annually on communications by Departments and the agencies under their remit. It is intended that the SCU will drive savings across all Departments over time through efficiencies generated by cross-departmental collaboration on major campaigns, more efficient use of technology platforms, consolidated media buying, efficient third-party contract management, rationalisation of design projects, streamlining of participation in national events and increased communications capacity within Departments.

For 2018, the budget of the Department of the Taoiseach will decrease by 2% compared with 2017. The SCU's budget of €5 million derives from a reallocation of existing resources within the Department's overall budget for next year. The vast bulk of this €5 million allocation is being earmarked for major cross-departmental information campaigns. These campaigns will include an allocation for media buying across all media platforms, both traditional and digital, which will maximise efficiency and value for money. The unit will carry out its work objectively and without bias and in accordance with the Civil Service code of standards and behaviour, published by the Standards in Public Office Commission, and the Civil Service values as delineated in the Civil Service renewal plan. All of the staff to be assigned are serving civil servants or public servants. This is designed to ensure political impartiality and that the unit is developed as a service that will be available to all future Governments regardless of their composition.

In the context of ongoing concerns about fake news, it is important that the Government should be able to get its message out. When hundreds of millions of euro are spent on the Luas upgrade, it is right that it be advertised as a Government of Ireland project. What is the difference between advertising the good works of Government, which come at a cost to taxpayers, and the services available to all Deputies and Senators to advertise themselves, such as the Houses of the Oireachtas printing service, which also are paid for by taxpayers? If we go too far along that line, we will end up in a position where no taxpayer spending is permitted to fund the important job we do in these Houses.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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There are huge restrictions on how politicians advertise themselves, how much money we spend on election campaigns and on any political donations we might receive. That is a good feature of Irish politicians. People who work hard enough can get elected to this House on very modest sums of money by international standards. We have seen in other countries how people with money can seek to influence social events, social policy and politics. This legislation is an effort to constrain that type of influence seeking.

I have not had a chance to go through every line of the Bill to pick out all the flaws. That is the purpose of Committee Stage. The purpose of Second Stage, on the other hand, is to decide whether or not the House accepts the principle of a Bill. I am surprised the Government cannot accept the principle that we must do something to ensure that no outside parties can, in a furtive and secretive manner and because they have huge resources, seek to exert a disproportionate influence on the electorate. I ask the Government, between now and when the division takes place, to reconsider its position and allow the Bill to progress. It will be subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny before proceeding to Committee Stage, where any possible unintended consequences may be ironed out.

It is a disturbing development to see Amnesty International Ireland, an organisation which prides itself on its advocacy of civil rights, metaphorically putting its two fingers up to the Standards in Public Office Commission. I do not care which side of the argument the money was intended to promote; that is not the issue. I would be saying the same thing if a large amount of United States dollars had gone to the other side of the campaign in question. It is outrageous that a body which claims to be a human rights organisation should thumb its nose at the laws passed in this House for very good reason. That action must be condemned in the strongest terms. Nobody is above the law and it is a job for the Standards in Public Office Commission to pursue the matter.

A very bad example has been set in not adhering to the law. If those involved feel the law is unjust, they could work to change it.

5:55 pm

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I echo Deputy Ó Cuív's comments in welcoming the Bill, which has been brought forward by my colleague, Deputy Lawless. The Government will accept that social media, and how it has evolved and how it impacts on us - not just as politicians but also societally - is a matter to which we will have to return to again and again. As Deputy Ó Cuív asked, why not allow the Bill to pass Second Stage and then debate it line by line on Committee Stage? I take the Minister of State's point and I did not hear any reflection of negativity against the idea in principle.

I very much welcome the Bill. In the old days, politicians generally communicated in two ways with their constituents, namely, by telephone or by letter. Now, there is an avalanche of possibilities available, be it through a Facebook profile page, a Facebook political page or Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn, Instagram, WhatsApp or all the other various means of communicating. It is a huge amount of engagement and it is right that we look seriously at the issue. All of us have examples of how it can be abused. The topic of social media and how it relates to politics is one to which Deputy Lawless is clearly alive. It is a topic to which we should consistently be alive as a result of its potential to be abused and to abuse in such a hidden and secretive manner.

The Minister of State touched on my next point, which relates to blurred lines. It may in part have been a little naive on the part of the Taoiseach - and I do not mean this is a dramatic sense - but I would question the appropriateness of the Twitter handle @campaignforleofor a prime minister. When we look at the Twitter handles of prime ministers across the globe, including some of the more famous ones, we see that they generally just use their names. The title @campaignforleois very much a political one.Deputy Varadkar is now a serious office holder and this is where the blurred lines occur, as referred to by the Minister of State. Why should the position of Ministers be different to that of Members of the Oireachtas who avail of the facilities here? Members of the Cabinet are officeholders. They are not just responsible to their constituencies, they are also responsible to the entire State. The classic example is the Taoiseach's broadcasting from the Government jet and putting it up on the Fine Gael website. If that was me, as a Deputy, and given that the taxpayer pays for the Government jet, I would have to state who paid for the facilities to allow me there, who recorded the video and who paid for it? Was it the Government press office? I would imagine it could not have been the Fine Gael press office given that the Government jet was involved. These are the blurred lines in respect of which the Government must be much clearer.

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputies, the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, for contributing the debate. I listened intently to the different views expressed and I took note of what was said. I hope the Bill progresses to Committee Stage at which point we can consider the various issues.

I shall address the Government response first. It strikes me that said response is actually symptomatic of the Government's general response to most of the problems facing the State. The Government acknowledges that there is a problem, it is very concerned about it but it does not want to do anything. It certainly does not want Fianna Fáil to do anything about it. In that vein, I do not believe it is a particularly progressive response. I do, however, take on board the Minister's various concerns. I do not have time to deal with them all in detail but I believe they can be tackled on Committee Stage.

I listened very carefully to Deputy Stanley, who made a number of very considered points. I thank the Deputy and Sinn Féin for their support for the Bill. I look forward to debating the issues raised in respect of definitions, industrial relations and political ends. Again, these issues can be tidied up on Committee Stage and I would welcome an opportunity to do that.

The Minister made a point that I did not quite understand. He spoke of applying an 18th century solution to a modern problem. I might have missed something in translation but if that were the case, then we could not legislate for online gambling, data protection, information systems, the knowledge box and intellectual property. I may have missed something in the Minister's point-----

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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The Deputy has done so.

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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It would appear that Committee Stage would be the best place to thrash the matter out.

I appreciate that Deputy Burke came to the Chamber. It was great to have a Fine Gael presence here for what is very much a Fine Gael initiative, namely, the strategic communications unit. I salute the Minister of State and Deputy Burke for having the gumption to actually come into the Chamber to take the medicine on that one and for not leaving an Independent Member to be hung out to dry, which is exactly what the poor Minister was bravely enduring for some time before they arrived.

On Deputy Burke's questions, the answer is "Yes" in respect of the points he made regarding parliamentary advice, parliamentary party ratification, civic society engagement and social media platforms engagement. I am aware that the Deputy is no longer in the Chamber to hear this.

A number of speakers indicated that, at the next stage in the process, we could have a detailed engagement with the various expert groups. I understand that this is what happens. My colleague, Deputy Cassells, introduced the Local Government (Establishment of Town Councils Commission) Bill last year. That Bill passed Second Stage and just this morning a number of interested parties and officials attended a meeting of the joint committee charged with scrutinising it. This is what we want. Unfortunately, things do not move quickly in this House. This is why we stress that there is an urgency about this matter. The House does not progress Bills very quickly so the idea of suspending the Bill or putting it on hold until some other slightly different or slightly better variation is proposed does not hold water.

There is agreement in the House. Most speakers have alluded to the fact that the legislation is needed, that it tackles a real problem and that said problem is growing. There is an urgency about it. Referendums are on the way in the new year. This is an international phenomenon and Ireland should not be left behind. The obvious thing to do would appear to be to progress the Bill to Committee Stage and thrash out the detail then. I thank all the speakers for their comments and intentions. We will push the Bill towards Committee Stage and will propose that as the next step. I look forward to seeing what happens at that point.

Question put.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 14 December 2017.