Thursday, 24 March 2022
Responsibility of Social Media Platforms (Defamation Amendment) Bill 2022: First Stage
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the law relating to defamation, in order to allow judgements of defamation be made against the social media platform on which the defamatory utterances were made when the social media platform in question is unable to produce the identity of the person who made the utterances, and to provide for related matters.
I will share the five minutes with Deputies Munster and Tully. This legislation, the Responsibility of Social Media Platforms (Defamation Amendment) Bill 2022, sets out to amend the Defamation Act 1961 to allow judgments of defamation to be made against social media platforms on which defamatory utterances are made when the social media platform in question is unable to produce the identity of the person who made the utterances and to provide for related matters.
As we know, there are anonymous people online who sometimes attack, defame and intimidate people. This Bill proposes a change to civil law to allow the person who is the victim of such defamation to take a case against the person who has primary responsibility, that is, the person who uses his or her keyboard or phone to type the defamatory material. While it might seem peculiar, I have some sympathy for the social media platforms when they say they are not publishers because they do not have the same editorial oversight as the publisher of a normal publication such as a newspaper. That does not exist with social media because it is instant. When somebody puts something up, it is online instantly. There is a difficulty there. The best we have been able to do up to now has been to ask people to take such material down. With this legislation, we are trying to ensure that social media platforms will not be too lax to know who is behind an account. They will have to be able to identify such people clearly and to provide that information to a person who has been defamed. If a social media company is unable or unwilling to provide such information, it will then be held liable for the defamation. This will put an onus on such companies to keep to an absolute minimum the number of accounts of this nature, accounts that people can hide behind.
All of us, across the political divide, are aware that freedom of speech is important. We have to be able to say what we believe and put our point of view across. This is not about stopping that. It is about ensuring that those who step past that line are held to account. We unfortunately see people stepping past that line every day. There is, of course, a great deal of suspicion, and perhaps more than suspicion, that social media companies want to see things pushed to the edge and as much controversy as possible. This is a means of ensuring that they will be accountable for allowing such controversy if they do not ensure that they know the identities of the persons making such comments.
I hope that the Minister of State and the Government will support this legislation and bring it through the House as quickly as possible. It is the right thing to do for ourselves and for everyone else in society. Many people across the country have been the victims of such attacks in the past and it is important that we get this legislation through.
This Bill is designed to ensure that social media companies take responsibility for defamatory statements made on their platforms in cases where the companies in question are unable or unwilling to provide the identities of those posting defamatory statements. At the moment, social media allow those who make such statements to hide behind anonymous profiles. In some cases, they are unable or unwilling to identify the poster concern. Social media is operating like the wild west at the moment and this leaves people open to abuse, defamation and other harmful consequences with nobody held liable for the damage caused.
Our hope is that this Bill may encourage social media platforms to take steps to change how they do business regarding defamation in an effort to avoid being sued. If they do not, they will need to face consequences as the burden shifts from the anonymous poster to the social media company and they will become liable.
I was anxious to co-sign this Bill because I have witnessed within my constituency the devastating consequences of online bullying. Social media is a relatively new phenomenon and is a very useful tool for communication and sharing information about events. However, it has been misused by some who are basically cowards. They assume an identity and post their bullying or defamatory remarks about someone without using their own name. A young man Eden Heaslip committed suicide just before Christmas. He was bullied at school. Bullying has always existed in schools and in the workplace but now it is relentless because people can be targeted in their homes. They get no break from it whatsoever. I have no doubt that it was a significant contributory factor to his death.
Social media platforms need to ensure that no one can make a comment without being identified. They need to introduce comprehensive measures to ensure that verification details are requested and that no one can establish a false online account.