Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022: Second Stage


3:07 pm

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

"Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."

Dlí ceannródaioch is ea é an Bille um Rialail Sábháilteachta ar Line agus na Meán agus tá áthas orm é a chur faoi bhráid an Tí.

The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill is ambitious, comprehensive and wide-ranging media legislation. It will be the first major overhaul of the Broadcasting Act 2009 since that Act was last considered by this House. Since that time, there has been a dramatic transformation in how we consume content, whether on television, radio or by way of services offered over the Internet. This transformation has been made possible by new technologies, in particular the widespread availability of smartphones and broadband services. The most radical aspect of this transformation has been the vast amount of user-generated content that is now created by people across the world and made available online. The rise of online services has allowed new ways for people to communicate with one other and new outlets for creativity and self-expression. However, with these new benefits come new risks, particularly for our children. Some of those risks are an extension of existing dangers, such as bullying and harassment, to a new environment in which they can be magnified.

Others, such as image-based abuse, represent a new challenge.

This Government is determined to confront these risks by bringing an end to the era of self-regulation. For the first time in Irish law, this Bill creates a regulatory framework for online safety, in which online services will be held to account when the public, and children in particular, are not appropriately shielded from harmful online content. The Bill also provides for the modernisation of the regulation of broadcasting services and video-on-demand services. This is essential in light of the significant expansion of video-on-demand services and the need for better alignment of the regulation of those services with broadcasters to ensure a level playing field and consistent application of media regulation.

Prior to detailing the key elements of the Bill, I will briefly update the House regarding the infringement proceedings in respect of the revised audiovisual media services directive. On 19 May 2022, the European Commission decided to refer Ireland to the Court of Justice of the European Union for failure to meet the transposition deadline for this directive. Unfortunately, this is likely to result in the imposition of significant financial penalties. I am aware this House needs no additional motivation to progress this legislation, but I note this development reinforces the need to get this Bill enacted swiftly. I sincerely thank the Seanad and the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media for their intensive scrutiny of this legislation to date. I am proud to have been participating as Minister in the interesting and thought-provoking debates we have had, and will have, on this ground-breaking legislation.

Prior to giving a more structured overview of this Bill, I will first speak about some of its most important provisions. First, Part 3 provides for the creation of coimisiún na meán, a regulatory body which will be responsible for implementing and enforcing online safety and media regulation. To do so, an coimisiún will have a robust and modern suite of regulatory functions and powers in line with EU law and best practice. Of fundamental importance will be its independence in the exercise of those functions and powers.

The powers of an coimisiún include the power to fund its operations by levying regulated services, create legally-binding regulatory codes, gather information and appoint authorised officers to conduct investigations and the power to seek the imposition of sanctions for non-compliance, including financial sanctions of up to €20 million or 10% of the turnover of the non-compliant service provider, whichever is higher. While the functions of an coimisiún primarily relate to the regulation of services, it will also have wider roles in respect of the protection of children, research, education, media literacy and journalistic and creative supports.

As provided for in the transitional provisions at Part 16, coimisiún na meán will also take over the current functions of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI. This includes the transfer of the staff of the authority to an coimisiún. I envisage that an coimisiún will need to scale up quickly to a staffing level of at least 160 people and in the longer term may require a staffing complement of up to 300 people. This scaling-up process will be particularly important following the Digital Services Act coming into effect because the Government has decided that an coimisiún will be designated as the digital services co-ordinator for the purposes of the Act's implementation.

Given the importance of an coimisiún, the Government approved its establishment on an administrative basis prior to the enactment of the Bill. In this regard, an extensive programme of work is under way with the Public Appointments Service, PAS, and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to recruit corporate and senior staff and to lay the groundwork for an effective regulatory environment. The posts of executive chairperson, the online safety commissioner and the media development commissioner are being recruited through open, transparent and public competitions. Each post was advertised by the PAS in July and it is also now managing the next stages of the competitions, which are expected to be concluded by November. While it was always the intention to appoint an online safety commissioner, as demonstrated by the ongoing recruitment process, to highlight the importance of the role and to provide certainty to stakeholders, and in light of relevant discussions in the Seanad, I brought forward an amendment to explicitly provide for the position in the Bill on Report Stage in the Upper House.

As I mentioned, perhaps the most significant matter for an coimisiún to address will be the regulation of certain online services in respect of user-generated content. This legislation provides for a regulatory framework for online safety in Part 11. Through this framework, the online safety commissioner will tackle the availability of harmful online content. Regarding the online services which may be regulated in line with the revised audiovisual media services directive, the Bill firstly requires an coimisiún to designate video-sharing platform services for regulation. An coimisiún may also designate further online services which facilitate access to user-generated content for regulation. This will encompass a wide range of services, including social media services and many gaming, online messaging and storage services.

To designate a service, an coimisiún must conduct a risk assessment. This will include consideration of various factors, such as the nature and scale of the service and the risk of exposure to harmful online content. This risk-based approach will enable an coimisiún to direct its energies and resources to the areas where they are most needed. Once an online service has been designated for regulation, an coimisiún can require it to comply with binding online safety codes. These codes can require online services to adapt their systems and processes in three key areas: in rules for content moderation and complaints handling; in rules regarding the design of a service and how and why it displays certain content to users; and in rules about commercial communications, including advertising. The main aim of the codes is to tackle and progressively reduce the availability of harmful online content on designated online services. The Bill clearly defines "harmful online content". Online content is harmful where it relates to one of the 40 criminal offences listed in section 45 of the Bill or cyberbullying, or promotes or encourages eating disorders, self-harm or suicide or makes available knowledge of methods of self-harm or suicide.

The schedule of criminal offences includes, for example, those under Coco's law, that is, the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020, regarding image-based abuse, abuse of communications and harassment. For harmful online content not related to an existing criminal offence, cyberbullying material for instance, a risk test must be met for it to be considered harmful. This includes consideration of whether the online content gives rise to any risk to a person's life or a reasonably foreseeable risk to a person's mental or physical health. The Bill also provides for a mechanism, which is subject to Oireachtas oversight, for future categories of harmful online content to be brought within its scope.

In summary, the online safety elements of this Bill will ensure that an individual will be exposed to far less harmful online content and that online services will be required by law to respond to and robustly deal with complaints when they are made. In this regard, an coimisiún will have significant powers of compliance and sanction to hold these services to account. In the context of online safety, it is important to mention the work of the expert group on an individual complaints mechanism. I brought its report to Government yesterday. As Members may be aware, the expert group was tasked with examining the potential legal and practical issues involved. It has backed the feasibility of establishing such a mechanism but only if certain key factors and dependencies are addressed. As an example of those dependencies, the expert group emphasised the importance of allowing appropriate time for the systemic forms of regulation relating to complaints to bed in before phasing in the mechanism. In particular, the report emphasises that an individual complaints mechanism would not be workable or effective without systemic online safety regulation being in place.

As part of the report, the expert group included draft heads which provide for an individual complaints mechanism within the Bill. These draft heads have been provided to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for detailed drafting and it is my intention, subject to Government approval, to bring forward the resulting amendments on Committee Stage. I thank once more the members of the expert group for their report and comprehensive consideration of the issues at play regarding the feasibility of an individual complaints mechanism in the context of this legislation. Additionally, regarding the individual complaints mechanism, the recommendation of the expert group is to first deal with harmful online content that targets children.

Regarding the regulation of broadcasting and streaming services, this will primarily be done through media service codes and media service rules, the provisions for which are set out at Part 5. Media service codes are mostly about the content of programming, including rules for programme standards and advertising. Media service rules, on the other hand, are mostly about the presentation and structure of the service, including rules regarding the time given to advertising, accessibility requirements for persons with disabilities and quotas for European works.

To ensure the uninterrupted regulation of broadcasters, the transitional provisions at Part 16 provide for the existing broadcasting codes and rules to be carried over and to become media service codes and rules.

Part 5 also provides for the mandatory registration of streaming services to ensure that, in line with the revised audiovisual media services directive, all streaming services established in Ireland are subject to appropriate regulation. Broadcasters will remain regulated on a contractual basis, as is set out in the current Broadcasting Act 2009.

The Bill also provides for the transposition of an optional provision in the directive which will empower an coimisiún to levy broadcasters and streaming services, including those established elsewhere in the EU, in respect of any revenues that they may make in Ireland in order to fund the production of European work, including Irish-produced works. Provision is made so that the money collected may be disbursed by an coimisiún through a content production scheme. The Bill does not set the amounts of any such levy as this would be inflexible but enables an coimisiún to design and implement a levy having regard to relevant economic factors. There are potential risks and benefits to a levy, including for consumers, and it is intended that an coimisiún would thoroughly examine these matters before these provisions are commenced.

At this point, I would like to acknowledge the importance of media development and sustainability and note the constructive engagement I had last week with the joint committee and the Seanad on the report and recommendations of the Future of Media Commission. While legislation separate from this Bill will be brought forward to progress the implementation of the Future of Media Commission recommendations, the appointment of a media development commissioner, who will work in tandem with the broadcasting commissioner, will be key to the successful implementation of those recommendations.

I reiterate my gratitude to Members of the Seanad for their extensive consideration of the Bill. Productive engagement with Senators led to 62 Government amendments being brought forward on Report Stage. In the interests of time, I will not go through each amendment but will highlight a few of them. They included amendments to require an coimisiún to establish a youth advisory committee; an amendment to require coimisiún na meán to promote and encourage the use of the Irish language by communications media operating in the State; and amendments to explicitly expand the educational remit of coimisiún na meán, including to provide that an coimisiún can engage with community, local and sorting bodies in awareness raising, training and education.

In addition, I note that there were certain issues raised by Senators which I committed to returning to in the Dáil following a period of further consideration. I am still considering some of those issues with a view to potentially bringing amendments on Committee Stage, including in relation to the operation of a potential content production levy and content production scheme, as well as amendments in relation to media service codes and rules regarding defining party political broadcasts and the time given over to political parties during electoral periods.

I also intend to bring forward a number of other amendments on Committee Stage in the Dáil. These are primarily technical in nature and include consequential amendments in light of the enactment of the Electoral Reform Act 2022, amendments to clarify the nature of the territorial scope of content limitation notices, amendments to clarify that local broadcasters will be able to apply for funding under the scheme for professional journalistic practices and amendments to clarify the application of the provisions providing for the prominence of public service content.

Turning to a more structured overview of the provisions of the Bill, it is, first, important to note that this Bill amends the Broadcasting Act 2009. Part 1 addresses preliminary and general matters. Part 2 amends the 2009 Act to insert and amend a number of definitions to support the operation of the Bill. Part 3 amends Part 2 of the 2009 Act to provide for the establishment of coimisiún na meán. Key aspects of this Part include provision for the independence of an coimisiún; for the appointment of commissioners; for an coimisiún to impose levies on regulated services, excluding community broadcasters, to fund its operations; and for the accountability of the chairperson to the Committee of Public Accounts and the chairperson and other commissioners to relevant Oireachtas committees.

Part 3 also provides for the high-level powers and functions of an coimisiún. These include upholding Ireland's democratic values; protecting the interests of the public, in particular, children; ensuring the diverse needs of the people of this island are served by our media; and sustaining independent and impartial journalism.

Part 4 provides for matters related to the registration of providers of streaming services through the insertion of a new Part 3A into the 2009 Act.

Part 5 concerns the duties, codes and rules applicable to radio and television broadcasters and streaming services and provides for these through the insertion of a new Part 3B into the 2009 Act. Chapter 2 of this new Part concerns duties on those services. Chapters 3 and 5 of this new Part concern media codes and rules. Chapter 3 of this Part also provides that existing broadcasting codes and rules made by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland will continue in force following the enactment of the Bill.

Part 6 amends Part 4 of the 2009 Act and primarily concerns changes to take into account the establishment of an coimisiún and the statutory regulation of streaming services in respect of redress mechanisms.

Part 9 amends Part 7 of the 2009 Act to, among other things, take into account the establishment of an coimisiún in relation to public service broadcasting, provide for changes to the calculation of total advertising time for broadcasters and insert a new Chapter 7 regarding the availability and prominence of public service programmes and services.

Part 11 inserts a new Part 8A into the 2009 Act concerning online safety regulation. Chapter 1 of this new Part concerns the definitions of harmful online content and age-inappropriate online content. Chapter 2 concerns the process for designating relevant online for regulation. Chapter 3 concerns the making of online safety codes, the matters which they can address and matters which need to be taken into account when the codes are being drawn up. Chapter 4 concerns the making of online safety guidance materials and advisory notices. Chapter 5 concerns an obligation on an coimisiún to establish a super-complaints scheme for nominated bodies and a number of other matters.

Part 11 also inserts a new Schedule 3 into the 2009 Act containing the list of offence-specific categories of harmful online content.

Part 12 inserts a new Part 8B into the 2009 Act concerning investigations and sanctions. Chapter 2 of this new Part provides an coimisiún with the power to appoint authorised officers and sets out procedures for investigations by those officers and for decisions by an coimisiún following investigations. Chapter 4 concerns the imposition of administrative financial sanctions.

Chapter 5 of this new Part provides an coimisiún with the power to issue notices to end a contravention and provides for secondary criminal liability for senior executives. Chapter 6 provides an coimisiún with the power to seek court orders to block access to non-compliant online services in Ireland. Chapter 7 provides an coimisiún with the power to issue content limitation notices in respect of individual items of harmful online content.

Chapter 8 of this new Part provides for three categories of summary offences under the Bill and provides an coimisiún with the power to prosecute these offences. This Part also creates a new Schedule concerning oral hearings.

Parts 7, 8, 10, 13, 15 and 17 amend various Parts of the 2009 Act and other relevant Acts to take into account the dissolution of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and the establishment of an coimisiún.

Part 14 inserts a new Part 10A into the 2009 Act concerning European works. This Part provides for the requirements of the directive for European works quotas and prominence and provides an coimisiún with the power to introduce a European works levy and European works scheme.

Lastly, Part 16 provides for transitional matters.

As can be seen, this Bill is, given its subject matter, necessarily multifaceted and wide-ranging. It deals with a wide range of important issues from modernising media regulation to, for the first time, introducing online safety regulation to tackle the availability of serious forms of harmful online content. I look forward to Members' contributions and to engaging further during the course of their scrutiny of the Bill.

3:27 pm

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak to this Bill, which has been a long time coming. Those of us who are members of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media have spent the past couple of years working on the Bill, particularly during the pre-legislative scrutiny process, and I am happy that it is finally progressing to the Dáil.

The Bill was amended in the Seanad and I thank Senators Warfield and Ó Donnghaile for their work on behalf of Sinn Féin in the Seanad.

The Bill is vast and wide-ranging, maybe too wide-ranging. There was certainly a case to be made for breaking it up into a number of smaller Bills, but we are where we are.

Any Bill designed to modernise Ireland's approach to the regulation of online content is welcome. It is past time and much needed, as I think we can all agree. This is particularly important for newer online services, which have been operating largely unregulated and unchecked for over 15 years. The world has changed drastically in that time, as has our consumption of media. It will be an enormous challenge for regulation to keep up with the pace set by the technology giants.

The new media commission will not be able to do it alone, and there will be a need for the Oireachtas to keep on top of it too.

There have been some recent moves on criminalising certain online behaviours. What this Bill needs to do, however, is to hold tech platforms to account. I am glad to see robust penalties in that regard in the Bill. It is important that the commission will have the powers and the manpower to hold these companies to account. They have shown us loud and clear that they are not capable of or willing to regulate themselves. They are purely profit-driven corporations that are happy to profit from content that promotes hatred, conflict, bullying and misinformation. Those of us on the media committee will recall Frances Haugen's powerful testimony on the algorithms employed by Facebook, which actively target and reward negative content, hate, violence and misinformation.

In regulating this type of content, there is a very fine line between personal liberties and freedom of speech and the protection of certain groups from harm. I am not entirely convinced that parts of this Bill sit on the right side of that. In particular, I have concerns about subsection 46J(1)(a), which reads:

A broadcaster shall not broadcast, and a provider of an audiovisual on-demand media service shall not make available in a catalogue of the service— (a) anything which may reasonably be regarded as causing harm or offence,

I would have serious concerns about legislating against something as fundamentally subjective as causing offence. I think that this section is a significant attack on people's right to freedom of expression, which is an essential component in any democratic society. There are concerns that this section of the Bill may even contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression not just with regard to ideas that are considered to be inoffensive but also with regard to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population. I understand that Senator Higgins proposed an amendment to this section during the debate on the Bill in the Seanad but I do not think the Minister accepted it. Will she clarify if she intends to replace this section with more appropriate wording?

On a more positive note, another one of my concerns about the Bill all along has been the lack of protection from what I consider to be harmful advertising. This includes infant formula advertisements, but also advertising of junk foods with high fat, salt and sugar content targeting children. Thanks to the work of Opposition Senators, those concerns are now addressed in the Bill, and I thank the Minister for agreeing to that. Protecting our children from advertising by multi-billion dollar global corporations is the least we can do as legislators. We have to do our bit to protect the health and well-being of our children, and the inclusion of these safeguards is a massive step forward.

The Bill also creates a significant new regulatory framework, coimisiún na meán. This will replace the BAI and will have significant additional powers. The commission will be responsible for the enforcement of new laws governing online content, will have the power to appoint authorised officers to conduct investigations and will be able to impose sanctions for breaches of compliance, including financial sanctions of up to €20 million or 10% of turnover. There will also be a power to seek criminal prosecution of senior executives of non-compliant platforms. The commission will have the power to create legally binding regulatory codes. On this point I understand that there will be Oireachtas oversight, and I would be obliged if the Minister could expand on that point. While the independence of the commission is of paramount importance, we have to ensure there is appropriate Oireachtas oversight too.

The content levy is another important part of the Bill. I understand that the Minister has been engaging with independent film producers on some of their concerns about the levy. They include seeking certainty around the timing of the levy, assurances that the levy will be available to independent screen producers, and the introduction of a quota for independent production companies for schemes under the fund. The sector has raised some valid concerns about the fund, and I hope the Minister will take those concerns on board.

The Bill needs to include a section on the well-being of content moderators. Their work can involve viewing very distressing content, and tech giants and their subsidiaries must be compelled to protect the mental health and well-being of workers in these roles. If we are happy to have the European headquarters of all these companies in Dublin, we need to be involved in maintaining basic standards for those who work for them. The Government needs to have a more hands-on approach in that regard. If we do not have that, it will place undue pressure on the new regulator. If it cannot be included in this Bill, the Minister could give a commitment that the Government will introduce legislation on this in the near future. The issue of content moderation was raised at the media committee when Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appeared before us earlier this year. She raised this issue and also the levels of expertise that will be needed by the new regulator. She estimated that we will need at least 20 algorithm experts with deep product expertise. The problem is that anyone with this expertise will have been trained in-house and, therefore, recruiting suitable candidates is extremely challenging. Without these experts it will be impossible to hold these tech giants accountable. Their technology is so advanced and developing so quickly that it is impossible to keep up. The report of the expert group reporting on the individual complaints commission has also stated that staff of this calibre will need to be recruited for the purposes of the complaints mechanism. What plans has the Minister to ensure this is done? The Government has been far too pally with these companies for too long. It is time to get tough on them and to impose appropriate regulation. Ms Haugen also spoke about the problem of misinformation. Can the Minister clarify if this will be addressed in the Bill? It represents a serious threat globally and must be addressed.

Another issue covered by the Bill is prominence of public service media. This is very important, and I welcome its inclusion in the Bill. Prominence is particularly important when it comes to the Irish language. I note that there is an amendment to the Bill from the Seanad relating to section 7 of the Bill, requiring coimisiún na meán to promote the use of the Irish language by communications media. That is welcome. My colleague Deputy Ó Snodaigh has been working on a significant number of amendments to strengthen the Bill in providing for the Irish language, and I look forward to discussing those on Committee Stage.

Last but certainly not least, I welcome the introduction of the individual complaints mechanism as recommended by the report of the expert group. This was identified by the joint committee as a central issue that needed to be rectified in our pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. I was surprised, however, that the Minister's Department did not send the report to members of the media committee. It is not a great way to do business to publish the report on the evening that Dáil Second Stage is due to commence, especially when the Minister has had the report since May.

I have a few questions about the report. Will EU-wide video-sharing platform services be included, and, if so, how will that be funded? Will the Minister accept the expert group's recommendations on putting timelines into this legislation? Can she provide detail on that, especially with regard to what media and online safety codes will be prioritised and the expected timelines? I see on page 25 of the expert report that significant resources will be needed to ensure the complaints mechanism is effective and efficient. Will the Minister outline her plans in that regard? I think I asked her at the committee meeting last week for a breakdown. I know she has mentioned a figure of 160 staff initially, possibly going up to 300, but also the sections and the grades of the staff that the new commission will need. Will the online safety commissioner be able to impose fines on companies that are found to be in breach under the complaints mechanism? What other sanctions will be made available to the commission?

3:37 pm

Photo of Johnny MythenJohnny Mythen (Wexford, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for her work on the Bill to date. Also, the Seanad and the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media put in many hours of work to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny on this important Bill. I hope the Minister will listen to all recommendations made. Our thanks must also go to all the stakeholders who made written submissions and gave evidence to committee hearings to ensure their expertise and knowledge played into this process. Safeguards for people online, especially children, are vital to mental health and well-being. The Minister must ensure there are ample options for recourse to protect people's safety rights online, including the individual complaints mechanism.

I saw last night in the media that the report from the expert group on this issue was published. I thought I had missed an email from the Minister and I was disappointed to see that it was not circulated to the Members of this House, especially those of us who are members of the committee that recommended it.

It is unacceptable that the Minister had the report since May and it was only published at 5 p.m. the day before the issue was to be debated in this House. This is bad parliamentary practice and, frankly, it is disingenuous to the Members of this House who collaborated with her on the Bill. On initial reading, the expert group has put in extensive and comprehensive work to consider this issue. We thank them sincerely for their work.

There are several issues to be teased out about the individual complaints mechanism. The commission will require staff with a high level of expertise. This will require a serious funding commitment and cross-departmental work with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to ensure we have these experts available. Workers involved will need to have protection in place for their own well-being, especially if they are involved in the triaging of criminal complaints to relevant authorities. I hope the Minister will respond to these issues and be open to exploring these recommendations as the Bill progresses.

Another issue that was stressed to us during pre-legislative scrutiny was transparency and the importance of data collection by designated online companies. Online platforms should be held to the highest standard of transparency and be compelled to provide requested data for public interest research and evidence-based policy. Will the Bill include a mechanism for the commission to compel designated companies to provide data that is of public interest? If not, this is something we in Sinn Féin may table as an amendment on Committee Stage, and we would ask the Minister to work with us on that.

When we are talking about online safety, we must include well-being and workers' rights too. Reviewing harmful content is a role that requires safeguards to protect employees' mental health and well-being. How will the Bill ensure that online platforms will be compelled to protect workers' rights in this regard? I understand this might fall under the remit of Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, but there must at least be a collaborative effort as this Bill is where protections for workers can be enshrined in law.

Another issue I raise is gambling, although it is not covered directly in the Bill. Much academic evidence supports the belief that online gambling influences and increases the likelihood of problem gambling. This is largely attributed to specific targeting of users and constant online visual bombardment, and the covert nature of online gambling. As this Bill covers online safety, it is important that we discuss the advertisement and promotion of gambling on social media. I see a vital role here for collaboration between the Online Safety Commission and the new gambling regulatory authority. Will the Bill outline the relationship between these two vital arms of the State? It is important for this collaboration to be put on a legislative footing.

One sees the importance of robust structures, accountability and transparency in public bodies now more than ever, with serious concerns still outstanding in, for example, An Bord Pleanála. The new media commission must have the most thorough and strict process of accountability to ensure public confidence. I have two issues of concern in this regard. The first relates to the level of oversight the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media will have. Will the committee have the power to request information at any time, including that which relates to governance and tendering, as well as financial issues regarding the hiring of consultants and advisers? Will the committee be able to make recommendations on such issues?

The second issue of concern is around declarations of interest. I am aware the Bill covers conflicts of interest, but I believe we need to go further. Does the Minister agree that the commissioner should be required to fill out a full declaration of vested and commercial interests every year and that it be published in order to improve transparency? I also want to Minister to revisit the joint committee's recommendation that Ireland should introduce a mandatory quota for production of European and Irish works. Surely, as a legislative Parliament, we can make sure indigenous works are included, enhanced and protected. What extensive analysis is needed, as suggested in the Minister's response to the recommendations? The opportunity is now before the Minister to do this and we ask her to grasp it for the benefit of our talented artists.

I have several outstanding concerns around the Bill, some of which I have outlined. I look forward to the Minister's response.

3:47 pm

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
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I have a huge interest in this area originating from a previous occupation I had before I made the crazy decision to get involved in politics. This is very important legislation, for example in the context of the way the world is now. I have a 12-year-old and a ten-year-old. As parents, we try to control the platforms they watch and where they get information but, as the ads on the radio say, you cannot control it totally. It is impossible to do so. We try to protect them from various information sources and forms of bullying and such things, but it is almost impossible to do so. The Bill must set a regulatory framework that will work. It is a good start, and I appreciate that the Minister has taken on a number of amendments. I will have another amendment later which I suggest the Minister should also take on board.

I have sat in the Minister's chair before - I had to do too many Bills when I was sitting there - but I believe there is too much contained in this Bill. I personally would not have done it this way. There is a lot of stuff there that should be in a separate Bill. The whole issue around online safety should be in a bespoke Bill. That is just a personal comment. This Bill is trying to do so much in one go.

The transposition of EU Directive No. 1808, the audiovisual media services directive, was commenced and has been going through the motions since as long ago as when I was an MEP. I sat on the consumer affairs committee and I remember that they were orienting towards looking at stuff like this at a very early stage, and that was a decade ago. When we look at how we transpose these Bills, it is important that we do it in a bespoke way that is suitable to our narrative in this country. For instance, as users of content we are different in many ways from those in other jurisdictions. We have a large volume of e-services in this country. We have a hugely sophisticated population. When we have to regulate our services, every country should do it in a bespoke way. What I am saying is that we cannot transpose the directive generically.

I welcome the new operating framework for online content and the issue relating to public service programmes and how they will be delivered. We need to look at that going into the future. Everything is available on demand now. I use public service programming to watch sports on RTÉ and TV3, or Virgin Media One as it is now called, and for the news. Everything else is accessed on demand. Whatever leisure time we have is spent viewing on-demand content, whereby couples or groups of people can watch whatever they want together, at a time that suits them. However, there is an issue in respect of the volume of platforms. These platforms are consistently changing and will forever change, and there is a concern about how we ensure the legislation is robust enough to be able to cover those changes.

According to an article I read last night, TikTok is the most used app among certain age groups in this country, more so than in many other countries. I can see that from my own children. I am not really on TikTok. I had better not admit to anything here. The reality is that there is a need for these platforms. Even in a political sense, we will all be on TikTok by the next election. If you are not, you probably will not be elected. It is simple as that because it will be how we communicate with younger people. Snapchat was the app of four or five years ago. It is probably now declining in use. All these platforms evolve, so how do we ensure these distribution channels will be covered going forward?

I welcome the way in which authorised officers will operate and the powers to be implemented. I will come back to that later. I am concerned about the volume of resource required, and I am glad the Minister referred to this in her speech. This will involve huge resources, especially given the report that was published last night because it changes the volume totally. I will come back to that later.

I also welcome the funding that will be provided to local community broadcasters, etc., and the resources for media providers. We will need a little more detail on that, if I am being honest, as regards the mechanism.

In fairness, the Minister acknowledged this in her contribution and said she will introduce clarification through amendments. With regard to the difference between what is real and fake, and what is public and really public news, we all know what has happened in politics throughout the world over the past five to seven years is very dangerous. We need to ensure we have a process by which we deal with this through the Bill.

I have an issue with crossover with the online safety commissioner. It would be helpful if this was dealt with in some way. I can see a lot of overlap. The Minister might attend to this when she comes back with her reply.

With regard to individual complaints and what we found out yesterday, we probably should have known about it a little bit sooner. In fairness to the Minister, if she were sitting here she would say the same thing. The way in which expert groups and NGOs will report is fine but "scale" is referenced a number of times by the Minister and in the Bill. This phrasing cannot stay like this. It will have to be amended in some way. What sort of scale? Will it be scale of operation? Is it that we would go after TikTok, but if it is a new platform set up by a 12-year-old in Carrignavar, County Cork with 200 people on it who are acting in an inappropriate way we could not go near it? Will it be the volume of inappropriate behaviour? In this sense, "scale" means it would not matter what the platform is if there was a lot of volume. The word "scale" and how it is dealt with in the legislation needs to be redefined across the board. It is too open-ended.

The most important component is sanction for harmful content. This is something on which I will table an amendment, which I will explain later. We need to define "harmful content" in section 139A to deal with the issue of disinformation. I will get back to this. My colleague Senator Sherlock, as has been referenced previously, has raised issues which I believe the Minister will take on board. These include how information on baby products is communicated. It is not just the whole process by which this is done and the impact it can have purely for greed; there is also the profiling of the data which is slightly dangerous. How do we ensure this does not happen? It could be used for other forms of profiling and purposes. I believe the Minister is taking it on board.

Self-regulation was never going to work. The content moderators who are out there on a range of platforms should be brought into this legislation because they need to be made responsible. We could pick any social media company and its director of online moderation. It is self-regulatory. Why can we not state that through this process every platform of a certain scale - that word again - must appoint somebody who is legally responsible under the Bill? This would make them think a lot about how they act. We have seen it so often when people make complaints. In the past I have been involved in advising people who make complaints about content that has been very upsetting. In fairness to my colleague Deputy Howlin, he drove home the issue of Coco's law as the Acting Chair knows. It is very good legislation. Why can we not have a situation whereby the Oireachtas states through the Bill that somebody in each company has to be responsible for this role? These people would then be accountable. If they are part of the regulatory process in a formal way, we will have a lot more success.

When it comes to the issue of individual complaints I note that the Minister has said she will have to come back to it. She will provide for it in amendments. Commencement will probably happen after the regulatory process has been set up in a more formal way. I understand this. I do not have a huge objection to it because I believe we need to have the appropriate ground work and formation, but there should be some form of formal system. To get back to the point I made about bringing the content moderators into the regulatory process, if there are companies that continuously have the Ryanair model of complaint management, which is effectively to forget about it or joke on Twitter, and continuously ignore the complaints process and do not deal with it, then the severe fines in the Bill should kick in so they have to deal with it. I hope the Minister can follow my vision. Content moderators would become a legal part of the process. They would have to be appointed in each company over a certain scale, and I agree the phrase "certain scale" would have to be included. When complaints are not dealt with, and a volume of complaints is never dealt with, the legislation should kick in to fine those companies heavily. Through such a process that includes content moderators, the Minister would deal with issues of volumes of complaints and the Ryanair model of not dealing with complaints. Through this process and through the fines that would be brought about, the companies would be told they were not dealing with genuine complaints and they would not get away with it. Genuine complaints would be defined under the Act and I will help the Minister with an amendment on this.

I know the officials have considered this with Canadian and Australian legislators who have gone through all of it. I believe this country can be defining in this regard. We have a responsibility in this country given the volume of e-business, IT and online companies we have on our doorstep. I ask the Minister to actualise the vision I have put out there. We need to go this far. I will suggest an amendment to the Minister so that she can consider it as part of her deliberations.

The Minister has said she will probably need 160 staff and possibly up to 300. I can see it going beyond this and if necessary it should do so. There will be issues with the merger of various State organisations. I was involved in a number of such mergers. I am sure the Minister will work very closely with the unions to ensure it is done in an appropriate way.

The Minister said that for harmful online content not related to existing criminal offences, for instance cyberbullying, a risk test must be met for it to be considered harmful. This is like the word "scale". We need to define "risk test" and I will table an amendment on this.

With regard to the issue of streaming, all services in Ireland will be under the regulation. We have capacity in the EU to ensure all streaming services in the EU can be broached through this. Many online streaming services that come into this country do not come from within the EU. This is something the Minister needs to bear in mind. They come from all over the world. The majority of them are not based in the EU. How do we deal with this? I do not think there is huge capacity. Let us say that a lot can be bypassed. As legislators, how will we ensure this does not happen?

Before I get to the amendment I propose, I will raise the issue of the amendments the Minister will bring forward in lieu of the new Electoral Reform Act in which I have a great interest. They are very important because we all know from a political point of view of the manipulation and process by which these platforms can be used, especially content sharing that is self-produced and all of this sort of stuff, the virality of which can be immense within a short time.

With regard to the issue of disinformation and section 44, I will table an amendment for a new section to deal with content that is classed as harmful. The section goes through content that is classed as harmful because it is against the criminal law, while section 44(3) deals with content that is held to be harmful, even though its dissemination does not involve a criminal contravention. Issues such as suicide are dealt with in this regard and a number of others as the Minister outlined.

However, one major difference from the current law, as set out in the Prohibition of Incitement to Racial Religious or National Hatred Act 1989, is that the Act criminalised content likely to stir up hatred - this is the important point I wish the Minister to listen to - only if the content itself is, "threatening, abusive or insulting". The world has moved on. Hatred can be stirred up now even if the content is not threatening, abusive or insulting. "Harmful content", especially in the online space, and disinformation need to be defined in the Bill, otherwise it will have a large gaping hole.

Content that is written in terms that are non-threatening, non-abusive and non-insulting but that is simply false, made up of complete lies and known to be false, would not be captured by the current definition of "harmful content", even if it amounted to a serious defamation of a particular vulnerable group or individual. One could say something that is completely uncovered by the 1989 Act but is equally as dangerous or, in some cases, worse because it is completely untrue.

I appreciate that this might be seen by the ICCL and others as an online restriction of freedom of speech by requiring the take-down protocols to apply to a category of content that is not, under current law, unlawful. However, we need to deal with it because if we do not, disinformation is the methodology that will be used to avoid the total impact and construct of the Bill in the first place. If we do not do this, we will avoid an essential opportunity.

Within what is currently constructed, people will be able to behave in a way that is harmful to others and they will provide content which, by its construct, will be bullying or humiliating and will promote or encourage behaviour that characterises certain facets such as an eating disorder, suicide or many other things. I encourage the Minister to consider this. As it is not named explicitly in the Bill, there are other ways in which this harmful content can be provided and it is not covered by this Bill. I will put table an amendment that I wish to share and discuss with the Minister beforehand.

4:07 pm

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I greatly appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I am well aware that the Minister brought it, at great length, through the Seanad. Having listened in to some of those debates, I will try to avoid the repetition that happened during them and, indeed, in this debate because I only have brief time. I only wish to focus on one area. This legislation is ridiculously welcome. I back it to the hilt. It is long overdue. We will be able to follow from clear case models in other jurisdictions but I have a fear. The Bill is important in that we are providing a legislative framework but will we genuinely be able to see the difference?

When this legislation is passed, will we be able to lose the tag of the wild west when it comes to social media and the scale of the harmful content that is being posted every minute of every day, directly to every Member of this House? I think we all acknowledge, however, that the ladies of this House get it far worse than the men. It reaches every facet of our society, from the 14-year-old child at home, to someone who is on television, to someone who has just had a run-in with another person and is faced with continuous and repeated anonymous abuse and the most disgusting type of content. One post gets taken down and then ten more crop up overnight.

I have said 100 times that I am sick and tired of social media companies that have taken a repeatedly laissez-faireapproach to this. How many times have all of us reported accounts or posts about us, colleagues, family members, friends and constituents only to hear that they do not violate X, Y or Z, when they are some of the most disgusting, vile things that anyone should ever have to see? If someone were to say them on the street, one would be shocked. One would not believe those words could come out of people's mouths. However, hidden behind the veneer of anonymity and a screen in a darkened room late at night, people are prepared to say whatever they want. Sadly, it still continues and too many social media companies are simply checking out when it comes to this area.

How can we have genuine accountability in this space? How can we use this legislation? How can we use the new office of the commissioner to make the Internet and especially social media and messaging platforms a safer place, not just for our children, but for every member and entity in our society? It is all well and good to talk about the hardship and experiences of people who have come to our offices. Some of the people who have come to the Minister's office have come to my office as well. We all know them well. They are not just from the constituency but from various walks of life. I genuinely want this legislation to work.

The scope of the Bill is crucially important but I have a reticence. Perhaps we have all just been burned one too many times. There has to be genuine enforcement to allow that level of accountability. We are only on Second Stage and I listened with interest to Deputy Kelly talk about amendments. Perhaps, in coming back on Report Stage, the Minister might lay out exactly what we can expect to see achieved, not in the general or legislative space, but in this specific place after the legislation is passed. Where can we make these formats safer for ourselves and, crucially, for the constituents we represent?

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I will offer a slightly contrarian view in the short time I have. From the dawn of humanity we, as a species, have always sought to communicate with one another. We have reached out, contacted and communicated through whatever means was available to us. From hunter-gatherer conversations around the camp fire, to communicating with Armstrong on the moon and from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg, we have always innovated over and again to find new ways to communicate with one another.

Right now, social media, in all of its expressions and forms, is the pinnacle of that expression and desire to connect with one another. It is why my son who lives in Philadelphia can instantly communicate with his friends and family at any time of the day or night. It is why people who are oppressed can organise and mobilise to rise up against their oppressors. We are seeing a perfect example of that in Iran right now, where women are rising up and telling their oppressors they will not be dictated to as to what they can wear in public.

There is much to be protective about with regard to what exists within the social media space. We need to be especially cognisant of that as we move forward to, quite rightly, regulate how social media works and ensure that in working, it works in the best interests of our people, especially our young people. The function of government is, ultimately, to robustly analyse and parse the operation of social media and determine what is good about it.

There are many good and positive aspects to social media but we need to assess where the dangers lie.

Deputy Kelly spoke about misinformation and disinformation. This should be one of the most crucial aspects of this Bill and I congratulate the Minister and her colleagues who have done incredible work in bringing forward legislation that will ultimately position Ireland not alone as a global innovator in technology but as a global innovator in the safe regulation of the use of technology. We saw during the pandemic the serious destabilising power of misinformation and disinformation. We saw lives lost as a result of disinformation. I hope that in establishing the office of the commissioner, the Minister will ensure he or she is adequately resourced not only with respect to funds but also the expertise necessary to tackle misinformation and disinformation head on. Frances Haugen spoke to us in committee about her experience of working in one of the social media companies. She said the level of sophistication directed at the development of the algorithms that essentially allow us to see what the social media companies think we should see and need to see is such that perhaps only ten or 11 people in that social media organisation have the experience, talent and intellect to be able to figure out how they work and operate. The commissioner needs to have similar expertise available to him or her.

I have a final point to make. It may not be important in the context of developing this legislation but it matters to an ongoing collaboration between the Minister's Department and the Department of Education. We need to educate our children in how to navigate this space. If they are to have the skills to be able to distinguish disinformation and misinformation from reality, we need to educate them in doing that.

In Ireland we have been leading innovators in the development of digital technology and we are seen now as a global hub for that. We can equally lead in the area of the regulation of that technology.

4:17 pm

Photo of Pauline TullyPauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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While there are aspects of this Bill that need further consideration and work, there is so much of it I welcome. Specifically, I very much welcome the inclusion of an online safety commissioner within the proposed media commission, whose role will be to address the proliferation of harmful online content. This is very welcome and needs to be given appropriate compliance and sanction powers to deal with the serious threat of harmful online content. There are so many positives to using the Internet and online content for information or entertainment purposes but it can be used in such a harmful way. Safeguards for people online, especially children, are vital for mental health and well-being. The Minister must, therefore, ensure there are ample options for recourse to protect people's safety rights online.

Years ago, bullying in school was usually confined to school but that is not the case anymore and home is no longer a sanctuary. Much of the hate speech or the harmful posts are published using a fake account as well. It is clear self-regulation of online media has not been at all successful in recent decades. Online content and media have changed beyond recognition and regulation has not kept up but tech giants need to be held responsible for the content they allow to be broadcast on their platforms. They must be required to review and remove content deemed harmful and if they do not, they must face meaningful and severe sanctions. There must be stricter controls on who can open an account to ensure verification of identity. The tech giants also need to work with the Garda in providing information on those who post harmful content because it is not always the case. In saying this, I must state also that reviewing harmful content is a role that requires safeguards to protect employees' mental health and well-being. I ask the Minister how this Bill will ensure online platforms will be compelled to protect workers' rights in this regard.

This Bill includes a content levy that should not be allowed to be passed on to customers. It should be allocated primarily to the independent production sector to showcase Irish production and storytelling.

Groups such as the Children's Rights Alliance, CyberSafeKids, the Ombudsman for Children and the ISPCA have all called for an individual complaints mechanism and, therefore, I welcome that the expert group has come to the conclusion that such a mechanism is feasible and that the Minister will seek Government approval for that. However, a timeframe of at least two years for this is a long time for people to have to wait.

The section dealing with freedom of expression is of particular concern. In regulating content there is a fine line between personal liberties and freedom of speech and the protection of certain groups from harm. Legislating against something as fundamentally subjective as causing offence is problematic and will also need further consideration.

It is crucial the media commission be adequately resourced to ensure it can carry out its much-expanded work in a timely and efficient manner.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I welcome the Bill, which has many worthy aspects. I will touch on some parts that, though they may not necessarily be problematic, certainly require further discussion.

I welcome the Minister's statements on some of the amendments she has tabled since the discussion in the Seanad, especially to do with the addition of the youth advisory committee. I hope the Government understands the particular importance of listening to young voices on online safety. No matter how much research we conduct about social media we will never achieve the level of online fluency those born in the past 25 years have achieved just by growing up in a digital age. Like a foreign language, we could spend ten years studying it but there will still be terms and context that we do not understand and problematic dog whistles that do not translate. If I was making policy in that language, I could miss out on messaging that could cause harm. Online trends change like the weather and it can be difficult to dig into the pitfalls of a passing fad before it is gone. Only those who have tuned in day in and day out can spot and sometimes even pre-empt the dangers of emerging discourse. It is for this reason the commission's work on social media should be shaped by experts in that field. Those experts should be aged under 25 and the membership should constantly evolve to keep people of a young age on it. The youth advisory committee cannot be tokenistic. It must be taken seriously or we risk being a step behind when safety concerns arise.

It is all well and good speaking about future online dangers and how we might deal with them but anyone who spends time on TikTok, Instagram or any other Meta platform or Twitter will say kids are being exposed to dangers every time they turn on their phones. We must stop speaking in hypotheticals about what might happen to a child online without safeguards and discuss the harsh realities they experience for countless hours, potentially each day. As an example, if many parents of young children were asked what exactly TikTok constitutes, they would say it is where users post dances. They are unaware the platform harbours hundreds of thousands of different communities and trends and that some of them are harmful. Some of us might remember that in the early 2010s there was another social media platform called Tumblr that was all over the news for hosting content encouraging eating disorders, especially anorexia and bulimia, and countless children and teenagers fell into those online communities. It was incredibly detrimental at the time. The prevalence and severity of the content got so bad the company was forced to take a harder stance on moderation in 2012. This resulted in users and communities that promoted eating disorders being removed and moving to other platforms. In the past couple of years, video-based apps have seen a spike in what is described as pro-anorexia messaging and no matter their efforts to ban this content, there remains a high volume of videos on these platforms that could have a negative impact on the physical and mental health of young and older people around the country. Even seemingly harmless "Get ready with me" or "Choose my outfit" videos frequently contain "body checking", where creators place an emphasis on viewing their body, their shape and their weight from different angles. Sometimes this is under the guise of showing off clothes. Though some creators mean no harm in making videos in this style, children and young people around the country are being bombarded with countless videos each day where there body is the subject, where their shape is under scrutiny and where standards are unrealistic and simply unattainable.

It is extremely difficult to moderate content that hides its messaging and, therefore, we must provide educational resources to make users or their parents aware of the effects of those trends. These examples are covert but explicit and extreme examples of those trends can still be easily accessed online via certain hashtags that evolve as they are banned. This gives us another reason to listen to those who use the platform every day to warn about their potential dangers. Eating disorders and body image is only one of thousands of issues this commission will have to tackle on social media. Other examples include what is described as the alt right where violent messaging is rampant. This often indoctrinates young people who are in vulnerable circumstances.

Misinformation and disinformation are growing at an unprecedented rate, leading to kids being influenced by bad actors online. It is still easy to accidentally stumble upon violent or sexually explicit content on platforms which claim to ban it. I am sure they do but it just evolves too quickly. I would like to understand how the Bill we are bringing through will address that.

We all represent constituents who do not know how some of these apps work and do not know how to speak to their kids about the experience of them. I would certainly like to see the commission commit to an education campaign informed by the youth advisory committee which would inform parents and guardians of how exactly these apps work. Aside from the functionality, the campaign should address and explain trends and terms that parents may not understand so that they may identify if or when their child has been exposed to content that can be harmful. A once-off public service announcement in the form of a pamphlet or online campaign simply would not be effective. The commission should provide frequent updates whenever harmful trends are identified online so that users, parents and guardians can protect their children from being harmed or misled.

Education is essential because social media companies often fall short of moderating content that may be dangerous. It is the platform's responsibility to enforce its own rules and protect its users. It is essential that we engage with the likes of TikTok, Instagram and Twitter to ensure they are committed to keeping their content safe. Their standards right now are simply not good enough. To give one example, I was made aware earlier this year of a trend where teenagers were attacking people on the street so that they could film it and post it to social media. This phenomenon was organised and cultivated on popular video-based platforms and footage was hosted for an unacceptable length of time before being addressed by the companies in question. I actually did have a positive experience when I reached out to TikTok and received a positive response from them. That was one welcome example. The commission must constantly be on the lookout for harmful trends like this one, which resulted in teenagers ending up in hospital with head injuries. It must efficiently engage with companies to take down the content immediately as it is happening.

It is important to keep in mind that content moderation is not an easy job, far from it. Staff who are employed to sort through often disturbing imagery and footage require much better supports. We are all aware of some companies advertising roles completely unrelated to content moderation only for staff, once hired, to be stuck sorting through violence, racism and sexually explicit content for hours on end. It is an extraordinarily unforgiving job that takes a serious toll on mental health. Social media companies have a responsibility to provide for their employees. It must be ensured that these staff receive free counselling services, that they are given adequate breaks and that their contracts are fair. This is not work anyone can do for hours on end without it affecting their health in the most detrimental ways.

Social media can be an excellent tool for creativity, togetherness, entertainment and indeed for education. We witnessed many of those positive aspects throughout the pandemic. However, we must be alert to the pitfalls and protect those who are at greater risk of damage. I fully believe the Minister is taking this issue seriously. I welcome the Bill and look forward to working with her as it progresses.

4:27 pm

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I am happy to speak in support of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill. There is a whole realm of online content that is pretty unsavoury. We all have to use the Internet every day socially and indeed for work. However, there is a real murky side to it too. Finally we are going to be putting forward legislation that will be enacted and will help us to police that better.

The legislation paves the way for a new watchdog to regulate online services and to reduce the availability of harmful content. It will also establish a new regulator, a multi-person media commission to which an online safety commissioner will be appointed. It will establish online safety codes. The really important thing here is that it will become a responsible entity with a responsible individual overseeing it.

Heretofore what we have seen is that, in the large social media outlets in particular, all sorts of content appears on their platforms and they are inadequate, so far as I can ascertain, in terms of policing it themselves. Not a week goes by but that I have to report certain comments or things coming my way. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all social media platforms, in fact, seem incapable of effectively policing this. The real litmus test will be how social media platforms and search engines respond to this legislation when it is brought into play. We saw in recent weeks how Elon Musk is embroiled in an argument with Twitter over how it polices its content and how it filters messaging and tweets. If that is happening at the highest level, with the richest man in the world squabbling with the company he was trying to buy, one would hope there will be enough meat in this legislation to really rein in the practice. I would say most Members of this House have had to make complaints to An Garda Síochána at one time or another. Very often it can be a face-to-face interaction that can be unsavoury but I have had a number of occasions where there has been horrendous stuff happening online, stuff I have been subjected to myself. I am not going to get into it here in this Chamber. Each time I went to the Garda, it found itself pretty powerless in terms of following up on it. The more legislation and regulation we get going in this regard, the stronger the provisions will be.

It is really for the youngsters, the children of our classrooms. I was a schoolteacher for 16 years. They are so vulnerable to this. As parents we are only fighting back when they are five or six, trying to deny them iPads and access to gaming platforms. Before they are 11 or 12 they have phones. They live in an online world and we need to protect them.

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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Four minutes is very little time to do justice to an extremely significant and far-reaching piece of legislation. I understand it has received very detailed scrutiny on the Seanad Stages. I know the committee has been extremely active in that space and that the Minister has been very responsive in respect of the amendments that have been suggested and put forward. I was thinking about smartphones like the yoke I am holding in the context of this debate. The iPhone only went on sale first in 2007. It is difficult to conceive of a technology that has rewired all of our brains in such a short space of time. I predate it. Thankfully I am a walking history lesson - we get to be that if we live long enough. The children I used to teach, much like Deputy Crowe, have grown up in this environment and it is ubiquitous. It is everywhere. It dominates their waking world, it follows them into their bedrooms. There is no part of their lives or their world that digital technology does not reach into. We are seeing that massively in terms of young people's conception of their body image, the unattainable norms that are held up to them to try to achieve, and in the ease and pernicious nature of online bullying. There is no escape from it. They cannot close their front door or even their bedroom door on online bullying.

This is an extremely important Bill to which I will struggle to do justice in the time available. I want to focus on two aspects. Ar dtosach báire, tosóidh mé amach ar mholadh atá curtha ar aghaidh ag Conradh na Gaeilge. Ionas go mbeidh an Bille seo i gcomhréir leis na forálacha atá leagtha amach san Acht teanga, tá sé á mholadh ag Conradh na Gaeilge go mbeidh an cathaoirleach agus ar a laghad comhalta amháin eile den choimisiún inniúil ar úsáid na Gaeilge. Glacaim leis go bhfuil an tAire an-tiomanta i leith na Gaeilge. B'fhéidir go mbreathnóidh sí ar an leasú seo ag Céim an Choiste.

The other thing I wanted to touch on was online gambling as it pertains to young people. This is in response to an email I received from a constituent who is extremely worried about its impact on the teenagers in his house. I was shocked to find we are the third-ranked country in the world in terms of gambling spend per head of adult population, with only Australia and Singapore ahead of us. We know particularly from the GAA fraternity, where a lot of the intercounty players have spoken about how easy it is now. It is on their phone and reaches into every aspect of their lives. There is no time when that betting shop closes its door. Someone can do it at 3 o'clock in the morning and if they are at it at 3 o'clock in the morning it is very difficult to put down. Also, increasingly we are seeing advertising that is directed at people who are not adults. I am referring to older teenagers and even younger children. Deputy Cathal Crowe was talking about the games that are available on the iPads. A lot of those have an element in them that begins to train our young people in that pay-off - spin the wheel, see what turns up.

There is a real need in our society. The Minister led with the idea of this Bill being very much about protecting our children and young people. We need to strengthen that because those pieces of mobile technology that unlock so much in our world are also ubiquitous. It means there is no door that we can close to them and that these concerns reach into every aspect of our young people’s lives.

I would like the Minister to look at strengthening the Gaeilge provisions in the Bill and how best we protect our young people from what can become a serious and lifelong gambling addiction.

4:37 pm

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I am pleased to speak to this legislation. Online safety affects all of our lives and we all experience the issue. It is particularly acute when we think of children and young people at a very vulnerable age. All of us can be annoyed and frustrated by things that are said about us online and so on. For adults it is not as big an issue but it certainly is a big issue for younger people. Teenage bullying, which has resulted in suicide in some cases, is one of the issues that needs to be dealt with in this legislation. The platforms through which all of this works do not take their responsibility seriously enough. While many Deputies have mentioned contacting the various companies and asking them to deal with these issues, they are very slow to take down the material. Taking down the material is not nearly enough. There needs to be consequences for people who will set out intentionally to damage someone’s life in that way. I hope the online media commission to be set up under the legislation will be able to deal this situation in a real way. Too many people have suffered serious anxiety, worry and fear as a result of what has happened online in their lives. I listened to some of the debate earlier and the issues raised are very serious for very many families.

One of the problems this legislation will face is resourcing. We have so many multimedia companies based and headquartered in Ireland and so much traffic, if you like, from all quarters of the world goes through here that we need to resource this adequately to deal with the problem we face.

Prominent among the issues being raised is freedom of speech. People are entitled to have an opinion and put that view forcefully forward and have everyone see who they are when they are doing it. When it is done anonymously, to cause hatred and fear or attack and undermine somebody there is a problem. The multimedia companies have to be held to account for the way in which many people hide behind anonymous accounts when they engage in this sort of behaviour. It is not appropriate that they can get away with that and simply allow people to behave in that fashion anonymously.

Changes to the defamation law are needed to ensure that people who defame people, wherever they do it but particularly online, cannot just hide behind an anonymous account and get away with it. In those circumstances, the multimedia or social media account holder needs to be held responsible for that defamation. That is one measure that could be included in the Bill. I have looked at legislation in respect of that and this is one of the ways forward.

In general, while the Minister is trying to do the right thing, she is trying to do an awful lot in one Bill. I just hope the resources will be provided to back it up.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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I am opposed to the self-regulatory model for the online tech giants. Therefore, I welcome this legislation as a step forward, however small. There are important issues around finding the best balance between preventing harmful content and the protection of free speech. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has raised important issues in that regard.

In this contribution, I would like to discuss the impact of social media and other online platforms on mental health. This legislation defines one type of online harm as “a risk of significant harm to a person’s physical or mental health, where the harm is reasonably foreseeable.” There should be no space whatsoever for online content that is abusive and damaging to people.

What about algorithms that promote and expose young people to such posts? The creators of such algorithms may even be aware of their harmful impact but continue to allow them to run because they have demonstrated themselves to be profitable. Such algorithms can create and promote unrealistic expectations. Their interfaces are designed to be as addictive as possible to keep people coming back. I am talking, for instance, about last year’s Facebook leaks, which revealed that Facebook, now called Meta, the parent company of Instagram, had commissioned internal reports that showed the harmful mental health impact of their algorithms on young people. One internal Meta presentation stated that among teenagers who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British teens and 6% of American teens traced the issue to Instagram. Some 32% of teenage girls surveyed said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. The research found 14% of young boys in the US said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves. More than 40% of Instagram’s 1.2 billion monthly users are 22 years of age or under. Social media websites are constructed in this way not because it is the easiest or cheapest way but because it is the most profitable way, maximising time spent on these websites – engagement - and, of course, advertising revenue.

At the same time as this internal report was produced, Meta's pre-tax profits in Ireland were €890 million. Globally, the company's revenue for this quarter alone is expected to be nearly $30 billion. We have a situation where multibillion-euro companies are allowed to operate in a way that their own research shows is actively harmful to the mental health of young people.

There is a huge positive potential that social technologies can offer in terms of communication and the interconnection of society. However, it has been clearly demonstrated that we cannot trust these corporations to use these technologies in the best interest of society. These massive corporations are actively and knowingly harming the mental health of young people. They need to be taken out of the hands of the tech billionaires and run on a not-for-profit basis. How that would be done precisely or in more detail is an issue that I will return to in the future.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I am scheduled to share my time, so if my colleague shows up, I will yield to her. I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Bill. I know the Minister, the Department, the committee and a great many others have put a huge amount of work into it. I commend everyone on their significant work on this extremely important Bill which has been long called for and is even more important today than it was when it was originally proposed.

The creation of a new regulatory body that will implement, enforce and update rules on content is extremely important. The commission will also update the new online safety codes and help tackle and reduce harmful content, with Schedule 3 to the Bill listing a range of categories on the basis of the legislation, including sexual offences, rape, people and drug trafficking and other offences that will be included.

I will focus on the measures relating to cyberbullying, eating disorders and self-harm and-or suicide, which have the potential to cause extreme distress to young people engaging in the online world. It is extraordinarily important for the children of Ireland and it is long overdue. It also incorporates elements of the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission, which should not go unmentioned.

As noted by other contributors to this debate, online bullying can have devastating consequences. We know of many unfortunate incidents that have led to tragedies through many years. While the online element of bullying is not always the beginning and the end of those experiences as it is often done in person as well, the anonymity that is offered online is a massive problem with which global society must deal, but if we can tackle it in Ireland, we should try to do so. As Members of this House know only too well, bullying can be insidious and almost constant. Younger people may not be as well equipped as adults to deal with harmful content or cyberbullying, or both, and any measure the Government can take through the establishment of the commission is to be welcomed.

We can all speak about the more vulnerable members of society and the various tragedies that have befallen society in recent years with cyberbullying playing a significant role in tragic circumstances. I understand, however, that several concerns have been raised in respect of the Bill and are being given due consideration by the Minister and the Department. The Minister will be reviewing recommendations emerging from an expert group on this matter. It is important that we get the steps correct and that the Bill reflects stakeholder views as much as possible. I also recognise that the complaints mechanism is a complex area of legislation, not least due to the sheer volume of online content.

I will mention infant formula because it is important. I am pleased that the commission is being given the power to regulate this area, in line with public health advice. It is worth noting that the Broadcasting Authority has been given authority under EU law to ban the advertising of such infant formula by broadcasters in Ireland. There are certain things that some people might consider to be over-regulation and there are other areas that just make sense in terms of public health guidance and this is probably one of the latter. I am not necessarily in favour of banning things but, in this instance, this may be one that should be acceptable to all.

I note the creation of flexible legislation that will be able to incorporate forthcoming legislation and allow the commission to adapt to new measures. That is very much to be welcomed. As the Minister will know from her time on the Opposition benches, the most important aspect is the adequate resourcing of the commission. That is imperative. There is no point in giving the commission a role, particularly one that is this big, but not adequately resourcing it to carry out that role. I acknowledge that there are acute difficulties in the area of employment because the State is virtually at full employment and it is difficult to encourage people to join the ranks of the public service or a semi-State body, whichever the commission might be considered, but, ultimately, if we resource the commission adequately then it will be able to perform its crucial role. I have touched only on the role of the commission.

It is important to go back to the major issue of our time, which is online content. The ability of the commission to adapt to new platforms and new methods of communication and how that will interface, particularly with children, is of the utmost importance. A couple of minutes ago, I got my first text message from my 11-year-old son, who has just been given a mobile phone. He has three names in his phonebook and he will not be able to add to it, I am pleased to say. One becomes acutely aware of these things. As a public representative for 18 years, I have been subjected to horrors, quite frankly, as, I am sure, have all present. If we can do something in this House, however, to protect the children of today and those of tomorrow, it will be worthwhile.

4:47 pm

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I commend the Minister, the Department and the committee on the work they have done on the Bill to date. I know there has been a high level of stakeholder engagement and some of that has been taken on board and is reflected in the legislation. I encourage the Minister to maintain that engagement going forward as this is a complex and rapidly transforming area of law.

I wish to quickly address the importance of the Bill in the context of gambling harm and the potential impact of the Bill in terms of reducing gambling harm, particularly among younger people. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice has completed pre-legislative scrutiny on the gambling regulation Bill and is awaiting the publication of the legislation. In the interim, however, a CEO has been appointed. I wish her well in her role and look forward to meeting her to discuss her plan of action. It has taken eight years but, finally, we have a person in place who I hope will have a much-needed impact on the regulation of gambling and the reduction of harm. I have undertaken a series of meetings with various stakeholders, including large social media companies, regarding the impact their services have on those who are vulnerable to gambling harm.

There are some seriously concerning trends. Most recently, a large gambling company promoted advertising through other companies. I was on a social media site recently and watched a video from Comedy Central only to see, at the bottom of the screen, a big promotion from a large gambling company. The video was topped and tailed with gambling advertisements. Similar links between newspapers and gambling companies have come up on other social media sites. I know the Minister made some movement on this issue on Report Stage in the Seanad and, while that is good to see, I am not convinced it is strong enough or goes far enough. There is a difference between having regard to policy and having a formal relationship. I believe the media regulator and the gambling regulator require the latter. Social media platforms must do more and must be held responsible because they are not protecting people, especially younger people and children, from online bullying and abuse. Anonymous accounts that viciously attack people must be stopped or shut down. Social media companies must not be allowed to self-regulate because their self-regulation so far has failed to protect people. It is their duty to protect people. Cyberbullying is a scourge and, unfortunately, we have see the tragedy that can occur when young people are bullied beyond belief.

I commend the work that is being done on the legislation but I encourage the Minister to go further and be stronger.

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. In the previous Government, I worked in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. We were involved in the online advisory group, which I chaired. I know there is a difficult task ahead to try to rein in cyberbullying and make sure we put in place legislation that is not just valid in this country but can be used along with international law to make sure that cyberbullying and all that goes with that is curtailed on a global scale. In this regard, I think of young people, the vulnerable and the innocent. We cannot drop our standards in respect of what is tolerated on social media and the exposure of young and not-so-young children and teenagers to some of the abuse that can go on. These standards must be kept at the highest level. There is a significant onus on tech companies to conform and engage with Governments to ensure the legislation that is put in place is workable and that they work with it. It is important that if there are issues, they act swiftly to make sure every action possible is taken to stamp out the problem and protect children.

It is important to recognise that social media and all that goes with it has brought the world closer together. It is a marvellous tool that we can use. I know of many people living in Australia who can speak to their parents or grandparents using social media.

They can look at them and chat in an instant using devices in their hands. That is an unbelievable march we have made in digital development. The potential is there to bring that further in regard to healthcare and whatever else we need to do. The sky is the limit. However, one legacy that is building up is the abuse that takes place on these online services. I commend the Minister on bringing forward this legislation. It is important that we tackle this issue and work with everybody involved in this industry.

The Bill also included provisions on media regulation. Our local radio stations are close to my heart. Most Deputies rely on their local radio stations to get their views out and see them as a listening tool to know what is happening in their constituencies. The development of local radio has a positive influence and a major impact. Local radio stations are also balanced in their approach to current affairs and the entertainment they provide. I will highlight to the Minister a number of issues that we need to ensure we get right.

I understand local radio stations are excluded from the journalism bursary that is on offer. We should amend that to ensure that any bursary that is offered is available in the regions to train young journalists in the regions in order that we have a supply chain of good journalists to take care of future needs. Dare I say it but journalists do not have to be in Dublin. They need to be in the constituencies, working with local radio. They get a better experience of life by doing that. It is important that local radio stations are included in any bursaries available.

There is a levy on independent stations. We should reduce that levy to allow radio stations to develop and ensure they are fit, viable and sustainable into the future. They are competing for advertising, as are the local newspapers which are also a vital component of regional Ireland. It is important that local radio stations get every opportunity to survive and become sustainable and get as much of a break as possible throughout this legislation. We will look at the legislation with a view to bringing forward some amendments on which I will speak to the Minister.

Local radio stations should be funded in a way that makes them competitive and viable. If we are to have a democratic society, we must have local radio stations and other local media reporting local issues. They do that in a fair way so it is important that they are treated fairly and even shown some positive discrimination to ensure they survive. We must remember all of that when dealing with this Bill. We will introduce amendments on Committee Stage and we look forward to working with the Minister on those.

To return to my first point, our children are the most important thing we have. They are our future and we have to make sure we mind them and regulate online safety. I will support the Minister in any way I can help to make sure that happens.

4:57 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Deputy Murnane O'Connor missed her slot but as the next slot is a Government one and there are no other Government speakers present, she can speak in this seven-minute slot. For any other Deputies watching, I will be moving on to the Minister to conclude if no other speakers show up.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. For too long, the Internet has been the wild west and our children's exposure to it has been devastating in many cases. This Bill is historic. It proposes a long-awaited reform to the Irish media regulation landscape by establishing a watchdog to regulate online services and reduce the availability of harmful content online. Despite much legislation we all accept that there is a massive gap both internationally and in Ireland when it comes to addressing harmful online content. This new law will close the legal gap and establish a robust framework to deal with the spread of harmful online content. We must have accountability by platforms for online safety and a more joined-up approach to audiovisual media regulation. I urge all Members to support that. One of the most important aspects of the Bill is that it establishes a new, powerful regulator to enforce accountability in the sector.

The Bill will introduce a content levy on online media services. I support the many calls I have received asking for this levy to be set aside to increase investment in the Irish audiovisual sector. Each year that we do not introduce a content levy the Irish audiovisual sector loses out on a minimum of €25 million in additional investment according to an analysis by Indecon. We must do all we can to nurture Irish creative talent and opportunities for Irish casts, crews and audiences. I am a great believer in supporting Irish and supporting local and this is all about the local. Irish audiences are currently paying for online media services, with only a small number of homegrown productions using local casts and crew available to watch. If Irish people are to choose these platforms, we have to ask that they support Irish-made productions in the same way they support Irish-made crafts, food and other items. For the same reason, I support the content production scheme to encourage the creation of European work, including independent Irish productions.

I will also support amendments providing that an coimisiún will have a particular commitment to the safety of children and to require an coimisiún to have regard to matters relating to child safety and to the regulation of gambling and the policies of Government, relevant Ministers and public bodies in that regard.

Previous speakers also spoke about infant formula. It is important that families can access objective information regarding feeding their infants and young children free from commercial interests. I would like to see society becoming more supportive of the decision and actions of mothers around feeding, whatever they may be. To do that, we must ensure that we are not promoting heavily in one area and not offering the same support in the other.

As I said, I support all things local and Irish. We spoke about young journalists and local media. I was at the ploughing championships today. There was a huge crowd there, which was excellent. Local media were also there, including KCLR from Carlow and Kilkenny. We have to make sure we have funding for everything local and the job local radio does. To give an example, during the Covid pandemic it was crucial that people got information in their homes. It is all about supporting local. I ask the Minister to support local media and radio stations in any way she can. Having spoken to her, I know this is a concern of hers.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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My apologies, I need to catch my breath. The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill provides for the establishment of a multi-person media commission, including an online safety commissioner. It also dissolves the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and assigns its functions to the media commission and transposes the revised audiovisual media services directive. This directive provides for the regulation of video sharing platform services and establishes a framework for the regulation of online safety to address harmful online content, which will be administered by an online safety commissioner. The modernising of our laws in these areas is to be welcomed. It is clear that stronger safeguards for people online, especially children, are vital in terms of mental health and well-being. Self-regulation of online media has not been successful and the current legislation is outdated.

Online content has changed beyond expectation and the legislation has failed to keep up.

Other issues that need to be addressed include a wider definition of harmful content to include 40 existing criminal offences; cyberbullying; the promotion or encouragement of eating disorders, self-harm or suicide; and the making available of knowledge of methods of self-harm or suicide. The Bill also provides for additional categories to be added in the future, including both criminal and non-criminal categories. It is all very well providing the framework in this legislation, but the Minister must also ensure there are ample options for people who are aggrieved to take action to protect their safety rights online.

We must ensure there is investment and promotion of Irish-language media. Online platforms should be held to high standards of transparency. The media commission must be adequately resourced to ensure it can carry out its expanded workload.

This Bill provides for a complaints mechanism under the new commission, but it does not go far enough. During pre-legislative scrutiny, several groups including the Children's Rights Alliance, CyberSafeKids, the Ombudsman for Children and the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children called for an individual complaints mechanism to ensure an option is open to members of the public when platforms refuse to take action to remove content. Not surprisingly, social media companies like Twitter and Facebook lobbied against such a mechanism. The chosen mechanism must strongly favour the protection of the public. A similar model exists in Australia.

We must consider the well-being of the staff who work in the area of reviewing harmful content. There must be safeguards to protect employees’ mental health and well-being. What better place than this Bill to implement these safeguards?

Gambling is not covered directly in this Bill but there is a great deal of academic evidence to show that online gambling can increase problem gambling behaviours. We must ensure adequate safeguards are included to address the harm caused.

5:07 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We move now to Deputy Michael Collins. I ask him to note that we must adjourn the debate at 6.11 p.m. He will still be in full flight at that stage.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I will not be able to keep going for that amount of time. There are two other speakers coming like a train behind me.

The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022 has the potential to create a level of accountability that is sorely needed. According to the Children's Rights Alliance, however, critical measures are needed to ensure the legislation lives up to its name. The Bill envisages the appointment of an online safety commissioner and the creation of a new media commission with the power to fine non-compliant companies up to €20 million, or 10% of turnover. However, complaints can only be brought by nominated bodies and not by individuals.

This is a very serious Bill. It is something I support. I feel it is going in the right direction. Young people have very serious concerns. They are being bullied online. All sorts of shenanigans are going on, unfortunately, on their mobile phones and in the world that we live in today. My own feeling, and this was the case with my own children even though they are not children now, is that children have too much access to mobile phones. The dangers that are on them can upset children, and that can lead to many serious mental health issues. That issue needs to be addressed and I hope this Bill helps to address it.

I also encourage parents to act. I was talking to a person recently and their child was with them. I spent three and a half minutes talking to the child. During that time, the child never took its head out of the phone, even though the child was answering me to the side. I like talking to children - it is lovely to do so - because they are very intelligent and tend to be more open about things, but that child would not look away from the phone during that time period. Mobile phones have children completely perplexed. Parents need to stand up and be a little stronger in saying to children that they need to put away the phone sometimes in life. Children need to get back to the ordinary things that young people used to love, such as helping out in the local community and doing things in local community organisations, even if it is only a bit of Tidy Towns work or something small like that. These activities deliver a great deal more satisfaction than looking at a mobile phone during every spare minute that the child has.

I would like to make another point while I am talking about the media. I was at a presentation in Leinster House on a slightly different issue last week. I suppose it was also about getting out the freedom of information to advise young people. Two newspaper organisations, Local Ireland and NewsBrands Ireland, were lobbying for a 0% VAT rate for publishers to bring them in line with many other countries, including the UK. This would help in some way to meet the massive challenges they are currently facing. A total of 16 newspapers have closed in Ireland in the past decade. This does not just concern print media; it also concerns digital media.

While I am at it, I would like to thank the digital and print media in my constituency of Cork South-West, including the Southern Starand The Courcey Chronicle. I also thank Neil Michael who recently travelled with us to Belfast on our 100th Belfast or Blind coach journey. He saw for himself the difference this makes. He was good enough to print some of the patients' stories and experiences.

It is very hard to get a fair trial from the media at times. I am often quite critical of RTÉ for rarely having members of the Rural Independent Group on its political shows. We have a political voice out there. If that is bullied and pushed aside, it leaves a great deal to be desired.

As we all know, the Internet is a fantastic tool as long as it is used properly. We all saw the benefits of the Internet over the lockdown period. We saw how invaluable it is in Dublin and in bigger cities where it is available. Unfortunately, rural Ireland still does not have proper connection. This is a very serious issue that has not been completely addressed. The wireless operators have been trying to address that to the best of their abilities but certainly the roll-out of broadband has been a big failure of this and of previous governments.

As I have said, this Bill has the potential to create a level of accountability. That is what every one of us here should support. We should not have to see people being hurt or wrongfully tried by someone on social media. In quite a number of cases, people's lives have been ruined. It is something I feel very strongly about. I hope that this Bill will go a long way to create an open society. One of the biggest things is that when people are wronged and they try to rectify that wrong, nobody is there to do that. Hopefully, this Bill might be able to work on that.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We have four minutes remaining. I will ask Deputy Mattie McGrath to move the adjournment at 6.11 p.m.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Okay. I am delighted to be able to speak briefly on Second Stage of this important legislation, which is badly needed. I look forward to the Minister passing and enacting it because the pernicious activities that go on with online content are quite shocking. As adults, we can deal with it but we have seen horrible cases in the past. As we know, people have been under very significant pressures. Some people have lost their lives as a result of it.This legislation is a long time coming and is badly needed. Some of the companies can be quite reckless and can refuse to remove obnoxious content that is on their platforms, even though they should do so. I look forward to a day when this issue will be dealt with. I hope the laws will be strong enough and will be effective in dealing with this behaviour. This is not an easy area to traverse.

I would like to salute the print media in my own county, and in Waterford and beyond. The local press is a very important part of our whole story, heritage and being. It was so sad to see the diminution of many of those outlets. Indeed, we meet them here regularly. We met representatives of The Nenagh Guardianlast week. I salute that newspaper, the Tipperary Starand all of the many other outlets that are there, including the Waterford News and Star.

It is a different story with The Nationalistbecause there has been a takeover involving up to 14 publications. They were taken over by a big company, a conglomerate of quite nasty people. They sold the offices of our newspaper, TheNationalist, and have all of the staff working from home. Many staff with 30 or 40 years of service were dumped unceremoniously - they were just dismissed - and treated outrageously. It is a terror what greed can do, and what people who are reckless and careless and think they are answerable to no one can do. Now the newspaper has no home to work in. It has no office. Everyone is working from home, as everybody was during the Covid-19 pandemic. When I spoke to some journalists last weekend, I learned that they are still working from home.

I have no idea if they will ever again have an office but I do not believe they will. An old building was bought in the town but there is no sign of that being refurbished. We must be conscious of the workers, the great people, the reporters, the scribes, the editors and the different people who worked there over the decades, and all local media, which is so important. We then have the national broadcaster and the competition there, and the unfairness in regard to TG4 and others.

I have to thank Gript Media. But for Gript Media, an independent organisation, some of us would not exist at all because if you do not suit the narrative here and do not obey the narrative and fall in line with it, you are banished. That is a sad state of affairs for the national broadcaster and it should be looked into and examined. It ill behoves the name “national broadcaster” when it will not cover every group and every Teachta Dála who has something to contribute. It might not suit its narrative and everything else, but it is important that all voices are heard, whether it be in the print media, on television or otherwise.

5:17 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I ask the Deputy to adjourn the debate. When we return, there will be 11 minutes available to the Rural Independent Group.

Debate adjourned.