Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 September 2022

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


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

1:10 pm

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille. Ar bhealach, tá sé thar am go ndéanfadh muid a leithéid. Go dtí seo má bhí rialachas ar bith i gceist bhí sé déanta ag na comhlachtaí féin agus iad siúd á shocrú céard a bhí le feiceáil agus nach raibh le feiceáil ar na meáin shóisialta.

I welcome the introduction of this Bill and the introduction of a proper regulatory framework to deal with the spread of harmful online content. I accept this is complex. While, on the one hand, one has the right to free speech, that always has to be moderated and cannot be given without limit.

I did not like up to now that the people who decided what went up or came off were the companies themselves. That was a totally invidious and unacceptable situation. The ordinary person had no way, if there were wrong decisions, of appealing those, dealing with them or appealing to the political system because it was being done by private companies. Therefore, I welcome the idea of the Online Safety Commissioner, who will oversee the regulatory framework of online safety and who will make the safety codes.

Of course, we must look at the whole issue of media in our society. Of course, some of the established media do not like the idea that one can circumvent their mediation of the news and you can put the news up yourself. As long as it is legal, and as long as it is in good taste and is not derogatory of people etc., it is good. It reminds me of 130 years ago the plethora of pamphlets that were issued by people who could not get into the mainstream media in this country, such as James Connolly, who were putting forward a message that was maybe not the establishment message at the time and was not likely to have been published in The Irish Times, The Freeman's Journalor the Irish Independentof the time.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It has not changed much.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Agreed. Some of us do not get as much publicity as others around here but that is the way it is. However, there is, in my view, a great democratic element to this that I welcome.

On the other hand, I believe that mainstream media has a significant role to play but we need to adjust all of that to the realities of modern Irish society. There is one element of this that I would like to talk about. I understand in the Seanad there was an amendment put forward, that was not accepted but that the Minister was sympathetic to, that would make sure that public funding was made available to the commercial radio stations that provide content in the public interest. I do not believe that, for example, RTÉ has a monopoly of public interest. For example, if one has got current affairs on RTÉ and one has local current affairs at the same time on a local radio station that is focusing on the issues, national and local, of that area, why is one heavily subsidised and other not subsidised at all?

Local radio plays a huge part in our society and a very positive role, and there are four elements to it. One is that the stations get paid because they can go to the sound and vision fund. That is for documentaries, etc., but no current affairs or news. Even death notices, which are very important, certainly in rural areas, are not covered. The second element that is not covered is current affairs and the third is local sport. To me, that is all public service broadcasting, as much so as RTÉ showing some World Cup soccer game. I have nothing against it doing those things. I believe, therefore, that it is time, not because they are commercial operators but because they are local and provide basic, fundamental services and there is nobody else to do so, that funding was provided to them.

It is time, too, go ndéanfaí cinnte de go bhfuil cothrom na Féinne á thabhairt don mhionlach sin sa phobal a labhraíonn an Ghaeilge gach uile lá agus a éisteann go rialta le Raidió na Gaeltachta agus TG4. Ba cheart go gcuirfí céatadán áirithe ar leataobh as ciste RTÉ agus go gcaithfí é sin a thabhairt do Raidió na Gaeltachta agus go dtabharfaí cistíocht cheart do TG4. Tá sé chomh daor céanna nó níos daoire clár a dhéanamh trí Ghaeilge ná mar atá sé clár a dhéanamh trí Bhéarla. Ag an am céanna tá an chistíocht atá RTÉ ag fáil leis na cláir chéanna a chur amach i bhfad Éireann níos mó. Níl le déanamh ach dul chomh fada le "Morning Ireland", mar shampla, agus breathnú ar an bhfoireann atá ag plé leis sin le hais an dream atá ag plé le "Adhmhaidin" ar Raidió na Gaeltachta le feiceáil go bhfuil dhá phobal ann. Tá pobal amháin ag fáil i bhfad níos mó acmhainní ná an pobal eile.

1:15 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Finally, we are getting to the crux of the matter of online safety. None of us has not encountered to some degree the phenomenon of online bullying, which is consistent and constant. Never could anyone make an argument - at least, a legitimate one - against an online safety commissioner.

We all know that, to a degree, there is an element here of legislation trying to catch up with where technology is. We are talking about some of the super-companies if we are talking about the likes of Facebook, although it did not work out too well for Mark Zuckerberg when he renamed that entire entity Meta. It impacted how much he is worth but he will be all right and more able than others to withstand the difficulties people will be going through as regards the cost-of-living crisis we are in. We look at these colossuses, accepting that when these companies were formed nobody saw where they were going to go, but we know the particular issues that there are online and the difficulties we really have to deal with.

There is an opportunity at this point in time to deal with the issue of the algorithms, particularly if we look at the likes of Facebook and the information we now know from the likes of Frances Haugen. The fact is that, with Google and its search engine, we can get some information as to how it works. We know how the page rank algorithm works and we know about the results. In fairness, Google will provide information if it is sought, but probably the only way we can tell how the Facebook algorithm works - and it is the same for other social media platforms - is on the basis of how it works for the individual user, that is, with determinations made from multiple sources of information. That is accepting that that is all information we have provided to Facebook. We have to be very careful because we have seen where this has been weaponised in some cases by state actors and non-state actors. We know about the issues that may have arisen in Myanmar. We know that rogue states spend huge effort on online presence. We really need to make sure we get a handle on this, while also dealing with the regular issues that are often voiced in here as to how the Facebook algorithm, for example, provided financial benefits in respect of certain content which was not particularly good for people's mental health. I am talking about people who had issues with food and eating disorders.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, for the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. I support what Deputy Ó Cuív said about local radio. There is a lot of information that local radio gives out that is not covered as local news but should be, and those stations should be supported in that regard. Highland Radio and Ocean FM probably have a 90% listenership in Donegal. RTÉ is low down the priority list there. That is important.

Although I understand and agree with the intentions of this Bill, I am wary of the potential threats to privacy and freedom of expression. It seems that this legislation, in its current form, would operate contrary to the EU Digital Services Act, which supersedes it.

There is no doubt but that we urgently need to address the significant rise in online hate speech and online abuse in recent years. It is getting to the point where we are seeing online abuse so often on our timelines that we are becoming almost immune to it. However, we must never become immune to it and we must never accept this type of behaviour. The online world is becoming an increasingly toxic and unhealthy environment for our young people as well as ourselves. Steps need to be taken to ensure that people are given the same level of care and respect online that they are entitled to offline. Online perpetrators should be held to account in the same way all perpetrators in this country should be. We know that online abuse can have the same damaging effects that in-person abuse has. Given that the effect is the same, I do not see why the consequences of engaging in such behaviour should be any different.

Despite the fact that we all know that online abuse has a detrimental impact on people's mental health and well-being, as Amnesty International outlines, the psychological consequences of this abuse are under-researched and, as a result, understated. We have no idea of the full scale of the effect that online abuse can have on people, but we can be sure that it is severe for all those who experience it. Like most issues, these effects are felt most severely by women and minorities. Unfortunately, these are the groups that tend to be targeted online. As a white man, I am in a group that does not experience a lot of this abuse, and I have to recognise that. Online abuse is serious for people who experience it, and we have to be aware of that. Amnesty's research into this area showed that the majority of women polled across eight countries who experienced abuse or harassment on social media reported stress, anxiety, panic attacks, powerlessness and loss of confidence. The National Women's Council of Ireland, in its report last year, found that women are making the decision to drop out of politics because of gendered social media abuse. A report by the UN special rapporteur on minority issues shows that three quarters or more of the victims of online hate speech are members of minority groups and that women belonging to these groups were disproportionately targeted. Unfortunately, this type of behaviour is only increasing. The same report states that the fight against the tsunami of hate and xenophobia in social media appear to be largely failing because hate is increasing, not diminishing. During the pandemic, there has been an incredible 20% rise in hate speech in the UK and the US.

Shockingly, there is a vast and rapidly growing volume of child abuse material being created and shared online. Reports show that the UK's child abuse image database has 17 million unique images on it and it is growing by 500,000 images every two months, which is appalling. It is a problem that is only getting worse as time goes by and as the Internet expands. The longer we stall in addressing this, the harder it will be for us to control it.

It is with that in mind and with the clear understanding of the urgent need for such legislation that I am disappointed to say that I do not fully support this Bill. All of us in this Chamber want legislation that addresses all the issues I have just highlighted, and I would be the first to put my full support behind legislation that addressed those issues effectively.

Unfortunately, this Bill just does not go far enough to protect our privacy rights. It is also about getting that balance right between the privacy rights.

There is far too much contained in the Bill. Many wide-ranging issues are being addressed, which not only makes it very difficult to scrutinise, but frankly makes it vague and unspecific. It is clear that the reason everything has been piled into one Bill is the European Commission decision to refer Ireland to the ECJ for failure to meet the transposition deadline for the revised AVMSD, and the significant financial penalties we are facing due to this. It is completely unacceptable that so much of the legislation introduced in the State is in response to an emergency situation. It reflects very badly on this House but also reflects poorly on the Government. How many times in the past six months have we seen legislation rushed through the House because we were at risk of being prosecuted by the EU as we had not transposed directives into legislation. There is plenty of time to transpose legislation if it is done properly and dealt with properly.

That leads to the wider issue of how the House has dealt with legislation. In a report given to the Business Committee yesterday it could be seen that July and December are the peak times for legislation to come through the House. I am mindful that legislation is rammed through in those times and, therefore, there is no scrutiny. That is the only reason there can be. There is the excuse of deadlines that are set by the Department. Some of that may be true but I do not believe it is. I believe that the legislation goes through at that time so that there is little or no scrutiny. Between January and June, there was less legislation put through the Dáil than there was in the month of July, which is shocking. It will be the same in the run-up to Christmas. We will be scraping around looking for legislation and there will be statements here there and everywhere and there will be no legislation but in December, there will be a mad rush again to railroad stuff through. This is why we get into situations like now where we have to rush this through to deal with the ECJ decision and the failure to transpose, when we could have been doing this in a timely fashion. This is not the way or the environment in which legislation should be drafted, scrutinised or implemented. It makes a mockery of our legislative process and results in messy, incomplete and rushed legislation.

I understand the legislation proposes to dissolve the BAI and in its place establish a media commission with a wider remit, covering on-demand audiovisual media, visual sharing platforms and online safety. The Bill also provides for additional powers for the media commission in respect of compliance and enforcement, including the power to impose administrative financial sanctions. I understand that the Bill’s intention is to introduce extensive provisions around online safety, by creating coimisiún na meán, and to set out a definition of "harmful online content". One of the issues I have, however, is that the definition is far too vague. The Bill is unspecific about the specific content that could lead to sanction.

Once enacted, the commission will be able to issue a notice to remove, disable or limit access to specific content or apply to the High Court to block access to a service. This could lead to a restriction of speech online that is legal offline, or indeed online when communicated privately, and this causes serious rights concerns.

In their submission, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, state that despite the Bill’s intention to reduce harm "this subjective opinion-based approach about feelings that could be had, in regards to already vaguely defined “harmful” content, could lead to a serious chilling effect on the rights to freedom of speech, opinion, and to the right to send and receive information”. Not only is this potentially unconstitutional, but there is also a potential threat to democratic debate. The vagueness in language could lead to larger companies adopting more strenuous filtering measures or greater use of automated decision-making and algorithms in respect of removing online content. The ICCL fears that this risks even greater speech restrictions in a world where machines may unjustifiably remove material due to the non-detection of art, parody, satire, irony or sarcasm, all which are critical for healthy democratic debate. Overuse of restrictive filters can restrict genuine reporting, which could be a devastating unintended consequence of the legislation.

I would be grateful if the Minister could address the submission put forward by Digital Rights Ireland on the inclusion of private communication services and cloud storage services in the legislation, which states that an online safety code will apply to an “interpersonal communications service” or a “private online storage service” in respect of offence-specific categories of online content. This is a significant area of concern as the inclusion of private communication services is incompatible with the right to privacy and data protection. As far as I know there is no justification given for why censorship of these services would ever be necessary or appropriate and Digital Rights Ireland has outlined that these provisions would not be compatible with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights or the ECJ. The Bill does not make clear the obligations that will be placed on providers, nor does it make clear the specific services this will include, what this code will entail and how this measure will impact encrypted services.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights warns that the regulation of encryption undermines human rights and strongly recommends that States would promote and protect strong encryption and avoid all direct, or indirect, general and indiscriminate restrictions on the use of encryption. In her opening statement, the Minister mentioned that she may consider amendments on Committee Stage and I would strongly welcome this, especially around online safety codes for these services.

Although I disagree with the legislation in its current form, I recognise that it is much stronger than when first published at the beginning of this year. I understand that this is due to the Minister’s genuine and productive engagement with the legislative process in the Seanad. This engagement led to 62 amendments being tabled on Report Stage. I particularly welcome the inclusion of a youth advisory committee and I also welcome that harmful online and media advertising targeted at children is now included within the scope of this Bill. I am aware that the Civil Engagement Group Senators, in particular, pushed for this.

I am disappointed that the issue of profiling children was not considered further by the Minister. There are major gaps in the legislation in this area and I would appreciate more engagement from her on this as the legislation passes through the next Stages. Areas that need particular attention are the advertising in online spaces for conversion therapy and the advertising of weapons to children. A BBC article in June showed that knife crime among teenagers in the UK is being driven by online targeting. The article showed how violent videos and knives for sale could be recommended on the social media accounts of teenagers and how a young boy named Olly was sadly murdered after being exposed to a violent world through his phone. This is incredibly disturbing and it is very concerning to think that we are not protecting our young people from such dangerous targeted advertising. I hope the Minister will look into this concerning issue and address this in the legislation.

I also hope other Ministers will follow suit in recognising the importance of Opposition input. As legislators, it is our job to make legislation as strong and as robust as we can, and this is only possible if proper engagement with the Opposition takes place. Ministers often see Opposition input as an attack rather than an opportunity to gain a different view or even consider issues that may have been overlooked. Although I do not support this Bill in its current form, I support its intent and welcome the engagement it has encouraged. I hope that all future legislation is given the same consideration.

1:25 pm

Photo of James O'ConnorJames O'Connor (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for being present. It is important to note the impact this legislation will have on the future of media and how we interpret all methods of communication. There has been extraordinary change in the past three decades in how people communicate on a daily basis. I am probably part of the first generation of elected representatives, from the 2019 local elections to the general election in 2020, who have grown up as children, teenagers and young adults with social media platforms. I have seen at first-hand the damage this can do. As a consequence of social media there are many positives in people's lives by making it easy to communicate. It has shortened the distance of communication for people who may be living abroad or have family abroad. Social media can have significant positive ramifications. From an economic point of view it is important to us in Ireland given the scale of investment by social media operators in the State.

It must be said, however, that there are many areas that are hugely concerning, and that have long been concerns at EU level and domestically, in respect of the negative impacts that social media can have. It is having a detrimental impact on people's mental health and their interpretation of the quality of life they enjoy even in the respective countries in the EU, and it is also an issue when it comes to trying to tackle crime and violence. This is why we need to pursue this work. I welcome the establishment of the media commission and the work that the Minister has been doing on that. I commend her on her proactive approach on these issues, and I thank her for the work she has done.

However, it is important that we acknowledge the serious urgency around this particular work. I have significant concerns around prosecution that will come as a consequence of new legislation that we will bring forward. Section 12 of this deals with that. It is important that there is very strong back up when it comes to being able to prosecute people for illegal behaviour online. One thing that requires serious consideration in this legislation is how we deal with anonymous online activity. We have seen on social media platforms, particularly Twitter, very significant interference particularly in political dialogue by anonymous accounts. It is extremely important that we work with major social media operators to try to cut down on the level of interference that is happening. I am really concerned about the direction of travel when it comes to elections in our country and the external actors that we know for a fact are trying to influence democratic elections. That is not just necessarily in respect of Ireland but at international level. We cannot consider that we are not ourselves potential targets, particularly with upcoming elections. We have local elections coming in 2024. We know they will take place in May 2024 and there is potentially a general election between now and 2025. It is exceptionally important that the Government moves really rapidly in this particular are to ensure those standards are in place with the work the media commission does to monitor online interference in the election process and the activity of anonymous online accounts. These have been huge issues in the US presidential elections, for example, but also in European elections. I refer to what has come out about Cambridge Analytica and what happened with the Brexit referendum. It gives an indication of the significant impact that online activity can have when it is used for unethical purposes. We must also do more work around sitting down with the companies. There is an issue in Ireland because we rely on them so much. The elephant in the room is the level of corporation tax that we receive from multinational companies working in social media. It has a huge impact on people's quality of life in Ireland which is positive but I do not think it is wise for us to shy away from having those difficult conversations, which might have been an issue in recent years, around content moderation to protect vulnerable people and vulnerable users of online communications whether children or young adults as well as political discourse. There is a very fine line. Deputy Pringle spoke very eloquently about restrictions on freedom of speech. They are important but we need a level of understanding and a common denominator with the changes that have happened. If you go back 20 or 30 years, there were standards in place. If something was printed in the press, it had to go through an editorial process. Now, as the former Chancellor, Angela Merkel pointed out at European Council meetings, everyone is effectively an editor. That presents very significant challenges around policing that; not necessarily restricting freedom of speech but the responsibilities on each individual are enormous because you have a worldwide audience for everything you say. We have not quite come to terms with that yet. That is why it is important this legislation is being brought before the House along with the establishment of the media commission. The work it will do will be really positive and I am very supportive of it.

We are not the worst example internationally of illegal online activity. However, there is a lot of room for improvement for vulnerable users too. Tackling things such as online child pornography and the purchasing of drugs online, which is a major problem with some platforms, is something the Government needs to look at. There is also the negative impact it is having on antisocial behaviour. Very sadly, in recent months we have seen some extraordinarily disturbing scenes of antisocial behaviour here in Dublin. Thought needs to be given to the impact social media has in driving it on or making people feel that it is in someway acceptable. That is something that needs to be asked.

Education is key. It is really important that the primary curriculum teaches the dangers of online activity. I came through primary education in the 2000s when platforms like Facebook were only starting to grow and get established. We now have a generation of people who are being born into this as their way of life. It is important that we look at primary level and do further education around online activity that could put people at risk. It must be age-appropriate, that goes without saying, but we need to look at the younger age groups in society to teach what is acceptable and unacceptable. The number of devices connected to the web can range from a smart phone or watch to every games console which is connected to the Internet with web searching functions. The age of exposure that children in this country get to the online world has dropped dramatically over the last decade. That is something that the media commission should look into when it comes to the impact it is happening on younger members of society.

I do not want to go on too much about it but I am concerned that we are ill-prepared here for political interference in online activity in our elections. We must work with the Standards in Public Office and the media commission. I am confident that the Government will take my contribution on board. It is a major concern. We all see what is going on with foreign actors trying to influence elections on the European Continent. Ireland is no different. We have a seat at the table at European level. It is important that we work to protect the integrity of our electoral systems and online communications in this country. It should form a key part, along with prosecution powers, in the legislation that is being considered.

1:35 pm

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to the House and for the amount of work she has done in the Seanad on it. It is really important and timely legislation and I commend her for her work. It is legislation that has been needed for some time. It is clear from our own regulation of politics and conversations with parents, schools and other actors, there is a need for regulation of social media. I respect all of the points that have been made about freedom of expression and the right to it. Freedom of expression is not and never has been an absolute right in this jurisdiction or any other. The points raised by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, and others concerning censorship and freedom of expression are noted but I do not hear those same organisations standing up against infringements on people's privacy, the democratic process or on democratically elected people who have suffered at the hands of unfettered freedom of expression either. It would be nice to see a little bit more balance in that dialogue that respects some of the players on the pitch who are actually trying to engage in the democratic process, protect freedom of expression more broadly and protect the democratic process itself just by their turning up and participating. I raise that because I am on the Committee on Gender Equality which is there to consider the recommendations of the 100 citizens who did huge work in the Citizens Assembly. A big piece of that work is about women in politics and women in public life more generally. Professor Yvonne Galligan, among many other notable experts, came before the committee last week. She noted in particular the insidious impact of social media on democracy and on democratic processes and particularly unregulated social media and the particular affect of that on women and minorities as Deputy Pringle and others have pointed out. We are concerned with generally enhancing and increasing women's participation in politics and public life as a measure of the success of our representative Chamber and how off-putting the social media abuse - which we have all in the House experienced, male and female - can be for anyone to come into politics. But it is obvious that it has been targeted at women in a different way, and I do not know there are many of us who might dispute that, or perhaps the nature of it is slightly different in respect of women so that it represents yet another barrier to getting more women into politics. That was a particular feature of our debate at the Committee on Gender Equality last week. It is important to highlight it here.

Look at the responsiveness of social media companies in practice to issues that are raised. In my experience, without naming any of the companies, the response from at least two of the companies was just appallingly poor to issues that were raised.

Whether it is complaints made through their own channels, complaints made more directly or complaints made through other actors of the State, the timeliness and quality of response are genuinely poor.

About a year and a half ago, one of the social media companies came to us with an idea in respect of the take-down facilities. Of course, if something that has important reputational effect is put up about a politician or any other person, the most important thing is to simply have it removed. Damages are not necessarily a remedy. It is not a real remedy; it is about protecting the individual in the moment. The company's suggestion was that the individual could go to the High Court at whatever time of the day. The individual would need to be able to pay the fees to access the lawyers, and do so at whatever time of the day because social media operates at every time of the day, to get an injunction or some other relief from the High Court. The individual would then need to come back to that social media company and show it the High Court ruling. Then the social media company would have a good old think about whether it would then take down the piece. By then the damage is done. It just shows how disconnected these companies are. Either they do not understand - which I do not believe - or they do not care about the impact these things can have on individuals' reputations.

That is why this balancing legislation the Minister has introduced is so important. It is important because it provides a counterweight to those platforms for freedom of expression which have enormous positivity but must be regulated. I hear these points about freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is a balanced right and not an absolute right. It has gone too far in respect of the damage that can be done to individuals and systems such as the democratic system as a consequence of the very small number of entities using it so negatively and wrongly.

I thank the Minister for the work she had done on the independent complaints mechanism. I know she gave great thought to that matter and had an expert group consider it. It relates to the timeliness of being able to respond and for people to be able to respond. My understanding is that the Minister will introduce it first in respect of children and minors, following the Australian model and then assess whether that could be rolled out further. I think that is exactly the right approach to take.

CyberSafeKids is a great organisation which works with children, parents and schools across the country to provide better online safety training and support to parents who find their children in difficulties. That was one of the key recommendations from its report two weeks ago. It interviewed 4,500 young people and their parents about their social media use, their Internet use and the difficulties they had faced. Parents faced difficulties in trying to protect their children where issues of bullying came up on Snapchat or YouTube videos that were being shared and linked throughout WhatsApp groups or different platforms that the children were using. Those were either directly related to a child or were being used to continue bullying activity through online platforms.

The most important thing for those parents was not some remote remedy, damages or other solution down the line but the protection of their child that night, dealing with the child's distress and protecting the child's emotional well-being. In other debates we speak about these concepts very frequently. We talk about mental health, the protection of children, removing bullying and all these different things. However, what mechanism is available to a parent at 7.30 on a Tuesday evening to stop whatever is exacerbating their child's distress? The only thing is to get the material down quickly, enabling the child to get on with things rather than having it escalating as these things do.

The independent complaints mechanism requires social media companies to respond quickly or else the matter will be taken up with the online safety commissioner. It applies pressure on the companies, not on the parent or the State. Introducing this mechanism will have a behavioural effect for social media companies. They will need to devote some of their welcome but very considerable resources to dealing with matters quickly instead of getting the sort of nonsense responses that people, including even elected Members of this House, get in response to complaints of a very serious nature.

I do not care whether I get a response. I am big and ugly and get on with things. However, in respect of that child on a Tuesday night at 7.30, the parent needs a response for the child. The step the Minister has taken with the independent complaints mechanism offers that. The social media companies should be on notice that they will be expected to behave differently in respect of complaints that are raised, particularly with children who are so vulnerable.

Other Deputies have spoken about the algorithms and how they are driven. It is so easy for any person to test. There is no question but that they are driven by negativity. I hope this new legislation, through the creation of the commission, will provide a better opportunity to understand, challenge and question that in a real way and provide a better balance to what is available on the Internet and in media content generally.

I congratulate the Minister and thank her for this piece of work. I wish her well with the rest of the Bill's passage through the Houses. In particular I thank her for the independent complaints mechanism which will make a genuinely practical difference and is something that parents can reach to on a Tuesday at 7.30 to protect their children. Without it I do not know what they would have done in trying to manage social media bullying of their children.

1:45 pm

Photo of Denise MitchellDenise Mitchell (Dublin Bay North, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Bill, which is not before its time, considering we have already been fined by the EU for our failure to implement the audiovisual media services directive. The media commission is a much-needed expansion of the role of broadcasting authority. Ireland is playing catch-up with how media have evolved. The Law Reform Commission first mentioned the establishment of something resembling an online safety commissioner back in 2016. In 2017, my colleague Deputy Ó Laoghaire moved the Digital Safety Commission Bill to address the issue of the lack of regulation relating to online abuse. The conversation has progressed since then, but the big issues then are still the big issues now. I hope this Bill will provide us with a proper framework for protecting children from the worst traits of the Internet. I hope this is the beginning of the end for social media companies' self-regulation. They have shown themselves to be incapable of policing harmful content.

No one thinks this will be a silver bullet that solves all child protection concerns that come with children having access to the Internet but it is a step in the right direction. The Minister needs to ensure that enforcement in the area is strong and the Bill does not leave any wriggle room for companies looking to shirk their responsibilities. I also hope the Bill will lead to more transparency about how social media platforms operate, allowing us to develop stronger policies in this area.

The report of the expert group on an individual complaints mechanism, which was published late on Tuesday evening, recommended that the individual complaints mechanism be phased in by 2024. This will allow those being bullied or harassed online to make a complaint directly to the regulator, something Sinn Féin strongly supports.

I question why the report was published so late given that the Minister has had it since May and we have not had time to analyse it properly ahead of this debate. That is not good enough, to be honest, but I hope its contents can be reflected in amendments on Committee Stage.

I want to speak briefly about another proposal in the Bill, namely, the content levy. I would like to see the money collected from this measure allocated to independent Irish production companies and more specifically to Irish language media. It would be a great way to ensure that money would be invested in Irish programming and would showcase the talents of our best and brightest in the arts sector.

I highlight the need for staff employed by social media companies to review harmful content to be given support. The Minister should impose some sort of duty of care on these companies to ensure they adequately support their workers. I hope the Minister will take on board some of these suggestions to strengthen the Bill on Committee and Report Stages.

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill. In recent years, the self-regulation of online media has not worked.

Social media operators have always tried to present their obligations as being subject to levels of oversight and standards different from those that apply to traditional media. This has led to regulation that is difficult to enforce and allowed them to shirk responsibility. That is the reason it is past time that this Bill came before the Houses of the Oireachtas. If it is to be effective, we need an individual complaints mechanism that does not submit to the pressures exerted by the social media giants off this world. While I am pleased the Bill provides for a complaints mechanism, I would appreciate it if the Minister would outline her intentions when it comes to an individual complaints mechanism, as called for by the Ombudsman for Children, the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC, and others.

On a positive note, I am pleased to see the Bill makes provision for additional categories of offences to be added in the future. I hope this will enable the legislation to keep pace with innovations in the online world. It is past time that regulations changed in step with advances online. Tightened and more encompassing regulations only work if there is somebody is in place to regulate online content. We must ensure the regulations that are set down can be overseen adequately, which means providing proper staffing, resources and support. I refer to support because the well-being of staff whose job may be to review harmful content must be paramount. We must ensure their mental health and well-being are safeguarded.

Compellability is another issue. We must ensure the provisions in this regard are robust enough and the old ways of Internet companies are brought to an end. They must be held accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities.

I appreciate the inclusion in the Bill of exemptions provided to community radio and television stations from paying an industry levy, as well as the creation of a bursary scheme for journalists in community and local radio stations. These media outlets must be shown the importance of the service they provide to their communities. Often running on shoestring budgets, these stations acted as a pivotal point for communities during the pandemic. Their efforts reduced isolation among those who found themselves alone at home. They also chronicle local life, local ways and the nature of a locality. They preserve a community's history and promote its identity. They are invaluable and should be shown the appreciation they deserve.

1:55 pm

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Bille an-tábhachtach é seo agus is gá dúinn déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil sé i gceart nó chomh ceart agus is féidir leis a bheith, ach go háirithe an chuid sin a dhéanann déileáil leis na ráitis agus na focail a deirtear nó fiú na físeáin a bhíonn ar na meáin shóisialta. San áireamh ansin tá na hionsaithe a dhéantar ar dhaoine agus na bréaga a insítear agus caithimid déanamh cinnte de, chomh tapa agus is féidir, go bhfuil deireadh leo, go bhfuil siad imithe agus go bhfuil an dochar maolaithe beagán, más féidir in aon chor. Sin an cleas agus sin an fhadhb is mó atá againn.

Bhí na sean-mheáin mall ag bogadh. Bhí nuachtáin ann agus ní dhearna siad an oiread sin damáiste is a dhéanann roinnt de na meáin shóisialta. Má théann rud amach ar na meáin shóisialta bíonn sé láithreach agus bíonn tionchar diúltach i gceist láithreach. Caithimid an iarracht is fearr gur féidir linn a dhéanamh chun déanamh cinnte de na bréaga atá á n-insint ar na meáin shóisialta a stopadh. Chomh maith leis sin, caithfear an míchlú nó damáiste a dhéantar do dhaoine a stopadh láithreach. Tá duty ag na comhlachtaí móra sna meáin shóisialta i bhfad Éireann níos mó a dhéanamh. Tá siad ag déanamh brábús ollmhór. Tá a lán daoine fostaithe acu atá in ainm agus a bheith ag déileáil leis seo ach fós féin feicimid gach uile lá go bhfuil damáiste agus bulaíocht á ndéanamh ar dhaoine óga agus ar dhaoine eile. Bíonn drochthionchar leis sin agus bíonn daoine ag cur lámha ina bhásanna féin de thairbhe roinnt den stuif a thiteann amach ar na meáin shóisialta. Roinnt acu is sna meáin shóisialta a fheiceann muid iad ach i roinnt chásanna eile leithéidí WhatsApp do ghrúpaí agus mar sin atá ann. Bíonn grúpaí tagtha le chéile ansin agus bíonn páistí nó daoine óga ach go háirithe gafa i ngrúpaí agus casann an ghrúpa orthu agus déanann sé sin dochar.

Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil an Irish Council for Civil Liberties tar éis ceisteanna a ardú mar gheall nach bhfuil an foclaíocht i gceart nó rian go leor chun déanamh cinnte de go mbeidh an tionchar ceart ann agus go mbeidh sé láidir go leor go mbeadh muid in ann an méid atá á lorg againn a dhéanamh. Tá mé ag súil go mbeidh díospóireacht maith againn ar Chéim an Choiste ionas chun déanamh cinnte de go mbeidh an foclaíocht seo i gceart agus ionas go bhfoghlaimeoimid ó thíortha eile, más féidir in aon chor, conas a raibh siad in ann déileáil leis an damáiste seo. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil an tAire agus gach duine tiomanta leis seo. Ní hé go bhfuilimid ag teacht i gcoinne a chéile. Tá gach duine ag iarraidh teacht ar an réiteach céanna; gur féidir linn saoirse a bheith againn ó thaobh na meáin, foclaíocht agus a leithéid, agus ag an am céanna caithfear an chosaint chuí a thabhairt do ghnáthphobal na tíre, uaireanta páistí nó daoine eile atá leochaileach agus a bhíonn faoi ionsaí sna meáin shóisialta. Bíonn siad faoi ionsaí uaireanta sna sean-mheáin chomh maith ach ar a laghad tá bealach acu dul chun na cúirteanna cuibheasach gasta. Áfach i gcás na meáin shóisialta bíonn sé i bhfad Éireann níos deacra. Sin ceann de na rudaí a chaithimid a réitigh anseo ionas go mbeidh gach rud i gceart.

Feicim go raibh an tuarascáil sin ón ghrúpa saineolaithe i dtaca le meicníocht aonarach foilsithe ag an Aire agus is maith an rud é sin. Ní hamháin go bhfuil muid ag braith ar na comhlachtaí atá na meáin shóisialta acu ach tá seans ann gur féidir le duine cás aonarach nó gearán aonarach a dhéanamh muna bhfuil sé nó sí ag fáil sásamh ó na comhlachtaí seo. Caithimid déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil sé sin i gceart. Níl an tuarascáil iomlán léite agam; tá mé díreach tar éis sracfhéachaint a thabhairt uirthi ach táimid ag dul sa treo ceart ón méid atá léite agam go fóill, ach go háirithe ós rud é go bhfuil an coimisinéir sábháilteacht ar líne ann agus go mbeidh foireann aige nó aici. Tagraím don mhaoiniú agus tá a fhios agam go bhfuil píosa sa reachtaíocht seo faoi sin mar sin is féidir déanamh cinnte de amach anseo go mbeidh an maoiniú ann don choimisinéir sin chun déanamh cinnte nach bhfuil sé nó sí gann ar fhoireann. Uaireanta nuair a bhunaímid rudaí mar seo bíonn siad mall ag dul i dtaithí ar an jab atá acu. Ansin ní bhíonn an t-airgead acu, bíonn troid acu agus bíonn siad dírithe ar troid ar son maoinithe seachas i gcás mar seo nuair gur chóir go mbeadh na meáin féin agus an Státchiste ag íoc as seo. Foilsíodh an tuarascáil sin agus tá roinnt phointí ardaithe ann nach bhfuil ina n-iomlán sa reachtaíocht seo. Mar sin, glacaim leis, nuair a bheimid ag déanamh déileáil leis ar Chéim an Choiste, má tá aon spás nó má tá aon bearnaí ann atá léirithe ag an tuarascáil seo, go mbeimid in ann leasuithe a chur chun cinn ar an gCéim sin nó ar Chéim na Tuarascála.

Tá ceist eile agam maidir leis an moladh atá ann thar na blianta go mbeadh levy curtha ag an Stát ar na grúpaí atá ag déanamh streaming ar scannán, teilifís nó a leithéid isteach sa tír seo agus an fáth leis an levy sin. Tá daoine ag rá go bhfuil suim airgid mhór le teacht air so fuair muid ar fad roinnt litreacha ó leithéidí Screen Composers Guild Ireland nó Screen Producers Ireland agus bhí siadsan ag leagan amach go raibh timpeall €25 milliún a bheadh ar fáil dúinn dá mbeadh muid ag leanúint an sampla atá an Fhrainc agus tíortha eile tar éis a dhéanamh.

Bheadh muid in ann an t-airgead sin a úsáid chun infheistiú a dhéanamh i níos mó táirgí cultúrtha Éireannacha ó thaobh na táirgí closamhairc atá ar fáil. Ba chóir go mbeadh méid áirithe den €25 milliún sin curtha ar leataobh do scannáin nó físeáin Ghaeilge. Tá léirithe cheana féin ag Cine4 le bliain anuas gur féidir, má tá airgead ann, le scannán as Gaeilge dul in iomaíocht le haon scannán eile ag leibhéal náisiúnta agus idirnáisiúnta. Tá daoine tar éis labhairt faoi “An Cailín Ciúin” ach tá scannáin eile ann cosúil le “Róise & Frank”, nach bhfaca mé go fóill, “Foscadh”, “Arracht” agus a leithéid. Is féidir leo dul san iomaíocht ach ní féidir muna bhfuil an t-airgead agus an t-infheistiú ann. Seo bealach le hinfheistiú a fháil a bheadh ann chuile bhliain. Chomh maith le sin, bheadh daoine in ann ní díreach stuif as Gaeilge ach gnéithe eile de shaol na hÉireann a chur chun cinn, seachas a bheith i gcónaí san iomaíocht le scannáin atá bunaithe ar mheon cultúrtha thíortha eile. Tá a lán scannánaíochta ag tarlú sa tír seo faoi láthair ach tá an chuid is mó de na scannáin ag teacht isteach ó thar lear so is meon difriúil atá acu, meon Meiriceánach nó Sasanach nó a leithéid. Tá aisteoirí agus oibrithe Éireannacha ann ach bheadh sé i bhfad níos fearr dá mbeadh muid in ann níos mó airgid a chur sa treo sin. Tá a lán déanta ag Rialtais thar na blianta chun cuidiú leis an earnáil sin don eacnamaíocht.

Ba chóir go mbeadh dualgais ag an gcoimisiún maidir leis an nGaeilge. Ba chóir dúinn níos mó a dhéanamh ó thaobh coimisiún na meán chun déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil níos mó tacaíochta ar fáil do na meáin Ghaeilge. Tá a fhios againn cheana féin go bhfuil ag éirí go maith le TG4 ach is féidir éirí i bhfad Éireann níos fearr leo. Tá meáin Ghaeilge eile ann, ar nós Raidió na Gaeltachta agus an beagán a dhéanann RTÉ maidir leis an nGaeilge. Bheadh mé ag súil go mbeadh baint ag leithéidí Raidió Rí-Rá leis sin amach anseo, chomh maith leis na meáin shóisialta agus an úsáid atá ansin ó thaobh na Gaeilge. Ba chóir go mbeadh muid ag déanamh cinnte de, más féidir, go mbeidh daoine ar an gcoimisiún go bhfuil Gaeilge acu agus a thuigeann an Ghaeilge. Muna bhfuil, beidh sé deacair dóibh tuiscint iomlán a bheith acu ar na fadhbanna atá ann ó thaobh na Gaeilge de. Caithfimid féachaint air sin. Nuair a rinne mé an argóint seo thar na blianta faoi rudaí eile, dúirt daoine nach féidir linn idirdhealú a dhéanamh idir dhream amháin agus dream eile. Seo ceist náisiúnta. Is í chéad teanga na tíre atá i gceist. Chomh maith leis sin, tá straitéis náisiúnta ann le blianta chun an Ghaeilge a chur chun cinn. Is cosaint áirithe atá i gceist agus déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil daoine ag teacht linn. Más gá, ba chóir go mbeadh fochoiste ag an gcoimisiún féin atá dírithe go huile agus go hiomlán ar cheist na meán Gaeilge, sa chaoi go bhfuil ról lárnach acu ag cinntiú go bhfuil siad ag cur na Gaeilge chun cinn, níos mó ná mar atá luaite. Tá sé luaite i ról an choimisiúin ach d’fhéadfadh muid beagáinín níos mó dearfacht a thabhairt ansin agus déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil siad ag cur na Gaeilge chun cinn go leanúnach san obair atá á dhéanamh acu. Is gá go mbeadh an tuiscint sin acu ó thús nach bhfuil ról acu díreach ag féachaint ar na meáin ach ag cuidiú le cur chun cinn na Gaeilge sa tír. Tá an ról sin ag gach uile chomhlacht nó eagras Stáit tar éis Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla a bheith rite.

Tá an buiséad ag teacht chun cinn agus iarraim ar an Aire, más féidir léi in aon chor, impí ar an Aire Airgeadais tuilleadh airgid a thabhairt di chun déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil TG4 slán sábháilte agus in ann cur leis an obair atá á dhéanamh acu, ach go háirithe in aitheantas don mhéid a rinne siad ó thaobh na bpáistí de le linn na paindéime. Tá sé tábhachtach go mbeidh na páistí atá ag teacht amach anseo ag féachaint ar theilifís as Gaeilge agus go bhfuil an líofacht sin acu. Is cuma le páistí ag aois áirithe an i nGaeilge, i mBéarla nó i bhFraincis atá na cartúin nó na cláir atá acu. Más féidir linn cuidiú le TG4 agus b’fhéidir Raidió Rí-Rá, bheadh muid in ann an dá chuid den tsochaí atá againn a dhíriú ó thaobh na Gaeilge de. B’fhéidir go ndéanfadh sé an jab níos éasca dá mbeadh muid uilig ceangailte leis na meáin cheannann chéanna, seachas na meáin shóisialta mar atáimid le tamall na blianta anuas.

Debate adjourned.