Friday, 18 December 2020
Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister of State. Like others, I pay tribute to our Wexford colleague, Deputy Howlin, for his championing of this legislation, and to Senator Bacik and her Labour Party colleagues. It is a good sign that this has cross-party support. I echo the tributes paid to Nicole Fox Fenlon and her mother, Jackie. Not alone has Jackie Fox striven to ensure we get this legislation in, she has also spoken to schools and other organisations trying to get the message to young people about how important it is for people to behave responsibly on social media.
We saw the case recently around image-based sexual harassment, which was to the fore. It struck me that if one thinks even about ourselves in our teens but particularly about a teen girl or a young girl and the impact it would have on her, conscious of the need for the approval of her peers, to have intimate images shared without consent, it is frightening. The point is clear that this has to be evolving legislation. Senator Craughwell was right. We will be moving quickly into an era of virtual and augmented reality. How will we deal with bullying and harassment in those circumstances? Senator Ruane in her personal and powerful testimony talked about the different forms of harassment we have to deal with, in terms of abuse and control.I also reference parental alienation. The key point about it is that nobody should be afraid to speak out. As legislators, we have to help empower people to be able to do this. I agree with Senator Bacik on the need for civil remedies to be addressed also.
What I want to raise is the question of the responsibility of the social media companies. A number of people here, beginning with Senator Gallagher, spoke about how we have all received abuse online. We can deal with a certain amount of it but the problem is with some of the anonymous accounts that literally spew vile abuse on a regular basis. I was used to it but an anonymous Twitter account in the name of P O'Neill targeted me and others earlier this year. When a local businessman who was the subject of the abuse tried to get information from Twitter to find out who was behind it every possible barrier was put in his way. Facebook and Twitter in particular hide behind a wall of anonymity. If we look at Revolut, which people will know as a financial technology company that is revolutionising digital banking, with almost 1 million people in Ireland using it, anyone who signs up to it has to produce a picture of their passport. It is similar to opening a bank account here and it is because of rules required by the Central Bank. People have to identify who they are.
People may know in recent days that The New York Timeshad a big story about Pornhub and some of what had been uploaded to it. By the way, Pornhub is the ninth most viewed website in Ireland, far more than any news site. To deal with the fact there were anonymous postings on Pornhub of vile and abusive acts, MasterCard and Visa took action and said they would not allow cardholders to pay for anything, and Pornhub had to take action. The result was the Pornhub took down approximately 80% of its content. I do not want to comment on the nature of pornography sites but now if people want to upload content onto Pornhub they must identify who they are. They can no longer be anonymous. Whether it is in banking or pornography, people cannot be anonymous yet Facebook and Twitter have no requirement to prove identity.
One of the concerns I also have, and it has been covered by the media, particularly by The Business Post, is with regard to the content moderators in Facebook. As part of their contract they have to acknowledge they have the risk of post-traumatic shock disorder because of some of the content to which they will be exposed that will be anonymously uploaded.
There are good reasons for anonymity. This is entirely accepted. For particular reasons, people should not necessarily have to identify themselves publicly but where we have a situation where there are defamatory, violent or abusive images we should be able to find out who is responsible for them. The social media companies have to take responsibility in this area. As Senator Bacik said, this is about a public space and we have to have regulation of the public space.
I strongly support the legislation. I know the online safety and media regulation Bill will be coming before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture Sports and the Gaeltacht in the new year for pre-legislative scrutiny and we can look at enhancing a number of the provisions that have been raised. While we as legislators are taking responsibility, and there is a personal responsibility on everyone and we need digital literacy and education, responsibility also has to be placed at the door of the social media companies, in particular Facebook and Twitter. If they do not act we, as legislators, have the responsibility to take action against them.