State going ‘too far, too fast’ with online safety legislation

Irish Council for Civil Liberties says media Bill will restrict speech not currently illegal

ICCL executive director Liam Herrick: State will put itself in “very difficult position” with Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill as it stands. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

ICCL executive director Liam Herrick: State will put itself in “very difficult position” with Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill as it stands. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill contains a “troubling vagueness” on the definition of harmful online content as well as other “poorly defined” provisions, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) told an Oireachtas committee on Wednesday.

ICCL executive director Liam Herrick said there was a danger that the passing of the legislation, as it stands, could see the issuing of removal notices for content deemed have caused someone to feel humiliated, “a threshold that is so low it could seriously damage individual constitutional rights to freedom of expression”.

Describing the Bill as a “misdirection of energy and priority”, Mr Herrick said it was also “wholly unclear” who could expect to be regulated by the proposed media commission, which will include an online safety commissioner.

He told the joint committee on tourism, culture, arts, sport and media that the legislation was at risk of being applied to “a vast and potentially unlimited list” of services, raising concerns about rights to privacy, private communications and freedom of expression.

‘Problematic’ power

The State is going “too far, too fast” with the Bill, he suggested, while ICCL policy officer Olga Cronin warned that it would “restrict speech that is not illegal”.

In her opening address, Sinéad Gibney, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), said there should be a more precise definition of harmful online content and also stressed the need for the media commission and its commissioners to be independent.

IHREC said the Minister for Media should not be given the “problematic” power to remove individual commissioners, while the commission should be able to operate “without any undue influence from government”.

Also addressing the committee, TJ McIntyre, chairman of Digital Rights Ireland, said the Bill would create “a national regime for controlling content” on a wide range of platforms in a manner that was “essentially unprecedented in Irish or European law”.

He said it was “not clear” that aspects of the Bill were compatible with the EU’s forthcoming Digital Services Act.

“I think it very likely if we rush now to adopt a scheme like this, it will have to be substantially reconfigured at significant cost to the taxpayer and to the businesses affected.”

Cyberbullying issue

The Bill, which is undergoing a period of scrutiny by the committee, combines a requirement on the State to transpose the EU Audio-Visual Media Services Directive into Irish law with other measures that seek to regulate online services, with a view to curbing cyberbullying and other societal harms.

Dr McIntyre noted that the directive was primarily concerned with illegal content, dealing with harmful content in the context of what is accessible by children.

“We’re building from regulating what children see to regulating what adults see, and I think that is a significant step.”

The definition of cyberbullying in the Bill is so wide it is unsustainable, Dr McIntyre added.

An Garda Síochána should be given better resources and training to tackle social media abuse cases and the Data Privacy Commissioner should be afforded increased funding to help people seek redress for “revenge porn” cases, he said.

Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne, a member of the committee, said technology company chief executives were already determining the definition of online harm through their platforms’ community standards “over which we, as legislators, have no control”.

In response, Mr Herrick said it was accepted that the self-regulation regime for social media was “not feasible or sustainable”, but that the State would put itself “in a very difficult position” by seeking to regulate content that is not illegal.