The Government is facing a sharp backlash from tech giants such as Apple, Google and Facebook against moves to make directors of social media companies criminally liable for harm caused on their platforms.
Steps to introduce criminal sanctions come as the public authorities make efforts to protect children and adults from serious cyberbullying and the dissemination online of material promoting self-harm, suicide and eating disorders.
But business has hit back, urging Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and open to dilute the proposals and warning of reputational consequences for the State if they do not.
The warning was set out in a letter copied to all Cabinet members from Technology Ireland, the lobby group for global tech companies with Irish operations and a branch of business organisation Ibec.
The group has 270 members, with almost 250,000 workers. They include Apple, Google and Facebook – some of the world’s largest companies – as well as Twitter, Tiktok, Airbnb, Intel, IBM and Dell Technologies.
The intervention comes as Minister for Media Catherine Martin advances draft laws in the Dáil that would allow criminal sanctions to be imposed on social media providers that breach new safety rules.
Ms Martin has also signalled tacit support for proposals from Fianna Fáil Senators to toughen the draft laws by exposing company directors to criminal sanctions for failing to police their platforms.
In a letter addressed to Ms Martin on April 1st, Technology Ireland said “excessive and potentially arbitrary sanctions risk damaging Ireland’s reputation for legal certainty and fair procedures”. There was no comment from the Minister’s spokesman.
Citing claims that she had backed the Senators, the letter added: “Unsurprisingly, recent media commentary concerning proposed amendments to broaden the scope of criminal sanctions – and suggestions that you are supportive of these amendments are a matter of the gravest concern.”
The clash with big tech is sensitive politically for the Government because of its reliance on such companies for large-scale employment and big corporation tax payments. The heavy presence of such companies in the State has made Ireland a European hub for the sector.
The letter, seen by The Irish Times, follows a January meeting with the Minister and engagement with officials the following month.
“As you know, the inclusion of possible criminal sanctions for company employees in the current text of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill has been a matter of serious concern for our members since the general scheme was first published in January 2020 – and we have taken every opportunity to express that to you and to your officials,” said the letter, signed by Technology Ireland director Una Fitzpatrick.
“Our concerns include the overly broad vague framework of sanctions for noncompliance. Any proposed sanctions should be proportionate and in line with the intention of the framework.”
Criminal liability for company employees was a measure that had been abused in recent times in other jurisdictions to put “inappropriate pressure” on companies, the letter added.
“For this reason, such laws have been termed ‘hostage laws’ by academic policy experts. The approach to sanctions taken in this Bill must be very carefully crafted with high thresholds and appropriate safeguards.”
The letter called on the Minister to “clarify the Government’s intentions” in relation to the sanction regime in the Bill as a matter of urgency.