Facebook to consider changes to policy of allowing certain abuse content

Company cautious on proposal for digital safety commissioner

Facebook confirmed it had been discussing its policy with An Garda Síochána and that it would also meet the child and family agency Tusla. Photograph: Getty

Facebook confirmed it had been discussing its policy with An Garda Síochána and that it would also meet the child and family agency Tusla. Photograph: Getty

 

Facebook is considering a change to its policy of allowing videos involving the physical abuse of children to be shared in “a narrow set of circumstances” where the child is still at risk, following engagement with gardaí and child-protection agencies.

The company, which was brought before the Oireachtas Communications Committee on Wednesday to explain its approach to removing harmful content, also cautioned proposals for a new digital safety commissioner.

Facebook confirmed it had been discussing its policy with An Garda Síochána and that it would also meet the child and family agency Tusla.

The appearance followed the broadcast of a Channel 4 Dispatches undercover investigation earlier this month in which moderators for Facebook appeared to allow content, including a video showing an adult physically abusing a child, to stay on its platform.

Facebook told the committee there was a “narrow set of circumstances” where, for example, it would allow such content to be shared. These included where the child was still at risk and there was a chance the child and perpetrator could be identified to law enforcement.

It recognised there were a number of “competing interests”, including the child’s safety and privacy and the effect on those who may view the content.

On foot of concerns voiced by NGOs and others following the Dispatches programme, Facebook said it was actively considering a change to this policy and had started an “extensive consultation process” with organisations including law-enforcement agencies and child-safety organisations.

‘Harmful communications’

The company also cautioned against giving a proposed new digital safety commissioner powers that would allow it to define “harmful communications” online without allowing service providers the opportunity to appeal.

In 2016, the Law Reform Commission suggested the establishment of a digital safety commissioner to oversee and monitor a so-called takedown system so that harmful communications could be removed as quickly as possible from social media sites.

Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire has published a Private Member’s Bill proposing the establishment of the commissioner and the committee will scrutinise it in the autumn.

Addressing the committee on Wednesday, head of public policy for Facebook Niamh Sweeney said the company understood the appeal in having such an independent, statutory body to adjudicate in cases where there was disagreement between a platform and an affected user about what constituted a “harmful” communication.

But she said the proposed Bill was “unclear as to what, precisely, constituted a ‘harmful communication’”.

Ms Sweeney also said the right to free expression was “expressly protected in our Constitution and because that right can only be limited in narrow circumstances, it was vital that any provisions limiting or impacting upon speech “be clearly and strictly defined”.

Some legal experts in the digital sphere are opposed to the idea of a non-judicial body being allowed to adjudicate on what internet speech is “harmful”.

They have also suggested this would be contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.