Law safeguarding children online to be unveiled

Government initiative to herald end of self-regulation era for social media companies

Legislation designed to protect children online will be announced by the Government on Monday.

The move will mark the end of an era of self-regulation for social media companies and mean the introduction of a new online safety commissioner to police digital platforms.

Minister for Communications Richard Bruton said he will introduce an Online Safety Act which will force internet and social media companies to regulate the content they facilitate.

Mr Bruton intends to empower an online safety commissioner with authority to order internet companies to remove content. The commissioner will also issue fines and seek criminal prosecutions against firms refusing to comply with instructions.

“The situation at present where online and social media companies are not subject to any oversight or regulation by the State for the content which is shared on their platforms is no longer sustainable,” Mr Bruton will say in a speech to be delivered at a national school in Dublin.

“I believe that the era of self regulation in this area is over and a new Online Safety Act is necessary. This will involve, for the first time, setting a clear expectation for service providers to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of the users of their service. A regulator, an online safety commissioner, would oversee the new system.”

The Department of Communications will launch a brief consultation period, due to last six weeks, in advance of formulating the heads of the Bill to bring before Government in late April.

Mr Bruton will give examples of the sort of “harmful content” which social media companies will be required to remove. These include:

  • Serious cyberbullying, including content which is seriously threatening, seriously intimidating, seriously harassing or seriously humiliating;
  • Material which promotes self-harm or suicide;
  • Material designed to encourage prolonged nutritional deprivation that would have the effect of exposing a person to risk of death or endangering health.

The new law will require internet and social media companies to operate an “online safety code” that must prohibit bullying and provide a means for people to seek removal of online material. The safety commissioner will oversee the code and its operation by the companies.

The Government Bill will likely overtake a Private Members’ Bill promoted by Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire which is before the Oireachtas.