Facebook unable to solve internet bullying on its own, committee told

Online safety commissioner would bring ‘real results’, says social media giant

Facebook has come under fire for plans to launch  a version of Instagram for children, which the ISPCC has described as being like ‘alcopops’. Photograph:  Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook has come under fire for plans to launch a version of Instagram for children, which the ISPCC has described as being like ‘alcopops’. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

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Facebook has said it cannot solve internet bullying but that the establishment of an online safety commissioner in Ireland would help bring about “real results” in tackling the problem.

However, it also said it did not support a regulator’s ability to adjudicate on individual complaints regarding content, opting instead for broader systemic oversight.

The company, together with Twitter and TikTok, is due to address the Oireachtas Committee on Media on Wednesday as part of ongoing scrutiny of the 2020 Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.

Last week’s hearing heard that over a quarter of young people had experienced online bullying during the recent lockdown. Speaking to The Irish Times ahead of Facebook’s appearance, its head of public policy Dualta Ó Broin said it had been attempting to find solutions to cyberbullying for 15 years but does not believe they lie solely with removing content.

“I don’t think Facebook or Instagram can solve bullying... on our own, I don’t think we could,” he said, adding that a safety commissioner could provide an evidenced-based approach to education.

“We also have a role to play. I’m not saying it’s on the student to police themselves or on the teacher. If you had everyone working together and saying here’s what we can bring to the table... that’s the type of environment where I think you’re going to see real results.”

Complaints process

While there have been calls for an independent complaints process regarding online activity, Facebook believes the most effective way to implement improvements is by giving a regulator the ability to inspect and engage on platform systems and process, but not by making calls on individual cases.

“How would you draw a line around a specific subset of complaints and say, these are the ones [to adjudicate on]?” Mr Ó Broin said.

“The gardaí are there for when things get to a very serious situation. There are independent agencies and we do engage with the gardaí”

He also responded to criticisms from the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) which described child-marketed platforms such as a proposed junior Instagram as being like “alcopops”, designed to capture users at a young age.

“[As to] the question of products for children who are under 13, we hear the criticism,” he said.

“We will continuously build products in all sorts of sectors right across the range of areas we are involved in, that’s what we do. But it’s not the case that we are going to build a new product and then drop it without consultation, without appropriate engagement with the right regulators.”

Harmful content

On Wednesday, the committee will hear that Facebook has been calling for regulation of harmful content since 2019, not believing it should be left to tech companies to decide appropriate online material.

As one of the leading companies in the area, Facebook supports the proposed legislation, particularly where, according to its submission, regulation is “system-based, principle-led and adopt a risk-based and proportionate approach”.

However, it is critical of timing. By its estimates the Bill will not pass before next March, meaning the establishment of a media commission and appointment of an online safety commissioner would be unlikely before late 2023 or early 2024. It has also flagged concerns that much of the Bill’s contents will overlap with forthcoming European law in the area.

The company’s submission also states it has measures in place to prevent anyone under the age of 13 from opening an account, and is “continuously working to improve our systems”. The committee previously heard many younger children were active on various online platforms despite minimum age limits.