Concerns cited over proposed social media legislation

Legal academic calls proposed laws to regulate social media activities ‘problematic’

Professor Eoin O’Dell told the seminar that both proposed bills would likely be found unconstitutional if enacted by the Oireachtas. Photograph: Getty Images

Professor Eoin O’Dell told the seminar that both proposed bills would likely be found unconstitutional if enacted by the Oireachtas. Photograph: Getty Images

 

A leading legal academic has described proposed legislation to create new offences for sending abusive messages on social media networks as ‘problematic’.

Dr Eoin O’Dell, associate Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin was speaking at a seminar organised in Dublin on Saturday by the Dublin Freelance branch of the National Union of Journalists on how to handle online harassment.

Former Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte and Senator Lorraine Higgins are both proposing separate laws to deal with abusive messages sent using social media networks.

Mr Rabbitte told the Dáil in April that his legislation would support victims and give the Gardaí stronger powers to deal with reports of offences.

Dr O’Dell told the seminar that a wide range of potential criminal offences were already on the statute books in Ireland, and that both proposed bills were using bad provisions of existing laws to “make things worse”.

He cited concerns he has with Mr Rabbitte’s proposals that would criminalise any act on social media that caused annoyance or inconvenience, describing the vague language in the proposed legislation as “very dangerous”.

Senator Higgins’ bill would allow a court to make orders available even where no crime had taken place and no conviction could be made, which Dr O’Dell called “utterly bizarre”.

Dr O’Dell told the seminar that both Mr Rabbitte’s and Ms Higgins’ bills would likely be found unconstitutional if enacted by the Oireachtas.

Dr O’Dell’s comments were echoed by barrister Fergal Crehan, founder of The Hit Team, a service designed to assist those who had become the subject of unwanted attention online.

Mr Crehan told the seminar that existing laws were in place to cover the majority of criminal and civil wrongs carried out on social media, and that what was not needed were new laws that wouldn’t be enforced.

Both Dr O’Dell and Mr Crehan highlighted issues with how existing laws were not adequately enforced which created a perception that the laws did not in fact exist.

The seminar on online harassment also heard from Sinéad O’Carroll, news editor of The Journal on the benefit that online comments could bring to both an online community and to a news organisation.

Ms O’Carroll told the seminar that given the nature of the role of journalists in an online world, they needed to have a "thicker skin" in order to cope with the new means that readers engage with the news, saying that online criticism from readers can help journalists be better writers.

The seminar also included contributions from The Irish Times’ Karlin Lillington on how journalists can stay safe online, and writer Fiona Kenny on how females can deal with trolls on social media.

She told the seminar that women cannot control what’s said about them online but can control how they react to it.