A committee to examine the regulation of Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies should be established as a matter of urgency, a leading defamation and privacy lawyer has urged Minister for Justice Helen McEntee.
With the United Kingdom, other European countries, and "even the United States" considering the introduction of new laws to regulate social media companies, Ireland, where many of the companies have their European headquarters, has an obligation to also look at the issue, Paul Tweed said in a letter to the newly-appointed Minister.
“Notwithstanding the economic benefits that Facebook et al are bringing to Ireland, they nonetheless should incur a duty to protect citizens and the international community from online attacks, harassment, hate speech and fake news, which can often result in devastating consequences for the victims.”
Many of his clients have suffered reputational damage, harassment and breaches of privacy from online sources over the course of several decades, Mr Tweed said.
“I am absolutely frustrated, if not bewildered, that Facebook, Twitter and others are continuing to argue that they are merely a platform as opposed to a publisher.
“This argument is all the more absurd given their recent selective actions in terminating or suspending accounts in reaction to public or private lobbying and representation, whereby they are in effect acting as their own court, while my clients struggle to process their claims through the actual legal system.”
In deciding recently to appoint an oversight board (which reviews content moderation decisions made by Facebook), Facebook had become its own jury as well as judge, Mr Tweed said.
Social media companies “are to all intents and purposes above the law as it applies to other media outlets, and making their own decisions on an ad-hoc basis as to who should be entitled to utilise their facilities and who should be blocked from doing so, regardless of the harm being caused”.
Social media networks appear to believe they are not subject to the defamation and privacy laws that regulate the mainstream media, Mr Tweed said.
Nor do they come under the ambit of the Press Council or the Broadcasting Association of Ireland.
“Against this background, the social media companies are sourcing investigation reports and articles from the mainstream media without financial reimbursement, while at the same time taking away their advertising revenue, thereby undermining the very survival of the free press.”
With other jurisdictions investigating the introduction of legislation and regulation, there was a particular responsibility on Ireland “given that the country is hosting the social media companies and offering significant tax advantages to them”.
He urged Ms McEntee to establish a committee to review and consider all regulatory options “as a matter of some urgency”.