‘Ask Facebook to leave Ireland if it won’t control content’

Dr Mary Aiken says asking company to self-regulate like asking drink drivers to award themselves penalty points

Inside Facebook: Secrets of the Social Network uncovers the policies of Facebook’s content review department, based in Dublin. Video: Channel 4


Forensic cyberpsychologist Dr Mary Aiken says the Government should consider asking Facebook to leave Ireland if it does not take measures to control content.

She told RTÉ’s Today radio programme that if the Government was prepared to “throw children under the bus” in return for keeping 2,000 Facebook jobs in Ireland, “then shame on us, shame on the Government.”

Dr Aiken made the comments following revelations about serious shortcomings in Facebook’s approach to violent and abusive material on its site.

These were revealed in a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation, broadcast on Tuesday, which showed trainee moderators at Facebook’s Dublin offices being told to leave disturbing content online.

Among the material was a video of a sobbing infant being kicked and beaten by a man. An image suggesting a girl whose “first crush is a little negro boy” should have her head held under water was also left on the site despite complaints.

In response, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government is willing to consider introducing significant fines for online companies, such as Facebook that fail to “uphold basic standards of decency”.

Self-regulation failures

Mr Varadkar – who last week said he believed technology companies were attuned to child safety issues – said it appeared Facebook had not lived up to its own “community standards”.

Given the size of companies such as Facebook, Mr Varadkar said any fines would have to be “commensurate” and be large enough to “ hit the profits of the company and cause them to change their behaviour.”

“Facebook has community standards and we expect them to uphold their own standards. The evidence produced by Dispatches is that they haven’t on all occasions. That would represent, in my view, a failure of self-regulation,” he said.

However Dr Aiken said that expecting social media companies to self-regulate was akin to expecting drink drivers to self-regulate and award themselves penalty points.

Emmy Award winner Patricia Arquette plays a character inspired by Irish cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken (above) in CSI spinoff CSI: Cyber
Mary Aiken: There is no technology that can keep up with real time content. Facebook has 2.9billion active users which results in “a big data problem”.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg was like a petulant boy who was contrite when chastised, she said, but being contrite was not enough.

She called on the Government to set up a commission to investigate the issues regarding content control as highlighted in the Channel 4 programme.

There is no technology that can keep up with real time content, she said. Facebook has 2.9billion active users which results in “a big data problem”.

It is impossible to moderate or keep up with that amount of content, “this is the elephant in the cyber room,” she said.

She also said it was not possible to legislate for people’s behaviour and this was why she had opposed the digital age of consent of 13. “You cannot outsource parenting,” she said.

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten will meet Facebook representatives in New York on Thursday.

Speaking from the US on Wednesday the Minister said he was aware the company had failed to meet the standards expected by the public.

“The programme raises serious questions for the company in respect of the manner in which it handles reports of harmful or illegal content; the internal procedures it has in place to moderate harmful or illegal content, and, the systems the company has in place to report instances of abuse, suspected abuse or other illegal activity to the appropriate authorities, including An Garda Síochána,” he said.

Digital safety commissioner

On the same programme Labour TD Sean Sherlock called on Mr Naughten to immediately appoint a digital safety commissioner saying there is a need to regulate “that space”.

He warned that the message had gone out to the world from the Channel 4 programme that “Ireland is a safe space for this kind of content.”

Mr Sherlock said he believed now is the time for such regulation. “We need laws that are robust for these companies if they are operating on Irish soil.

“I don’t think we should kick them out, but we need stronger laws. There has to be legislation for behaviour. If there is legislation for the online space that will change behaviour.”

The Children’s Rights Alliance, the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and CyberSafe Ireland all said the programme underlined the need for legislation to regulate internet service providers, saying self-regulation was insufficient.

Facebook’s public policy manager of content, Siobhán Cummiskey, said yesterday she knew people were “upset and concerned” by the revelations, adding the company had taken “immediate steps” to address the issues raised.