No evidence Enda Kenny diluted data regulations, Bruton says

Observer, Computer Weekly recently reported Kenny helped Facebook influence EU data laws

There is no evidence former taoiseach Enda Kenny watered down new data protection rules, as part of lobbying efforts for Facebook, Minister for Communications Richard Bruton has said.

There had been “no dilution” or exemptions for Ireland in the provisions of the EU data laws, Mr Bruton said.

The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) came into effect last May, and set out strict rules for how companies and public bodies process and protect personal data.

In recent days the Observer and Computer Weekly reported that Mr Kenny helped Facebook influence the EU data protection laws.

The articles, based on internal Facebook documents, claimed that Mr Kenny offered to use the “significant influence” of the EU presidency in 2013 to lobby other EU member states on EU data protection laws, promoting Facebook’s interests, “even though technically Ireland is supposed to remain neutral in this role”.

The documents singled Mr Kenny out as one of the “friends of Facebook”. The reports also claimed Facebook targeted legislators and regulators to provide influence around the world.

Responding to the claims, Helen Dixon, the Data Protection Commissioner since 2014, and her predecessor Billy Hawkes have said that neither Mr Kenny nor his officials while he was taoiseach from 2011 to 2017 sought to influence the regulation of data protection rules, to the benefit of Facebook.

Speaking on Monday, Mr Bruton said “it’s a matter for Enda to decide whether he wants to comment, but I think the evidence is very clear that there has been no diminution of the vigilance of data protection in Ireland.”

‘Significant role’

It was “absolutely clear” that the Irish Government was not in the pocket of Dublin-based social media giants, such as Facebook, Mr Bruton said. “Whatever perceptions might be sought to be created, I think the reality is very different,” he said.

"I remember well wasn't the Data Protection Commissioner over a supermarket in Portarlington, and it was a very small operation," Mr Bruton said.

Mr Kenny played a “significant role” in increasing the regulator’s resources, he said.

The Minister was speaking to media at St Brigid's National Girls School, in Glasnevin, north Dublin, where he announced plans to set up an online safety commissioner, to regulate social media firms.

The new regulator will ensure social media companies have codes of practice, for how harmful online content is to be dealt with, he said.

There would be “significant penalties” for companies that fail to deal with harmful content, such as cyber bullying, and material that promotes self-harm or suicide.

A similar digital safety regulator in Australia had powers to fine companies up to $500,000 (€312,000), Mr Bruton said, adding his officials would work with the Attorney General to set Irish penalties.

Following a six-week consultation period, the heads of the Online Safety Act would be published, and then will have pass through the Oireachtas. The legislation is similar to past Private Members’ Bills, and all parties were “very keen” in support for the policy, Mr Bruton said.

The regulator would be “absolutely independent,” Mr Bruton said, but did not rule out a potential levy on internet and social media firms as one source of funding for the new office.

The announcement was welcomed by CyberSafeIreland, who said it was “delighted” the Government had moved to regulate social media firms’ content.

The new online safety office also needed a “strong educational remit”, alongside its regulatory powers, the organisation said in a statement.