The online targeting of women politicians and women journalists is a matter of “real concern”, the deputy chief executive of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) has told an Oireachtas committee.
Legislation designed to establish a new Media Commission, the remit of which would include online content, might have to include specific references to combatting gender-based or sexuality-based harm, the Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht has been told.
The proposed legislation will include references to material that has the potential to intimidate, threaten, humiliate or persecute a person,but Celine Craig, the deputy chief executive of the BAI, suggested that gender-based violence might also be specifically included.
“The BAI is very concerned about the specific targetting of women online, not solely those in public office, but in particular those in public office, such as politicians and women journalists in particular,” Ms Craig said.
" There has been significant targeting in a way that we believe has the potential to cause real harm," she said in response to questions from Johnny Mythen of Sinn Féin.
Senator Micheál Carrigy of Fine Gael said that as a member of a Government party, he was used to getting online abuse but something of concern in recent times has been the targeting of journalists.
“Particularly one national journalist who in recent times has been writing stories that involves the Data Protection Commissioner and a political party and it is quite noticeable the amount of threats and abuse they got on social media.”
Senator Malcolm Byrne of Fianna Fáil said the new online safety commissioner was going to have to be able to reassure those engaged in politics and journalism that online abuse and harrassment can be dealt with and that the office was strong enough to do so.
The new commission was likely to received thousands upon thousands of complaints and there was a real question about the online platforms being allowed to self-regulate, he said.
Ms Craig said the scale of the problem was such that it was not practicable that the new commission would be able to deal with all individual complaints.
What it could do, she said, was ensure that the platforms had systems in place to deal with the problem.
This did not mean, she told Sinn Féin's Imelda Munster, that the platforms were being left to self-regulate.
The new Media Commission should have the ability to ensure the swift removal of harmful online content, the committee was told.
The scheme of the Bill to establish the new commission had proposed, but no longer does, that the commission could ensure the swift removal of harmful content, the BAI chief executive, Michael O’Keeffe, said.
He suggested that the committee should reconsider this as part of its pre-legislative consideration of the Bill.
“In the BAI’s view, there must be the potential for the Media Commission ultimately to order the timely, fair, and proportionate removal of content, subject to any necessary regulatory safeguards that would be desirable to accompany such interventions,” Mr O’Keeffe said.
Anna Morgan, deputy commissioner of the Office of the Data Protection Commission (DPC), said harmful content and online safety issues were outside the remit of her office.
The Bill, in its current form, expressly excluded material that violated data protection or privacy law from falling within the scope of harmful content, she said.
“However, the DPC believes it is important that the Media Commission has the power to regulate all types of harmful online content, irrespective of whether they involve personal data.”
This was because there were clear limitations to the reach of data protection regulation, which did not and could not provide a comprehensive regime for tackling harmful content posted or shared in an online context, she said.
“The establishment of a dedicated body with the power to order, amongst other things, the swift takedown of all types of harmful content is imperative,” she said.
She suggested that the committee consider whether a “regulatory lacuna” might arise with some complaints about harmful content being excluded from the remit of the Media Commission, because the content involved an individual’s personal data.
Responding to Fianna Fáil Senator Shane Cassells, Ms Morgan said complaints received by the DPC often concerned posts on platforms that the complainants felt were threatening, defamatory or offensive, but which the platforms would not remove as they were not in breach of the data protection regime.
It was the “nature of the content posted rather than the rules on data processing” that the complaints had an issue, she said.