The Irish Times view on digital media regulation: striking a balance

An Oireachtas committee has suggested ways to strengthen a Bill that grapples with online harm

In its report published yesterday on Government proposals for regulating digital media, the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media broadly endorses the Coalition’s approach, but suggests important refinements that will strengthen the legislation, enhance the independence and clout of its proposed media commission, and point the way to removing legal uncertainty about definitions of harm.

Among its proposals on the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill (OSMR), expected to be published this month, is the need for an explicit reference to a powerful online safety commissioner, part of the media commission, charged specifically with protecting children online.

The commission, which will have the power to order takedowns and fine platforms, would also be tasked with overseeing streaming services such as Netflix and would be given a role administering a levy on them to support indigenous independent productions, and upholding a quota of Irish and European productions. The report supports the creation of an individual complaints system for aggrieved citizens, citing positively the Australian experience where such a mechanism operates as a "safety net" for platforms that fail to provide effectively for individual complaints. The committee urges the removal from the Bill of exclusions from its remit of defamatory content, violations of data protection, privacy, consumer protection, and copyright law, all of which are already provided for elsewhere.

How practical such changes would be is questionable, although reform of the defamation law is long overdue. And the suggestion that “disinformation” be included as a category of harmful online content would also be problematic in practice and definitional terms. There is an important balance to be maintained in preserving free speech, even the right to speak falsely. In safeguarding the political independence of the media commission, the committee makes important, welcome proposals curtailing the right of ministers to fire commissioners. Their initial appointments, however, would remain in a minister’s gift.