Online safety regulator will stand up to big tech firms, leadership tells Oireachtas committee

Some recently raised issues not ‘black and white’ but body will deliver on responsibilities, says Online Safety Commissioner

The body established last year to oversee online safety and regulate the big social media platforms has both the regulatory powers and the will required to stand up to global tech firms, an Oireachtas Committee has been told.

Representatives of Coimisiún na Meán appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration & Youth a week after a group of experts had told the same politicians the commission’s role on issues like online age verification and recommender systems was central to the protection of minors online.

On Tuesday, Online Safety Commissioner, Niamh Hodnett, said that while some of the issues raised last week were not “black and white” the commission will deliver on its responsibilities.

It has, she said, told companies they must come up with effective age verification systems as part of its online safety code.


She said the commission was not laying down what those systems should operate as the technology is moving quickly and firms may come up with different solutions but that they needed to move beyond self-verification which was clearly ineffective.

On the Artificial Intelligence (AI) recommender systems that push content towards users based on what they have previously looked at or posted online, she said recent regulatory changes already required the big platforms to move away from profiling in order to protect minors.

She acknowledged, though, that such systems had the potential to bombard children and other users with harmful content.

“The amplification of harmful content,” she suggested, could take the form of a young person who looked at beauty-related content being bombarded with diet or eating disorder-related content or those who accessed pages about sadness or despair having content about self-harm or suicide directed towards them.

“That’s why we propose supplementary measures to address the recommender systems by having a break in this amplification of negative content in some way.” Companies, she said, would be required to have a recommender safety plan in place.

Experts appearing before the panel last week argued it was essential that platforms be obliged to set recommender systems to off by default but Ms Hodnett said the matter was not so clear cut.

“The Digital Services Act isn’t as black as saying this should be on or off. It just says that the risks posed by recommender systems in terms of the amplification of harmful content online should be mitigated by large platforms and that the platform should take steps to protect minors.”

Green Party TD Patrick Costello said he hoped the leadership at Coimisiún na Meán was up to the task as some previous regulators had “not been as sharp-elbowed as we needed them to be”. He suggested some had been vulnerable to “regulatory capture”.

The commission’s director of codes and rules, Declan McLoughlin, said staff at the still new body were aware of the need to be “courageous” in their role and Ms Hodnett said the scale of fines provided for in the different pieces of legislation adopted recently had given the organisation the teeth it required to be effective.

She said that in addition to children, one of the organisation’s priorities this year would be the potential for negative impact of social media on the democratic process and those participating in it.

She said that in meetings with various organisations over the past year it was clear that many potential candidates in elections – local, national or European – did not want to go forward due to concerns about online hate speech or incitement to violence.

“That has a chilling effect on democracy that we are concerned about,” she said, adding it was another area in which recommender systems were a factor.

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Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times