Facebook and Twitter at risk of unlimited legal fines in Ireland

23 Oct 2017

Image: Everything Possible/Shutterstock

Landmark legislation aims to tackle how social media could interfere with Ireland’s criminal justice system.

New legislation being published in Ireland this week will make social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter accountable if they fail to remove posts that could bring prejudice to criminal trials.

The new law, if passed, is designed to bring an end to the rise of so-called ‘trial by social media’.

Under the new bill, written by Fine Gael TD Josepha Madigan, social media companies face the prospect of unlimited fines if they leave up posts that could jeopardise criminal proceedings.

The new laws – which coincide with efforts by social media giants to tackle the epidemic of ‘fake news’ – could put Ireland out in front globally in terms of this kind of legislation.

It also coincides with the creation of Ireland’s first Digital Safety Commissioner to fast-track disputes over privacy, bullying and defamation.

A whole new meaning for ‘publish and be damned’

Under the legislation going before the Dáil tomorrow (24 October), the courts will be able to force companies to remove or prevent the publication of prejudicial content, according to the Irish Independent.

If the company fails to comply, it will be at judges’ discretion to decide the level of fine they wish to impose.

The challenge of our time is that social media enables individuals to publish without a second thought, with words, videos or photos that could destabilise or interfere with justice, whereas traditional media is bound by filtering processes to determine accuracy, but also by codes of ethics and professionalism.

Last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook is a media company, “just not a traditional one”.

The feathers of the political establishment in Ireland were especially ruffled by the Jobstown case where water protestors were on trial for the alleged false imprisonment of former Tánaiste Joan Burton.

Crucially, the bill tabled by Madigan will give the law of contempt of court statutory footing for the first time, something both the Supreme Court and the Law Reform Commission have called to be defined in legislation.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years