How will Ireland go about enforcing online safety rules fairly?

23 Jun 2023

Niamh Hodnett. Image: Maxwell Photography

Online safety commissioner Niamh Hodnett tells about her office’s future plans and why regulating the internet is all about balance and consultation.

When she was appointed Ireland’s online safety commissioner at the beginning of the year, Niamh Hodnett was given the rather daunting task of ensuring the internet is as free from harmful content as possible.

Harmful content, by the way, is defined as content that is racist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic, violent or personally abusive. The internet is full of it – and Irish people of all ages and backgrounds can potentially encounter it. None of this is news to most of us.

Hodnett is the first Irish online safety commissioner and her office is part of the wider Coimisiún na Meán (CnaM), the media and online regulator that was set up in March of this year in place of the now-disbanded Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. Unlike its predecessor, the organisation’s focus includes online media. It will be the enforcer of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Act that was signed into law a few months ago.

Public consultation process

Earlier this week, Coimisiún na Meán published its strategy document containing its plans and aims for the coming nine months. Enforcement of legally binding online safety rules as outlined in the Act is a top priority – but Hodnett must work to ensure she brings all the parties affected by these new laws up to speed on how they will be impacted. To do this, CnaM is carrying out a public consultation process in order to put in place the “basic building blocks for a regulatory framework for online safety this year,” Hodnett tells

“This year is about establishing the framework so that next year we can look at enforcement and complaints,” she adds. The consultation process is due to begin next week, and it will decide what should be included in CnaM’s online safety code as well as what platforms will be designated for regulation. The Act obliges CnaM to regulate video-sharing platforms.

The open consultation process will involve tech industry stakeholders who may see their services regulated, NGOs and interest groups, as well as ordinary people who use the internet. Hodnett says that it is important the interests and opinions of everyone are heard and taken into account.

Big Tech and balance – with bite

Following the consultation, CnaM will make a decision on the category designation of video-sharing platforms. “And that decision becomes binding 28 days after publication,” Hodnett explains. The next step will see the Commission consulting with any companies that are selected for designation, and these companies will be added to a register of platforms that will be subject to its online safety code.

While that process is unfolding, there will be a “wide call for inputs” in July on what should be in the online safety code, according to Hodnett. “Since we’ve been established we have been meeting with lots of NGOs; we’ve been meeting lots of civil society groups and civil liberty groups, as well as the platforms themselves to try and learn as much as possible about what should be in the first online safety code.”

“I suppose we’ve realised we don’t have all the answers,” Hodnett says, “And we’re doing this online safety code for everyone.” She believes whatever is decided will be most effective if it includes the interests of as many as possible.

A solicitor by profession, Hodnett is interested in keeping things balanced. A quote she gave to the media in which she said “Our office does have teeth” should not be misconstrued – she means the decisions the Commission makes regarding online safety will be legally binding – so any platform falling foul of those rules could face pretty big fines and other penalties. Hodnett maintains that her office is not about being aggressive or putting a kibosh on Big Tech, one of Ireland’s biggest employers.

The Commission will be hiring itself, as its strategy outlined. It absorbed all 40 of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s staff, plus 10 new additions, and now it is hoping to increase its headcount again. It needs 110 more staff to become fully operational.

“This is a call to action to ramp up recruitment to your readers if they’re interested in working for us,” says Hodnett. “It’s a start-up regulator. It’s very exciting. We’re doing really interesting work, and we think it’s very purposeful work as well. Over the summer, watch our website as we’ll be rolling out a recruitment campaign across all levels of the organisation.”

Safety by design

Hodnett says that companies should consider all of this an opportunity to “put their best foot forward” when it comes to user safety – and in particular the protection of minors online, which is a key consideration of the Act. “What we’d be hoping to achieve with our online safety code is that safety by design will be incorporated as a core principle when a new product or service is being rolled out so that we wouldn’t have these issues of the amplification of harmful content.”

She listed online content promoting things like toxic beauty standards, cyberbullying and violence against women as having a considerable and demonstrable impact on children’s development. That said, Hodnett doesn’t want to be overly prescriptive when it comes to protecting minors. “I’m very conscious as a parent that it shouldn’t be just us telling children what we think is right for them to be safe online, particularly older children.”

She explained that the Commission will establish a youth advisory committee which will include members of youth organisations and representations who are younger than 25.

“We have to ask the children and the youth themselves also, what they think should be in this first online safety code because primarily, the focus in our first online safety code is likely to be the protection of minors. So we really need to listen to their voice and consult with them as well.”

On the question of balancing freedom of speech and freedom of expression, Hodnett’s answer also points to the importance of balance. “None of this is black and white; you have to balance so many different rights – so the right to safety, the right to privacy, the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and then proportionality as well.”

She says that “freedom of speech and the right to expression, none of these rights are absolute. They’re all to be balanced. So, we have to look at them all in the round to try and achieve that correct balance.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.