Ireland’s Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, TD, has warned there may be a gap in the country’s legislation when it comes to bullying or defamation via social media. He also said balance needs to be struck between the rights of individuals and the rights to freedom of speech.
Rabbitte was addressing an Oireachtas Committee gathered in the aftermath of the suicides of teenagers in Ireland, as well as the death of a senior Government minister, where harassment via social networks are believed to have played a considerable role.
Rabbitte said that at the highest level social media has the power to be highly transformative and should be welcomed and embraced, not feared.
However, the use of social media to bully, harass or demean others cannot be ignored.
“Critically, social media or the internet didn’t lead to the invention of bullying or harassment; these behaviours existed long before that. However the nature of the internet, or at least of many of the sites involved, is such that some aggressors can either hide behind anonymity or are simply braver, or less caring, as to the effects of what they might say from the comfort and safety of their own homes.
“For children these concerns are particularly critical; the web is their future, and social media are their media in a way that older generations will probably never be able to fully comprehend.
“We must ensure that children are free to make the most positive use possible of the web, that they can take full advantage of the opportunities it offers as an educational and social tool. This will not happen if confidence in the web as a safe space for children is lost in the wider community.”
A complex governance issue
Rabbitte said governance in this area is complex because social media is a global phenomenon.
He also said it was difficult because social media is the media. “This is not just due to the activity of ‘traditional’ media players in using social media, or even online media players; social media themselves are now important media players even when there are no journalists, or payment, in the picture – they are an integral part of a large and diverse media ecosystem. As such, social media is treated in much the same way as any media, with due consideration given to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights in any measure that might impact on it.”
Rabbitte pointed out that as Minister for Communications he has responsibility for the deployment of infrastructure but has no control over how that infrastructure is used.
That responsibility falls into the hands of the Minister for Justice and Equality, which has established the Office for Internet Safety to deal explicitly with online safety.
In addition, the Department of Education is working on an Action Plan on Bullying that includes concrete measures on cyberbullying.
One flaw that exists in legislation could be seen in Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997 which deals with harassment. While the act deals with direct communications with someone, it doesn’t deal with communication ‘about’ someone.
The Communications Regulation (Amendment) Act 2007 introduces measures for dealing with people sending offensive text messages.
Gap in the legislation
“It appears that there may be a gap in the legislation here in that electronic communications infrastructure is not covered by these measures and as such there is no specific mechanism available to the gardaí or the courts to deal with the type of difficulties we have seen. My department is presently considering ways of addressing any such issue.
“This is not an easy task; there is a delicate balance to be struck between ensuring that the constitutional rights of the individual to freedom of speech and freedom of access to information are maintained, while at the same time introducing measures that can deal with this abuse in a timely and effective manner.
“Determining an appropriate threshold for offences to ensure that a slew of vexatious or frivolous complaints do not arise is a challenge. We have to be aware of these difficulties, and also to ensure that the questions of intent, credible threat and the degree of menace all receive due weighting. Experience in other jurisdictions has been that this balance is not easy to strike, and we fully intend to give any measures our full consideration before implementing them.
“I am convinced that it is possible to ensure that people can gain the full benefit offered by social media, in their public and private lives, while being protected against harassment or bullying of any kind, if we remain open to appropriate and sensitive intervention.
“These interventions must tread the infinitesimally fine line between protecting individuals and ensuring that free speech, and free and open debate, are preserved. This is difficult, make no mistake, but it is a balance that we must strike again and again, in the light of new technologies,” Rabbitte said.