Ireland plans new child safety laws and Online Safety Commissioner role

4 Mar 2019

Image: © Jandrie Lombard/

New Online Safety Commissioner aims to hold internet and media industries to higher standards than before.

Communications Minister Richard Bruton, TD, has revealed he plans to introduce a new Online Safety Act to improve online safety and ensure that children can be protected online.

The new legislation will also pave the way for the new role of an Online Safety Commissioner (OSC), a role that was previously mooted to fast-track disputes over privacy, bullying and defamation.

‘The situation at present where online and social media companies are not subject to any oversight or regulation by the State for the content which is shared on their platforms is no longer sustainable’

The proposed legislation will tackle serious cyberbullying, humiliation and harassment; material that promotes self-harm or suicide; and material that encourages nutritional deprivation, that can damage health or that can expose a person to the risk of death.

“Many of the proposals to date have not defined harmful content,” Bruton said.

“The danger of not providing a clear definition is that we would unintentionally restrict legitimate freedom of speech and freedom of expression, which are core values.”

Online platforms are already required to remove content that is a criminal offence under Irish and EU law to disseminate, such as material containing incitement to violence or hatred, content containing public provocation to commit a terrorist offence, offences concerning child sexual abuse material, or content concerning racism and xenophobia.

“While the Gardaí will continue to be responsible for investigating and prosecuting these offences, it is important that platforms take preventative steps to protect victims of such offences,” Bruton said.

The Minister said that the proposed Online Safety Act would require online operators to follow an Online Safety Code that prohibits cyberbullying and that fast-tracks complaints procedures whereby people can request material be taken down with defined timelines.

It will also require online giants to build safety into the design of their platforms through the application of technology and human intervention.

Online and digital media watchdog

The powers of the new OSC include certifying that each Online Safety Code is fit for purpose, demanding changes, and requiring regular reports from industry on content moderation and adjudication of appeals.

There will be a complaints process and online service providers will be required to remove individual pieces of content within a set timeframe. The OSC will have the power to impose notices and seek court injunctions, and they will also be able to impose fines on operators. Criminal proceedings will be brought by the new OSC against service providers that have failed to cooperate or provide information.

Bruton also proposes to establish a new Media Commission by restructuring the existing Broadcasting Authority of Ireland along the lines of the multi-commissioner Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.

The new OSC is being proposed as a powerful office within the new Media Commission structure and, as such, there will be two commissioners: one in charge of safety and the other in charge of broadcast/online media services.

A second duty of the new OSC will be to apply European law to video-sharing and to ensure that operators have sufficient parental and age verification controls in place as well as procedures to handle complaints.

Under EU law, the OSC would be required to regulate all video-sharing platforms that are based in Ireland. This could include traditional media companies but also internet giants such as Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube.

The EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive also requires a number of other changes in the regulation of traditional TV on-demand services – such as RTÉ Player, Virgin Media Player, iTunes – including aligning the rules and requirements for traditional TV and on-demand audiovisual media services, and requiring a 30pc quota of European works on these services. The revised directive also allows an EU country to levy revenues a traditional TV service or an on-demand audiovisual media service makes in that country even if it is based in another EU country.

“The situation at present where online and social media companies are not subject to any oversight or regulation by the State for the content which is shared on their platforms is no longer sustainable,” Bruton said. “I believe that the era of self-regulation in this area is over and a new Online Safety Act is necessary.

“Many parents find it difficult to keep up with the latest technology or the latest app. That is understandable given how quickly online games and technology can evolve. To me, it emphasises why the establishment of an Online Safety Commissioner is so important.

“While it would be impossible to remove every danger from the internet or from the adaptation of new technology, what we need to do is to ensure that parents and children are better equipped, that the State can provide regulation and enforcement, and that online platforms take responsibility.

“I will bring forward an Online Safety Act which sets out how we can ensure children are safe online. This will involve, for the first time, setting a clear expectation for service providers to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of the users of their service. A regulator, an Online Safety Commissioner, would oversee the new system.”

The Minister also revealed plans to hold a six-week consultation regarding the role of religion in Irish schools, and he has invited teachers, students and industry groups to make their views known. He said he plans to bring draft heads of the bill before Government to make progress on the subject.

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