Is Ireland about to get its first social media watchdog?

8 Feb 2017

Ireland’s social media watchdog will need to have sharp legal teeth. Image: Elena Sherengovskaya/Shutterstock

Ireland is to get its first digital safety commissioner to fast-track disputes over privacy, bullying and defamation.

As Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon clashes with the US government over the privacy of EU citizens’ data and how it is handled by companies such as Facebook, Ireland is growing up fast in the data space. The country is about to appoint a new digital safety commissioner to handle issues on the ground, such as bullying and online harassment.

During the Christmas break, the Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, TD, was knocked off his bike and hospitalised. That was traumatic enough without the nasty jibes that followed on social media.

While this may not have been the turning point (the plan has been in gestation for a while), Naughten will meet with ministerial colleagues next week to discuss the establishment of a new watchdog with statutory powers to compel social media players such as Facebook and Twitter to remove abusive material.

Can law keep up with people and technology?

The creation of a digital safety commissioner has its origins in recommendations by the Law Reform Commission in a report last year.

Yesterday, Twitter revealed plans to combat harmful tweets by permanently banning people who have been suspended from establishing new accounts. The company will also make it harder for abusive tweets to appear in searches or conversations.

But the reality is that technology will always have a harder time keeping up with human nature.

The process of getting social media giants to remove abusive material in the past has been a slow and anxious process for victims.

According to The Irish Times, Naughten is to discuss the proposed new digital safety commissioner role with Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, TD, the Minister for Children Katherine Zappone, TD, and the Minister for Education Richard Bruton, TD.

For any such appointment to matter, important legislative changes are required.

For example, it is a criminal offence in Ireland to harass a person by phone or text message, but not by social media.

Fitzgerald has been given approval by the cabinet of the Irish Government to legislate to make cyberstalking and revenge porn criminal offences, along with other forms of harassment online and on social media.

It is understood that the new digital safety commissioner role will be modelled on similar positions that have been established in New Zealand and Australia.

The effectiveness of such a role in Ireland will depend on the powers he or she is given, and the efficiency with which they can process and fast-track complaints by ordinary people.

Up until now, despite the international headquarters of giants such as Facebook and Twitter in Dublin, users have been complaining of frustratingly slow responses and long delays in dealing with issues such as online abuse.

It only takes a troll one moment to post something upsetting or defamatory, but days or weeks to have it removed.

The creation of a new digital safety commissioner is expected to coincide with a statutory code of practice on digital safety and agreed standards of take-down procedures.

Just like in Australia, the digital safety commissioner may also have an educational role, to focus on teaching young people about online behaviour and operating a complaints service for those who may experience bullying.

If this is something Ireland gets right – and it can do so by harnessing the advantage of having giant tech companies on its doorstep – then it could set a new international benchmark for defending against online harassment.

But it all depends on the statutory powers granted to the would-be digital safety commissioner.

A social media watchdog will need to have real teeth.

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