New digital safety watchdog planned with code of practice for social media firms  

Minister Denis Naughten promised greater protections online. Photo: Tom Burke
Minister Denis Naughten promised greater protections online. Photo: Tom Burke
Kevin Doyle

Temporary measures to encourage social media sites to quickly remove abusive material will have to be introduced while “complex” laws are drawn up for a digital safety commissioner.

Communications Minister Denis Naughten has pledged to follow through on plans for an internet watchdog with the power to compel Facebook and Twitter to take down offensive posts.

But he told the Irish Independent: “The legislation is complex and slow. It’s not going to happen overnight but we have a number of options. We’re in talks with the industry to see if we can fast-track elements of it.”

Mr Naughten has held preliminary discussions with Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone on the issue and may introduce a ‘Code of Practice’ with sanctions “that might be effective in the short term”.

Facebook is facing mounting pressure to do more to tackle offensive or discriminatory posts.

It has been at the centre of global controversy in recent days after the murder of a Thai baby was shown on Facebook Live.

A fortnight ago Facebook launched a review of how it handles violent videos and other objectionable material, saying it needed to do better after a video of a murder in Cleveland remained on its service for more than two hours.

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At an event in Google Headquarters, Mr Naughten said “maintaining the status quo” in relation to child protection online is not viable.

“The premise behind the office of a digital safety commissioner would provide legal power to compel social media platforms to take down abusive or offensive material in a ‘timely’ manner,” he said, adding that his office wanted to hear from “all stakeholders in the field”.

Mr Naughten also made reference to the recent high-profile case of Canadian Jashua Robert Tremblay, who flew to Ireland twice to have sex with a 13-year-old girl he groomed on the internet.

“It’s not like a stranger pulling up in a car offering a lift. This was the main concern of our parents growing up – that we would be snatched by a stranger. Now strangers are snatching our children by their fingertips in the virtual world of computers, not cars,” he said.

He noted that cyberspace was described by many academics and law enforcement agencies as a “giant city with no police force”.

“I recognise that Google and Facebook continue to introduce new ways of trying to protect children and all users online and I commend them for their work in this regard as there is no place for complacency or maintaining the status quo when it comes to the protection of children,” added Mr Naughten.

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone told the Irish Independent she would back efforts to clamp down on social media abuse.

“There can be no hiding place for those who wish to harm our children. We must be vigilant in society, in our communities and online.

“Bullies, abusers and predators are putting children at risk with fake profiles, lies and deceit,” she said.

Ms Zappone said “a whole-of-Government response” was required.

“I am confident that together we will formulate a vigorous response involving laws, protocols and regulations.

“The internet and social media has transformed our lives. There are huge benefits – but there is also a darker, more sinister side which cannot be ignored,” the minister said.

Irish Independent

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