Online firms to face costs for contempt

Multinational social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter could be found to be in contempt of court for failing to promptly remove material from their websites on the order of a judge.

Judges would also be able to instruct tech firms to prevent the publication of certain material on their websites if it was believed it could jeopardise or influence the outcome of a court case. The maximum sentence for contempt of court under the new law will be life imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.

Traditional media companies and newspaper groups face the prospect of thousands of euro in fines and imprisonment for prejudicing court cases.

However, there is a massive grey area around the responsibility of multi-billion-euro tech companies and the content published on their websites.

The new legislation being proposed by Fine Gael’s Dublin Rathdown TD Josepha Madigan was drafted in the wake of the controversial Jobstown trial. Serious concerns were raised about the use of social media by hard-left political supporters throughout the trial.

Solidarity TD Paul Murphy and five other protesters were found not guilty of falsely imprisoning former Tanaiste Joan Burton and her adviser Karen O’Connell at the end of the nine-week trial.

The DPP warned Mr Murphy about his use of social media during the trial and the TD removed posts he made on Twitter. Comments and videos posted online by hard-left politicians have led to a debate about the use of social media during court cases and the powers of judges hearing trials.

In response to the use of social media during the trial, Ms Madigan is drafting the Contempt of Court Bill 2017 which she hopes will be accepted by the Dail in the coming months.

“This is not about curtailing freedom of speech, this is about respecting the independence and autonomy of a jury reaching a decision,” she told the Sunday Independent.

Ms Madigan’s bill is at the draft stage but the final legislation will have a section giving courts powers to instruct online publications and social media companies to remove and block material on their websites.

Contempt of court is not defined in legislation in Ireland but is set out in common law. In the UK, contempt of court is set out in legislation. There have been calls in the past from the Supreme Court and the Law Reform Commission to legislate for contempt of court.

The new bill would make it an offence to knowingly prejudice a trial in a calculated manner. It would not be an offence to unwittingly prejudice a trial by posting a comment on a social media company while believing a trial was not ongoing.

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