Social media companies should be compelled to remove false content or face fines – Oireachtas Report

By Aidan Crowley

Aidan Crowley looks at details of an Oireachtas committee report recommending that social media companies should be forced to take down false or misleading content or else face fines from a new statutory regulator.

Image via Creative Commons license

The recent Oireachtas Media Committee’s report on the forthcoming Online Safety and Media Regulations Bill has recommended changes to the draft legislation, that would include designating the publication of disinformation as harmful online content. A new Online Safety Commissioner could compel social media companies to delete false or misleading posts, such as those promoting Covid-19 conspiracy theories, Fianna Fail Senator, Malcolm Byrne, who is a committee member, has said. If action is not taken, there would be scope provided for regulatory action, including the levying of fines.

The report also calls for a new content levy on streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and other paid TV subscription services operating within, or targeting audiences in the state to fund independent production. Any levy-funded schemes should be contestable, with funding being allocated to those projects deemed to be of the most merit, the report states. The proposed levy would apply to streaming services operating within or targeting audiences in the State. The report includes economic modeling of various levy scenarios. A one per cent levy would raise just over Euros 5 million from the pay TV sector, while a three per cent levy would raise nearly Euros 15.5 million.

Committee chairperson, Niamh Smyth, said that members did not agree on the percentage of levy and added that it would be the Minister’s decision. The report also recommends that a new multi-member Media Commission be established to replace the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) and that it should be given full regulatory powers to deal with harmful content. It should be “ legally distinct and functionally independent,” Ms. Smyth, a Fianna Fail TD, said.

The committee’s report also calls for an individual complaints mechanism to be established for designated online platforms. It also recommends that the new Online Safety Commissioner sets up the Media Commission, independent of government, to regulate big tech companies. The committee’s report states that any complaints mechanism should be “responsive to the needs and protection of children and other vulnerable groups and that these include effective takedown procedures.”

Online platforms should be required to provide data for public interest research and for children’s navigation of online spaces to be protected. This measure would ensure that they are not rendered vulnerable to data profiling or to harmful advertisements, the report states. The report also recommends that that the bill being brought forward by Culture Minister, Catherine Martin, be amended in order to indicate a minimum age for a child to be permitted to create an account with designated online services, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Tiktok.

The committee failed to agree on a specific age. However, one of its members, Fine Gael Senator, Michael Carrigy, said that there should be “uniformity across the sector” and he suggested an age range of between 14 and 16. The report also recommends a ban on advertising to children online, including, at the very minimum, advertisements for alcohol, junk food, high fat/salt/sugar foods and gambling. The committee recommends financial harm should be included as a category of harmful online content, to include such content as gambling.

Asked whether this would mean banning certain gambling advertisements, Fianna Fail Senator, Shane Cassells, said that it was a matter to be addressed by the minister in the forthcoming legislation.

The report also notes that the committee was re-named as the Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, sport and Media in May of this year.  

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