Ireland’s proposed General Scheme Online Safety Media Regulation Bill - what we know so far?
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton T.D. recently published the general scheme of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, to protect children online.
From our work in supporting schools and children’s counselling services in addressing the challenges of cyberbullying we welcome the establishment of this bill in Ireland.
What’s under scope?
The proposed new law will set out clear expectations for online services in the form of binding online safety codes, whereby non compliances may see sanctions being handed down by an Online Safety Commissioner. This new robust regulatory framework aims to uplift Irelands approach to protecting its children online which will inevitably bridge the gap between existing data protection regulations (General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and cybercrime directives like the Directive 2011/93/EU.
While it is not clear which specific online services will be within scope under the new law, the new Online Safety Commissioner will be tasked with identifying and establishing a list of the designated services. The online services will be those that facilitate posting, sharing of personal content as well as access to content by other users. These may include social media services, public boards and forums, online gaming services, online search engines to name a few.
Many social media sites have existing procedures set in place to defend against harmful content with it generally being taken down or blocked. The process is done by internal teams identifying the content by running searches or by online users who report pictures and posts via “report” functions built into an app. While this new law may mandate certain requirements, it is most likely that each online service will build efficiently designed and operational procedures to establish a reasonable level of assurance to ensure compliance is addressed. Harmful content is considered as serious cyberbullying, material which promotes self-harm or designed to encourage prolonged nutritional deprivation.
Considering the provisions set out in the draft online safety guidance materials, in the case of an encrypted message service such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Viber, it is unlikely that much can change. This is excluding the potential inclusion of a report function so that users can escalate harmful or illegal content to the application owner for retrospective removal. While it is difficult to police sent and received content, an encrypted messaging service provides a high level of privacy and aims to alleviate any concerns in keeping personal messages secure while in transit.
Proactive approach needed and non-compliance sanctions
This new ground-breaking law sets Ireland apart from other countries. The key to its ongoing success will be closely tied to how the law will be proactively governed by the Online Safety Commissioners Office. In conjunction with the approach taken to sanction and/or fine online services who continually do not meet the requirements set out in the law.
Unfortunately, many organizations will only respond when non-compliance will impact their finances or potentially block access the Irish public from their service. As we have seen from the GDPR, one of the main reasons for its successful adoption, was due to the threatened sanctions for non-compliance. For example, since the GDPR’s adoption European regulators have imposed €114** million in fines, with a further €329** million in sanctions threatened. This approach sends a strong message of “comply or else…”, and a similar method should be considered for adoption by the Online Safety Commissioner.
Improved online safety - but what of the role of parents?
This new law aims to replace self-regulation and protect our children and support parents in dealing with online safety issues - “Protect the interests of children taking into account the vulnerability of children to harmful content and undue commercial exploitation.
While the new online safety bill will provide much needed regulation, the onus should rest with Irish parents to remain proactive and do the following:
- Upskill and make themselves aware of online risks
- Communicate those risks to their children
- Keep a watchful eye on their children’s online activity
Through the combination of the new law, uplifted parental knowledge and supervision we will inevitably strengthen our ability to protect our more vulnerable citizens.