Era of self-regulation over
Safety codes for online services, overseen by Commissioner with financial sanctions for non-compliance
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton T.D. today (Friday the 10th of January 2020) published the general scheme of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, to protect children online.
Minister Bruton said:
“Shortly after I was appointed Minister, I said that the era of self-regulation for online companies was over. Digital technology has transformed every aspect of our lives and we must put in place measures to protect our children online.
“This new law is the start of a new era of accountability. It sets out a clear expectation for online services. They will have to comply with binding online safety codes made by an Online Safety Commissioner, who will have significant powers to sanction companies for non-compliance.”
There are already significant regulatory and legal frameworks in place in relation to many online issues, including data protection and criminal justice responses to criminal activities online. However, there is a serious gap both internationally and in Ireland when it comes to addressing harmful online content. This new law will close this legal gap and establish a robust regulatory framework to deal with the spread of harmful online content.
The Online Safety Commissioner will be part of a new Media Commission which will replace the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and will also take on the role of regulating the audiovisual sector.
Minister Bruton said,
“This new law is one of the first of its kind in the world and is breaking new ground in terms of how online services will be required to deal with harmful content.”
Online safety codes
The new Online Safety Commissioner will be responsible for designating which online services should be covered under the new law. These designated services will then be required to comply with binding online safety codes made by the Commissioner.
Each Online Safety Code will set out the steps the designated service provide must take to keep their users safe online and will depend on the type of service that is being offered. Codes will address a wide range of matters, including:
- Combating cyber bullying material and material promoting eating disorders, self-harm and suicide
- Ensuring that services operate effective complaints procedures where people can request material is taken down
- Ensuring advertising, sponsorship and product placement are not harmful and uphold minimum standards
- How companies are mitigating against risks to the prevalence of harmful content on their platforms.
It is a matter for the Commissioner to design the relevant codes and decide which codes apply to each designated service. Online services will be legally obliged to abide by the codes that apply to them.
The Online Safety Commissioner can:
- Decide the appropriate reporting requirements of compliance with online safety codes by online services
- Request information from online services about their compliance with the online safety codes that apply to them
- Audit the complaints and/or issues handling mechanisms operated by online services
- Appoint authorised officers to assess compliance and carry out audits
- The Online Safety Commissioner will establish a scheme to receive “super complaints” about systemic issues with online services from nominated bodies, including expert NGOs, and may request information, investigate or audit an online service on the basis of information received through this scheme.
If an online service is not complying with their safety code, the Online Safety Commissioner will, in the first instance, issue a compliance notice setting out what they must do to bring themselves into compliance- including the removal or restoration of content.
If the Online Safety Commissioner is not satisfied with the response and action taken by the online service, the Online Safety Commissioner can issue a warning notice. Warning notices will set out what the online service must do to bring itself into compliance and what steps the Online Safety Commissioner will take if it fails to do so.
If the Online Safety Commissioner is not satisfied with the response and action taken by the online service on foot of a warning notice then the Online Safety Commissioner can seek to impose a sanction on that service.
The Online Safety Commissioner can publish compliance and warning notices.
Sanctions for non-compliance
The Media Commission can only seek to impose a sanction on an online service if the service has failed to comply with a warning notice.
The sanctions that the Media Commission can impose include:
- Financial penalties,
- Compelling the online service to take certain actions, and,
- Blocking an offending online service.
The application of each of these sanctions requires court approval.
Minister Bruton said:
“We are putting in place a robust framework to ensure, as best we can, that all of us, but especially our children, are protected from harmful content online. While it would be impossible to protect people from every danger, this new law will ensure the era of self-regulation is over and that online companies are subject to much stricter standards and sanctions.”
The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment will hold a number of stakeholder engagement sessions over the coming period on key issues arising from the general scheme of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.
The general scheme of the proposed Bill is available on the website of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. A number of explanatory notes and Q&A material are also available.
Minister for Digital Development Seán Canney said: “As chair of the National Advisory Council for Online Safety, I welcome the introduction of this Bill. Self-regulation is no longer fit for purpose and we have a responsibility to protect our children and support parents in dealing with online safety issues.”