Monday 24 July 2017

New watchdog to tackle social media harassment

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has vowed to crack down on abuse. Photo: Bloomberg
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has vowed to crack down on abuse. Photo: Bloomberg
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

A new watchdog to clampdown on offensive material being posted on social media websites is to be established, the Irish Independent can reveal.

The 'Digital Safety Commissioner' will have the power to compel websites such as Facebook and Twitter to take down material that could be considered distasteful or abusive.

The primary aim will be the protection of children who are subject to bullying or harassment online.

The new office of the Digital Safety Commissioner will have the dual role of promoting digital safety and overseeing an efficient takedown procedure.

Writing in today's Irish Independent, Communications Minister Denis Naughten said: "Of course there will be those who claim this is akin to censorship and an attack on the freedom of speech but I will not accept there is a place in this digital world for those who wish others dead; disfigured; raped . . . and the list goes on."

In a report published last year on 'Harmful Communications and Digital Safety', the Law Reform Commission proposed a safety officer who would produce a statutory code of practice on digital safety.

Read more: Most parents feel they can't protect their children from internet dangers

It said the code should set out nationally agreed standards on the details of an efficient take-down procedure.

Under the plan being compiled by Mr Naughten, social media sites would have to sign up to this code and agree to remove offensive material within an agreed timeline.

Individuals or parents would initially apply directly to the website to have the post removed - but if a social media site does not comply with the standards in the code of practice, the individual could then appeal to the Digital Safety Commissioner.

If the social media site still refuses to take action the commissioner will be able to apply to the Circuit Court for a court order requiring compliance.

Mr Naughten raised the idea during a Cabinet meeting in December, but sources close to the minister told the Irish Independent he has become even more aware of the abuse taking place online since a recent road accident.

He suffered serious back injuries when knocked off his bicycle on January 2 and was subsequently targeted by internet trolls who wished him dead.

A new study out this week has also highlighted how parents are struggling to protect their children online.

As many as one in 10 children are believed to have suffered cyberbullying at some stage.

Mr Naughten is to seek support from Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Children's Minister Katherine Zappone for the initiative, which is based on an Australian model.

The Children's Ombudsman and educational bodies will also be involved as the commissioner's general function will include the promotion of positive digital citizenship among children and young people.

Consultations with the key social media sites, many of whom have their European headquarters in Dublin, including Facebook, are expected to get under way in the coming weeks.

Read more: Katherine Donnelly: Online safety needs same approach as teaching youngsters rules of the road

Labour Party education spokesperson Joan Burton last night called for an updated Action Plan on Bullying.

She said the Action Plan for Education 2017, which was published by Education Minister Richard Bruton yesterday, made "scant reference to tackling bullying".

"The previous Action Plan for Bullying, introduced by my colleague Ruairí Quinn in 2012, was the first of its kind in Irish schools.

"This plan was successful because it recognised the many forms and places that bullying exists and brought agencies together to tackle bullying," she said.

"Alarming figures published today by DCU tell us that 14pc of primary school students and 10pc of post-primary school students have been cyberbullied."

Irish Independent

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