Adrian Weckler: 'Memo to Safety Commissioner'
What kind of Online Safety Commissioner will the Government actually appoint? A powerful watchdog? A lame duck? Something in between?
Communications Minister Richard Bruton talks about an office with the power to fine Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, or even spark a criminal prosecution.
But to be effective a new commissioner has to do a few things.
The first is understand the technology. Too many senior figures in Ireland have digital literacy problems. The recent Momo hoax was a prime example of this. A good deal of energy (and, in some cases, credibility) was wasted chasing after a ghost. A safety commissioner needs to know a non-threat just as much as a genuine one - and to be able to step in to reassure an anxious public.
They also need to be pragmatic, even while talking tough. One of the biggest image problems the Irish Data Protection Commissioner's office had in its early years was an impression it was too close to the big tech firms. One reason for this was that the office made itself available for 'consultations' with the Facebooks of this world. But while German privacy advocates sneered at us, this may have led to bad products being canned or changed before they were released, saving millions of people from a bad outcome.
As recently as last week, the current Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, reiterated this. Potentially harmful or unlawful services are ditched, she told me in an interview, because of consultative meetings with her office. (She mentioned one in particular that had been sent back to the drawing board following a meeting last month.)
A safety commissioner has to prioritise a better end result for kids, even if it means getting under the hood with big online firms. It is ultimately more effective than public relations optics or applause from Sunday radio show panels.
That said, one thing the new safety commissioner should not worry about is offending the tech firms. There is a trope that officials have to be nice to Facebook or Google for fear of offending their investment plans here. In my experience reporting on the sector over two decades, this is largely illusory. No big tech firm will make a decision to pull 5,000 or 10,000 people out of a country's headquarters because a safety commissioner talks tough. They will especially not do this if they believe that modifying a product, service or online process will prevent further problems in other European countries. That's not the way these big companies think. Especially on non-tax issues.
That said, there are going to be quite a few frustrating limitations.
Domain is one. The new office will have a direct line into Google (YouTube), Facebook and Twitter. They're all headquartered in Dublin. But many popular platforms aren't. Snapchat is the prime example - it remains the most-used social network by teens and kids with around a million accounts here.
The safety commissioner also surely needs to have a strategy to deal with smaller - but growing - platforms such as TikTok. (If you haven't heard of this but have kids, look it up.)
Then there are some platforms with controversial histories, such as Ask.fm, which was at the centre of a storm over bullying and suicides a few years back.
Will a commissioner simply shrug his or her shoulders and say it's not in their geographical domain?
Australia's eSafety Commissioner, repeatedly referenced by Bruton last week as a potential comparison to Ireland's proposed body, says clearly that it is often geographically limited. For example, in the instance of intimate or compromising images posted as revenge or an act of harassment, the Australian body says it can only help in cases where both victim and aggressor are resident in the country and the image is hosted there, too. Ireland's online safety commissioner needs to have a strategy to deal with that.
So who fits the bill?
Someone like Johnny Ryan of the privacy web browser company Brave might do a good job. One of Ireland's undisputed internet experts, he recently showed a lot of effectiveness in challenging Google and the Interactive Advertising Bureau on the topic of targeting vulnerable individuals with ads.
Some working in the field of internet safety, such as Simon Grehan, might also be a natural candidate. As would those who currently lead childrens' safety organisations, such as Childrens' Rights Alliance boss Tanya Ward or Cybersafe Ireland's Alex Cooney.
A really innovative choice might be Dylan Collins, one of Ireland's most experienced and knowledgeable tech founders who is currently growing his successful 'kidtech' firm SuperAwesome. Unfortunately, because that company appears to be doing well building products which protect children from being targeted by online ads, he would be very unlikely to consider the post.
(None of these people are friends of mine, by the way - I mention them solely based on professional interaction and reputation.)
To be fair to the Government, the time is right to do this.
Facebook knows which way the wind is blowing, if last week's 'privacy first' memo from Mark Zuckerberg is anything to go by. YouTube does too. Two weeks ago, it announced it will soon ban all comments on all videos which show young children. The subsidiary of Google said it was doing this because of "predatory" comments being left on the videos, which sometimes acted as a resource for paedophiles.
This is an unprecedented move - the biggest I can remember in covering social networks and online video platforms.
It shows that there's an open door for a decent Online Safety Commissioner to effectively protect kids in a way which hasn't been done before.
Sunday Indo Business