Irish government is not a lobbyist for Facebook - Richard Bruton
Rejected claims Government sought to water down data protection legislation on behalf of tech firms
The government is not a lobbyist for Facebook, Communications Minister Richard Bruton has said.
Speaking today at the launch of plans to set up an online safety commissioner, Mr Bruton rejected claims that the Irish government sought to water down data protection legislation on behalf of Facebook and other big tech firms.
"I think the evidence is very clear that there's been no diminution of the vigilance around data protection in Ireland," he said.
"The two holders of that office [Data Protection Commissioner] have said that there has been absolutely no interference by government in its operation. We have not only implemented EU legislation, but have been pioneers in this field. So whatever perceptions might be sought to be created, the reality is very different."
The Irish Independent revealed two years ago that Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg had lobbied then Taoiseach Enda Kenny on European data laws, particularly the General Data Protection Regulation and the role of Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner.
Ms Sandberg had praised the Taoiseach on Ireland's policy of having a "collaborative" data protection commissioner, the entity that regulates Facebook in much of its online activity across Europe.
A report in the UK’s Observer newspaper at the weekend reignited the controversy, highlighting exchanges between Mr Kenny and Ms Sandberg on the issue.
A memo quoted by the UK article claimed Mr Kenny would exercise an "opportunity to influence the European Data Directive decisions" and use the "significant influence" of the country’s EU presidency to sway other EU member states.
But Mr Bruton defended former Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s role in setting up Ireland’s data privacy regime, denying that he was trying to soften the law to suit big tech employers here.
“Enda Kenny introduced the strengthening of the powers to the Data Protection Commissioner,” he said.
"I remember when Data Protection Commissioner was located over a supermarket in Portarlington. It was a very small operation and people felt that it didn't have the capability to police the sector and take on the responsibility. Enda Kenny played a very significant role in dramatically strengthening that office.”
Speaking about the new office of Digital Safety Commissioner, Mr Bruton said that the office may be partly funded by tech companies.
“There are cases where completely independent boards still levy industry for the cost of supervision,” he said.
“So I'm not ruling out there couldn't be some level of industry contribution to the costs. But it certainly won't be in a fashion that any way undermines the independence of the regulatory function in terms of numbers and resources.”
He said that the size of potential fines has not yet been decided.
“I think in the case of the Australian digital commissioner, fines are up to $500,000,” he said.
“We will have significant penalties in place, but it's interesting that they [Australian commissioner office] have never had to take enforcement action. There’s been 100pc compliance where they have made recommendations and those are put to companies.”
The government’s new online safety commissioner will have the power to fine or file criminal charges against social media companies and other tech giants.
The new watchdog could become one of the most powerful in Europe as, under EU law, it will be “required to regulate all video sharing platforms that are based in Ireland”.
It means that if YouTube or Facebook, which are both based in Ireland, host inappropriate videos, the new online safety commissioner will have new powers and responsibilities to take action.
The online video companies will also face harsher penalties for letting under-age kids use their services without parental control.
And “serious” cyber bullying, together with videos that promote self-harm, anorexia or suicide, will be recognised as specific categories under the new regime.
The move comes just days after YouTube announced that it will shortly ban all comments on all videos that 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.
The government’s new law also comes after the recent ‘Momo’ scare, a hoax that fooled schools, police forces and parents into believing a horror character within kids’ videos was telling children to harm themselves.