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Wednesday 22 November 2017

Courts lack laws to tackle abuse on social media

Fergus Black

A GAP exists in legislation dealing with offensive material on social media sites despite the "robust" legal measures already in place, a minister has admitted.

Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte said his department was considering ways of dealing with the issue after revealing the gardai and courts have no "specific mechanism" available to tackle the problem.

A set of robust legal measures dealing with defamation had been introduced in 2009 covering online comment, while the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act dealt with harassment.

Other legislation contained measures to deal with the use of the phone system to send grossly offensive or indecent messages but it did not extend to social media.

"It appears that there may be a gap in the legislation here in that electronic communications infrastructure is not covered by these measures.

"As such there is no specific mechanism available to the gardai or the courts to deal with the type of difficulties we have seen," said Mr Rabbitte.

He told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications that social media had the power to be "profoundly transformative" and fundamentally disruptive to existing patterns of debate, political discourse and existing media.

But the Minister warned that the same power that allowed information to be shared in a free and open way "also confers the ability to abuse, bully and harass others, sometimes with the benefit of anonymity".

There was "a delicate balance" to be struck between ensuring that the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of access to information were maintained, while introducing measures that could deal with social media abuse.

"Determining an appropriate threshold for offences to ensure that a slew of vexatious or frivolous complaints do not arise is a challenge," he admitted.

Oversight

"Experience in other jurisdictions has been that this balance is not easy to strike, and we fully intend to give any measures our full consideration before implementing them."

Mr Rabbitte also said it was not "beyond the bounds of possibility" that the type of oversight that currently operates successfully in the print media in the form of the Press Council and Press Ombudsman might also be tried out in the electronic media.

Representatives from Twitter and Facebook will appear before the committee today.

Irish Independent

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