Thursday 14 November 2019

More funds are vital for the war on fake news, says Dixon

Online probe is 'labour intensive'

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon
Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon
Laura Lynott

Laura Lynott

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon told an Oireachtas 'fake news' committee that social media giants are "challenging at every turn" as they hold the "power to litigate forever".

Ms Dixon told the Oireachtas International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News that more funding was vital for its "labour intensive" work, as it examined online platforms.

"We're being challenged at every turn. Yes, we need more resources," she said.

The commissioner said she had "anticipated" ahead of the Budget the resources the DPC would need in 2020 as it continues investigations into online platforms.

"Ultimately we secured significantly less than we sought but I'll be able to recruit 30 to 35 extra staff," Ms Dixon said.

"We're in the top tier in the EU and globally but it's not enough," she added, explaining the DPC "sees the scale of the challenge".

Five years ago, the DPC had 27 staff and it now employs more than 140, including leading solicitors and investigators.

The DPC announced in April it was to investigate Facebook for potential breaches of EU data protection laws regarding how it stored user passwords.

And in May it announced an investigation into Google's advertising and compliance under GDPR rules.

"We must follow due process," Ms Dixon said. "They (social media companies) have the resources to litigate forever. We must allow them the legal right to be heard and then we can hope to deliver the outcomes."

The commissioner said the body had handled 11,000 complaints under GDPR legislation since it was rolled out 18 months ago.

Ms Dixon said the DPC supports Irish law reform on harmful communications and online safety. She said a dedicated office to oversee online "take down orders" for harmful content should be considered.

She was concerned social media possessed the ability to "micro-target" people.

This power could potentially "amplify harmful effects" and "may allow a voter to be pushed in one direction or another," she said. "Given the rates of online users who receive their news on social networks, this is a concern.

"We have investigations into platforms and these investigations will conclude in 2020."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn't attend the committee but political, media and civil rights groups from across the world were present.

Facebook's head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, represented the company.

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She was questioned robustly by US Congressman David N Cicilline, Fine Gael's Hildegarde Naughton TD and chair of the meeting, and Janil Puthucheary, senior member for state communications and information in Singapore.

Mr Cicilline asked Ms Bickert would it possible to pay for "false advertisements and target groups susceptible to information?"

She responded: "There are limitations in the criteria. You can target your audience. They'd know they'd been targeted with advertisements."

"Would they know they've been targeted with false information?" he asked.

Ms Bickert responded: "Our policy is we don't fact check direct speech but if someone received an advertisement, they can click on it and see why they're seeing it."

"They wouldn't know the veracity or falseness of advertisement?" Mr Cicilline asked.

"There's a high likelihood someone would know if information is false," she responded.

David Puttnam was the only UK representative who attended the debate in a personal capacity due to UK Parliament being dissolved.

Irish Independent

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