Monday 16 September 2019

Facebook warns Digital Safety Commissioner 'could limit freedom of expression'

Stock photo: Reuters
Stock photo: Reuters
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Facebook has raised concerns that plans for a Digital Safety Commissioner have the potential to interfere with freedom of expression.

The internet giant will today warn TDs that efforts to restrict harmful or offence activity online needs to balanced.

While saying they "understand the motivation" behind wanting to establish a single body that is authorised to pass judgement on alleged harmful content, Facebook adds that it could result in the Irish courts issuing orders for incidents outside of this country.

The points are made in a submission lodged with the Oireachtas Committee on Communications ahead of an appearance by Facebook’s Head of Public Policy, Niamh Sweeney today.

Representatives of Google will appear before the same meeting today where they will raise similar issues.

The Committee is considering legislation brought forward by Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire for a Digital Safety Commissioner (DSC) who would before a key arbitrator of internet activity in Ireland.

Ms Sweeney’s opening submission states a DSC would be useful in cases "where there is disagreement between a platform and an affected user about what constitutes a ‘harmful’ communication".

She adds that Facebook "very much see the benefit in a single office having the ability to oversee and coordinate efforts around the promotion of digital safety throughout communities".

However, she argues that the proposed Bill is "unclear" as to what constitutes "harmful communication".

No definition is included in the draft legislation, but it "appears that this concept is intended to be broader than content that is clearly criminal in nature".

"The exact parameters are left undefined, however, and this will lead to uncertainty and unpredictability," Ms Sweeney will tell TDs and senators.

She references a Law Reform Commission report form 2016 which noted the freedom of expression is the "lifeblood of the internet and needs to be protected".

It called for a balancing of the right to freedom of express and the right of privacy.

"We agree with the LRC's analysis here. And while it would clearly not be the intention of this Bill to impact on free speech in Ireland, the Commissioner's ability to issue a decision ordering the removal of ‘harmful communications’ without allowing an opportunity for the digital service undertaking to appeal, ought to be considered in light of the potential for limiting freedom of expression", she will say.

In a submission for Google in Ireland, their Public Policy & Government Relations Manager Ryan Meade makes a similar argument about the needs for a "clear definition of this concept" in order to reduce "uncertainty and unintended consequences".

 Mr Meade also notes that the Data Protection Commission (DPC) has an "important role to play in addressing online safety with regard to data protection and privacy issues".

He says the Bill does not currently address the fact under EU law the DPC must have responsibility for dealing with complaints by individuals related to their data protection rights.

"We believe that this delineation of responsibility between the Digital Safety Commissioner and the DPC merits deeper consideration as the Bill progresses", he will say.

Online Editors

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News