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Powerful new internet watchdog will hit Facebook and Twitter with fines

Social media companies face financial penalties for failing to take down content


Minister for Communications Denis Naughten

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten

A powerful new internet watchdog will slap social media companies with significant fines if they fail to remove offensive online content, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

The State's first internet regulatory body will force companies such as Facebook and Twitter to take down abusive and defamatory material or face financial consequences.

Communications Minister Denis Naughten said new laws to be imposed by a Digital Safety Commissioner will also encourage international tech firms to weed out anonymous users spreading hate online.

"If there are sanctions in place in relation to content then they will have to be able to trace back the person responsible for the content," Mr Naughten told the Sunday Independent.

The Independent Minister also revealed he was targeted by Facebook trolls after the road accident which left him in hospital earlier this year.

"I have had some nasty stuff to deal with as well. Two individuals online wished I had died on foot of the road traffic accident I was in last January," he said.

Facebook is under global pressure to increase its protocols and vetting proceedures after two murders were broadcast on the social media website. A video showing the murder of an 11-month-old girl remained on Facebook for more than a day after it was uploaded.

Gardai are responsible for contacting social media companies to have content removed. However, the Digital Safety Commissioner will take over this role and liaise directly with companies about offensive material. It is hoped this will speed up the process of having potentially defamatory and abusive material removed.

If companies do not comply with requests, they will be hit with financial penalties.

"People are putting material online that shouldn't be online because maybe a relationship broke down or maybe there is a dispute between neighbours or among families," Mr Naughten said.

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"The gardai are finding more and more that they are being brought into it and being forced to engage with social media sites to try and get this content taken down," he added.

The minister said social media companies need to follow the example of the traditional print media industry and become more proactive in removing offensive content from their websites. He said he does not want to "regulate the internet out of existence" but is anxious to ensure a balance between freedom of speech and what is acceptable.

Meanwhile, the Fine Gael parliamentary party was last week briefed by Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald on how to approach Facebook about offensive material and forthcoming legislation aimed at tacking the growing problem of online trolls. The briefing was requested by Minister of State for Health Promotion Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy, who has been targeted with abusive comments on Facebook.

Ms Corcoran-Kennedy said she was concerned children are also being subjected to nasty and hurtful comments online. "It's amazing the amount of positivity the internet has brought but the negativity is a challenge and as lawmakers we are trying to stay abreast of it and manage the whole thing," she said.

The junior minister said she would like to know where freedom of speech ends and harassment begins on social media. She spoke with Facebook about the issue and was advised to flag with the company every abusive comment she received. She said Facebook assured her any direct threat made by one user to another would be dealt with.

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