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Tuesday 11 December 2018

Varadkar: Tech giants must protect children

Christmas online bully warning

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

Philip Ryan and Wayne O'Connor

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has demanded that international tech firms do more to protect children from cyber-bullying and online predators.

Mr Varadkar said he was "very conscious" of how bullying has changed due to the rise of social media and urged companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to protect children who use their website and apps.

The warning comes as children of all ages across the country will tomorrow receive new smartphones and tablets with access to social media as Christmas presents.

However, the Taoiseach also revealed he is shelving plans to establish a Digital Safety Commissioner who would have the power to hit social media firms with substantial fines if they allow harmful or illegal material to be published on their platforms.

The backtracking on the much-hyped proposal for a first-of-its-kind internet regulator comes as a Sunday Independent investigation reveals how Facebook has been providing free social media training to government ministers.

Correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act shows how senior Facebook executives are offering ministers "tips to enhance" their personal accounts and reach more voters through their online profiles.

It can also be revealed that a new online verification code could be issued to all citizens by the Department of Social Protection as part of a radical new proposal aimed at cracking down on anonymous social media accounts.

Junior Minister for Mental Health Jim Daly has written to Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty, asking her to examine the possibility of issuing personal codes linked to PPS numbers which would be used by users when signing up to social media accounts.

The codes would be unique to each user and would prevent predators and bullies from hiding behind a cloak of anonymity online.

Asked by the Sunday Independent if social media companies should be doing more to protect children, the Taoiseach last week said: "Can the big tech companies do more? Yeah, I think they can." Speaking at a pre-Christmas media briefing, the Taoiseach acknowledged the serious dangers faced by children on social media websites and apps.

"I'm very conscious of the extent to which bullying has changed," he said.

"When we were kids, when it came to bullying at least you could escape it, at least you could go home or you knew there was somewhere to hide, but the difference now is that this content and this form of bullying and intimidation can come with you everywhere you go," he added.

However, he said he would be "loathe" to implement any policy which could be seen as the Government seeking to regulate the internet or restrict freedom of speech.

Mr Varadkar also said the Government had considered appointing a Digital Safety Commissioner who would have the power to force social media companies to remove offensive content.

However, he said he has "decided at the moment not to go for that" but instead he is asking "tech companies to step up to the plate and to do a bit more to protect people".

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, who has pledged to introduce a Digital Safety Commissioner, is understood to be still anxious to see the introduction of an internet regulator.

Yesterday, the Independent minister's spokesperson said the Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), who Mr Naughten met last week, is "supportive" of the introduction of a Digital Safety Commissioner.

However, she added: "The minister is currently exploring all options, but, in the short term, the focus is on working with the tech online platforms to ascertain if the safeguards and guidelines that they currently have in place are effective enough and how they can be strengthened."

The Sunday Independent's investigation into contacts between Facebook and the Government found ministers are receiving social media training from Facebook to boost their profiles among constituents and get an analysis of how well they interact with voters.

Analysis of correspondences show how closely the social media giants are affiliated with government ministers and their advisers.

Officials in the Taoiseach's department were invited to Facebook's Dublin headquarters this year so they could offer advice on running a Junior Minister's online profile.

The emails and documents also show the company previously took ministers to their Dublin offices for tips and training on using the website.

Facebook also contacted the Taoiseach's department to complain new European Commission proposals aimed at strengthening online privacy rules would "diminish" the money tech companies make from online advertising.

Sources with knowledge of Facebook's training programmes said ministers, TDs, councillors and unelected candidates across the political spectrum have received support from the company.

Facebook declined to give the names or the number of officials who received the training but Facebook Ireland's head of public policy Niamh Sweeney told the Sunday Independent that such work is also carried out with officials in other countries.

Sunday Independent

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