Joint Committee hearings on Social Media March 6, 2013Posted by Oireachtas Retort in Internet.
..begin this morning (9.30am, room three) till Tuesday with Facebook, Google & Twitter all making an appearance.
The committee will produce a report to be presented to Pat Rabbitte sometime in the coming months. There has been much panic and confusion in the last year or so following a number of tragic events and bizarre commentary in the press. Heat has seemingly been on TDs and the Dáil record now boasts several convoluted definitions of the word troll.
I had quick search for Committee member’s activity last week to find an average of 434 tweets between them with Senator John Whelan making up half and most of the real ones. Several haven’t said a word since they fought their last election and the rest – presumably operated by someone else – look like a parish pump newsfeed of generic Party links with the odd congratulations to the local under 14s. Not an interactive bunch.
The Oireachtas however had designated the commendable if rather unhelpful #jctcsubmission for submissions. The first hashtag to come from above if I’m not mistaken.
Chairman Tom Hayes (whom I’ve mentioned before in not unrelated circumstances) notes
Social media outlets are changing the way many of our citizens interact with one another. Some disquiet has accompanied the rise of social media, particularly in relation to the nature of abusive and unfettered commentary. As a Committee, we’ve considered over the past number of weeks how the rights of ordinary citizens can be upheld on social media outlets.
The Minister himself is due to appear so we wont see an end to unfettered commentary just yet. A report in this weekend’s Sunday Times signalled plans to ‘broaden the scope’ of the communications regulations to embrace all forms of electronic communications and something about better forms of reporting content. Though intentions were a lot lighter on detail in the Dáil last week.
Will be interesting to see how the Oireachtas handles three of our big US employers. Not least as due to their presence here, what transpires may have implications good and bad for users across the EU. The world’s tech media may even be about to get their first taste of Mattie McGrath.
Also noteworthy is the relative speed at which all this came together given the decision not to bring some of beef industry players in and indeed the pace of matters concerning media ownership.
Fergal Crehan has prepared a submission from Digital Rights Ireland and makes the point
We are in the fourth decade of the Internet’s existence. However, in some respects, in Ireland at least, the Internet only broke through to the cultural mainstream since the advent of the smartphone. What might be termed “the Irish Internet community” is to a large extent made of “digital natives”, people who have learned appropriate online behaviour over many years’ immersion in the norms of the community. At the same time, the law has kept reasonably abreast. We submit that in the areas of bullying and hate speech, two offences exist which are tailor-made, without any amendment, for use in respect of online communication. However, many hundreds of thousands of newer users of the Internet, less attuned to these norms, have flooded online in recent years, leading to a wrong belief, that “anything goes” online.
We submit that this perception has twin dangers. It lulls Internet users into behaving in ways they would not dream of behaving in daily life. It also gives legislators and even enforcers the mistaken impression that no laws exist to deal with such behaviour. Digital Rights Ireland hopes it has assisted the committee by outlining, in these submissions, that online speech is already more than adequately regulated.
No new legislation should be introduced, but clarification should be provided on the following points:
- That offences under the Non-Fatal Offences Act and the Prevention of Incitement to Hatred Act apply to online communications.
- That intent to stir up hatred is not an essential ingredient of the offence of “Preparation and possession of material likely to stir up hatred”.
- That Norwich Pharmacal orders are available as a means of unmasking anonymous parties, but should only be made where a substantial case is disclosed.
o Section 13 of Post Office Amendment Act 1951 should not be further amended.
o The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner should be properly funded, particularly in respect of its enforcement powers.
o Prosecutions of the offences of Harassment and Preparation and Possession of Material Likely to Stir Up Hatred should be considered, where appropriate.
o An education programme should be instituted in relation to online behaviour, applying to both adults and to children.
Which seems entirely reasonable and correct.
Anything further is ignorant if not dubious imo.
Video of proceedings here and full transcript should be alone shortly. Worth a watch as Senator Eames’ unique grasp of things is somewhat overshadowing the wall of ignorance on display from all sides today.
Some highlights from the Minister
At the highest level, social media have the power to be profoundly transformative – fundamentally disruptive to existing patterns of debate, existing political discourse and to existing media. Democracy has always evolved and changed along with technology; these technologies have provided citizens with a new set of tool to engage with politics, and vice versa. This is something to be welcomed and embraced, not feared.
However the novelty and power of this technology brings challenges too, right across the legal, social and personal spectrum. The same power that allows 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.
Equally, some people have yet to fully appreciate that public messages on social media have the same legal character as if they were published in a newspaper – defamation and harassment laws apply online in just the same way as they do offline. Also, there have been experiences all over the world where people have been insulted and bullied using these media, and as we know, we have had extremely unfortunate incidents here along similar lines.
Some of these things have the character of growing pains, as soon as practice evolves and behavioural norms online become embedded, either through education or experience, some of this behaviour will mitigate. But there will always be some willing to use online media to bully, harass, or demean others. Government needs to be cognisant of the damage that these people can do, and be prepared to react in a proportionate manner.
Critically, social media or the internet didn’t lead to the invention of bullying or harassment; these behaviours existed long before that. However the nature of the internet, or at least of many of the sites involved, is such that some aggressors can either hide behind anonymity or are simply braver, or less caring, as to the effects of what they might say from the comfort and safety of their own home. For children these concerns are particularly critical; the web is their future, and social media are their media in a way that older generations will probably never be able to fully comprehend.
We must ensure that children are free to make the most positive use possible of the web, that they can take full advantage of the opportunities it offers as an educational and social tool. This will not happen if confidence in the web as a safe space for children is lost in the wider community.
The relative novelty of this area and the pervasive and broad nature of its implications pose significant challenges for governments the world over in terms of coming to terms with it however. To date, these media generally have not been subject to a formal regulatory regime akin to that used to ‘regulate’ traditional radio and television broadcast media, either in Ireland or in other jurisdictions. There is a range of reasons for this, even before you consider the challenge of keeping up with the rapidly evolving technologies involved.
The first main reason why governance in this area is so complex lies with the fact the internet governance is, and indeed has to be, conducted on a multi-jurisdictional basis. There is very little that countries can do on their own given the international basis of the web. Moreover, the system is largely operated on a multi-stakeholder model, with Governments as participants rather than controlling or ordering the process.
The second complicating factor around the governance of social media is the fact that they are, undeniably, media. This is not just due to the activity of ‘traditional’ media players in using social media, or even online media players; social media themselves are now important media players even when there are no journalists, or payment, in the picture – they are an integral part of a large and diverse media ecosystem. As such, Social Media is treated in much the same way as any media, with due consideration given to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights in any measure that might impact on it.
The third main reason for this is the breadth of the implications; many different areas of Government are affected by this phenomenon and have an involvement, but no single Department or agency can steer or manage it. As Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, I have policy responsibility for providing a supportive legislative and regulatory environment to facilitate the development of high quality communications infrastructure and services. However, I do not have sole responsibility for addressing as to how that infrastructure is used.
Responsibility for measures to deal with harassment and abuse online sits with the Minister for Justice and Equality, in much the same way as his Department deals with the same issues in the offline world. To that end, his Department has established an executive agency, the Office for Internet Safety that deals explicitly with online safety.
There are solutions to these issues however. In the first instance, children, parents and teachers all require support in terms of understanding the nature of the threats that can sometimes appear online. The Department of Education have already done some very positive work in this regard, including the publication of a new Action Plan and Bullying that includes some concrete measures on cyber bullying. The Office of Internet Safety, who will present shortly, also has a number of measures in place to this end which I will leave to them to explain. Non-government players also have a role – I note particularly the work of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals in this area.
There is also a set of robust legal measures in place for defamation, introduced as recently as 2009, which covers online comment. Similarly, Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997 deals with harassment. However, while this Act deals with direct communications with someone, it does not deal with communication ‘about’ someone and at present is apparently being interpreted in a very narrow sense by the courts. We have existing mechanisms to deal with the abuse of the postal or telephone system; the Communications Regulation (Amendment) Act 2007 introduced measures dealing with the use of the telephone system to send messages that are grossly offensive, or “… indecent, obscene or menacing”, or “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety to another person”.
However, it appears that there may be a gap in the legislation here in that electronic communications infrastructure is not covered by these measures and as such there is no specific mechanism available to the Gardai or the Courts to deal with the type of difficulties we have seen. (Not the case) My Department is presently considering ways of addressing any such issue.
This is not an easy task; there is a delicate balance to be struck between ensuring that the constitutional rights of the individual to freedom of speech and freedom of access to information are maintained, while at the same time introducing measures that can deal with this abuse in a timely and effective manner. Determining an appropriate threshold for offences to ensure that a slew of vexatious or frivolous complaints do not arise is a challenge. We have to be aware of these difficulties, and also to ensure that the questions of intent, credible threat and the degree of menace all receive due weighting. 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.
I am convinced that it is possible to ensure that people can gain the full benefit offered by social media, in their public and private lives, while being protected against harassment or bullying of any kind, if we remain open to appropriate and sensitive intervention. These interventions must tread the infinitesimally fine line between protecting individuals and ensuring that free speech, and free and open debate, are preserved. This is difficult, make no mistake, but it is a balance that we must strike again and again, in the light of new technologies.
I look forward to hearing the outcome of the rest of your discussions Chair, and I will consider and recommendations that you may have on the subject. I know that members will be wary of making sweeping recommendations given the complexity and importance of this area, but I am sure that the Committee will be able to engage constructively and sensitively in these issues.
I wish you well in your work.
Back again with Facebook and Twitter tomorrow Thursday, 7 March, 10 am
Wednesday, 13 March, 9:30 am: National Anti-Bullying Coalition
Wednesday, 20 March, 9:30 am: YouTube