Thursday 12 December 2019

Social media is 'like wild west and should require verified ID'

Cyberbullying is a persistent problem. Picture posed
Cyberbullying is a persistent problem. Picture posed

The lack of regulation on social media platforms is a "wild west scenario" that's "completely insane", a Government TD has claimed.

Colm Brophy made the remarks at the Oireachtas Justice Committee which was examining the issues of online harassment and cyberbullying.

The committee heard calls for social media sites to require age and identity verification.

Meanwhile, organisations like the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) and Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) raised concern over the sharing of explicit images by children and sexual harassment of people of all ages online.

Caroline Counihan of RCNI said that "effective regulation" has not kept pace with development in online technologies.


Mr Brophy said he believed the core of the problem was that "platforms are completely unregulated", adding: "We have a wild west scenario, which is completely insane."

He suggested that people sue the internet giants and "a few fairly substantial settlements" would see them "move very quickly".

Ms Counihan said she agreed victims should have the right to sue, but cautioned that this could place too much of the responsibility to act on victims who may say they don't care about the money and just want the content removed quickly.

She said the RCNI had argued "very strongly" for the planned digital safety commissioner to have powers to oversee take-down procedures.

Ms Counihan said she wouldn't rule out the idea of making directors of "rogue internet service providers" liable for failure to take down harmful material that's been notified to them "as a last resort".

Communications Minister Richard Bruton told RTE there will be a digital safety commissioner who enforces a code of conduct on internet companies "with severe penalties".

He added: "Where there is illegal content, and where a company becomes aware of illegal content, they already have an obligation to take it down, but what I'm dealing with will be things like harmful sexual content, bullying and things that don't constitute illegal offences."

He said the goal was to publish the outline of the law to create the office of a digital safety commissioner before Christmas.

ISPCC boss John Church said there needed to be a greater onus on companies like Facebook to verify the age of users.

Prof Joe Carthy of UCD's Centre for Cybersecurity said if social media platforms required users to prove their identity it would greatly diminish instances of cyberbullying and hate speech.

Fianna Fail TD Jack Chambers said the proliferation of fake accounts on social media was a "huge issue" and suggested legislation could be required, while identifying the cross- jurisdictional problems that could arise due to the nature of the internet.

The Dublin West TD said it appeared that most of the difficulties that arose online were due to "accounts that nobody can track or verify".

Mr Carthy suggested that if Ireland brought in such a law, "other countries will follow".


The head of the garda crime unit Chief Superintendent, Michael Gubbins, suggested that children and young people would find ways to get around age verification for social media sites. He was asked if the requirement would help tackle cyber bullying.

"You can have legislation that says you must verify your age and identity, but myself and my colleagues find on a daily basis you will have false IDs, passports and drivers' licences," he said. "If they want to, they will find a way around it."

Earlier, the committee was told a teenage girl wanted to take her own life after a former boyfriend shared images she sent him with others without her permission.

Mr Church said: "With these images circulating widely, this girl told Childline she could not face going back to school and was contemplating suicide."

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