Scepticism about plans to make social media directors liable for allowing harm

Senior figures in Government have privately expressed scepticism about plans to make directors of social media companies personally criminally liable for content on their platforms.

The plans were discussed on Wednesday by Minister for Culture and Media Catherine Martin and Fianna Fail senators.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, several senior Government figures said they thought the prospect of senior executives in social media companies being jailed was remote, and they expected the draft legislation would not be significantly toughened during the legislative process.

But Fianna Fail senator Malcolm Byrne, who has championed efforts to strengthen the bill, said the “goal is not to have a load of prosecutions – it’s to change the culture of these companies”.

Mr Byrne and fellow senator Shane Cassells met Ms Martin to discuss proposed amendments which would toughen the planned online safety bill, published by Ms Martin’s department in January.

While the Minister’s spokesman pointed out there is already a provision of the bill which could be used to extend criminal liability to directors of social media companies, the amendments proposed by the senators would make a prosecution much easier and more likely.

Under the current draft, social media company directors could be prosecuted, but only when they have ignored specific instructions from the new Media Commission. Changes proposed by the Fianna Fail senators would make it possible to prosecute directors if they knowingly or recklessly allowed their platforms to be used for online harm.

Ms Martin told the senators she was happy to consider amendments and work with them to achieve a shared goal.

Mr Byrne said the draft legislation “is nowhere near as strong as it needs to be”. He said if the algorithms used by social media companies deliberately directed people to harmful content – he cited the example of girls being directed to sites which promoted eating disorders – then the directors should be criminally liable.

Spokespersons for Facebook and Twitter declined to comment.

The minister’s spokesman said she would like to see the bill enacted before the summer recess. He declined to give details of any meetings that Ms Martin had with the social media giants on the bill, but the lobbying register shows she was lobbied by both Twitter and Facebook.

The social media giants are expected to strongly oppose the director liability measures in the bill. Sources say they are likely to press the case with the Government that such provisions would harm Ireland’s image among tech companies as a destination for inward investment. Many of the world’s leading tech companies have European headquarters in Dublin, and pay hundreds of millions of euros in corporation tax to the Irish exchequer every year.

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