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‘Days of self-regulation’ are over for Facebook, say Irish legislators

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According to a Press Association report, Facebook has been warned that its “days of self-regulation are over” as plans to create an online safety watchdog in Ireland accelerate.

In July investigative documentary series Dispatches showed Facebook moderators treating abusive, violent and racist content with leniency, even when the content explicitly violated its guidelines. In filmed incidents, moderators categorised a video of graphic physical assault against a child and a violent and explicitly racist meme as acceptable content. The documentary also found that some far-right pages were given special treatment by moderators due to the considerable revenue associated with them.

Now, Facebook has been labelled “incapable or unwilling” to deal with regulation following outcry regarding the issues depicted in the documentary.

Representatives from Facebook were called before the Oireachtas Communications Committee to answer questions provoked by the exposé. Niamh Sweeney, head of public policy at Facebook Ireland, and Siobhan Cummiskey, head of regional content policy, were told that Facebook’s ability to control extreme content had been “seriously questioned” as some people used the platform as a “tool of abuse” while the company generated revenue from illegal and abusive content.

“The trust and confidence to self-regulate has been shattered and badly damaged and questioned,” said Michel Lowry, an independent Teachta Dála (TD) to Sweeney and Cummiskey. “Would you accept the sheer numbers and level of diverse activity is making it impossible for you to control and self-regulate?”

A Sinn Fein TD, Brian Stanley, asked the representatives if they agreed that “the days of self-regulation are over”. Sweeney commented that Facebook was one of the most scrutinised companies in the world, to which Stanley responded that they were not the “most regulated”.

According to the Press Association, the committee of legislators will be proceeding with plans to establish a Digital Safety Commissioner – dedicated to preventing online abuse – in addition to other regulations relating to the protection of internet users.

“If [social media companies] can’t regulate themselves, we must do it for them,” said Hildegarde Naughton, chair of the committee, in a statement. “We will be writing to the Taoiseach [head of government] and the Minister for Communication, Denis Noughtan outlining the need to progress this legislation.”

“It was a positive and constructive engagement. We as a committee decided to pursue the bill and start a detailed scrutiny of that in autumn […] The clear signal here is that we need regulation and the fact that Facebook has its European headquarters in Dublin, we need to be leading the way on this and work out with our European counterparts in order to be progress this regulation.”

According to Naughton, the committee will be working with Irish MEPs, their counterparts across the EU and the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society to see how this could be regulated at a European level.

The Facebook representatives are due to reappear before TDs after an internal investigation into the moderation process, which was the responsibility of a contractor and which the representatives described themselves as being unhappy with.

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