While there are plenty of nonprofit organizations dedicated to tackling the problem of online bullying, national governments have been slower to react with official initiatives.
That’s slowly changing. Ireland has created a new regulatory watchdog with the mission of policing social media to keep children safe online.
At the direction of Ireland’s parliamentary Law Reform Commission, which produced a series of recommendations in its “Report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety” issued last year, the government has appointed a “Digital Safety Commissioner.”
The office is empowered to force online media companies to remove material that it judges endangers the well-being of children.
The commissioner’s remit covers a range of online activities, including “revenge porn,” online stalking and harassment, such as threatening messages, and posting of images and videos taken without their subjects’ consent (e.g. “up-skirt” photos”).
A new law passed last month, also at the recommendation of the Law Reform Commission, made posting this kind of material a criminal offense. The law established varying penalties for individuals committing these offenses, ranging up to seven years in prison for revenge porn offenses, and six months for posting voyeuristic images.
In addition to criminal penalties for individuals, the Digital Safety Commissioner can obtain a court order requiring online platforms, including social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, to remove the offending material.
However, the subject of the harassment or abuse, or a responsible guardian, must first contact the company directly and ask it to remove the material. The commissioner will only take action if the company fails to comply with this initial request.
The Digital Safety Commissioner will also be responsible for public information campaigns to educate young people about responsible online citizenship, as well as the threat of criminal penalties for violating the new law.
In a statement announcing the creation of the office in the Irish Independent, the Communications Minister Denis Naughten addressed likely objections on the grounds of free speech: “Of course, there will be those who claim this is akin to censorship and an attack on the freedom of speech. But I will not accept there is a place in this digital world for those who wish others dead; disfigured; raped ... and the list goes on.”As noted, the idea of legal penalties for online harassment has been gaining momentum recently.
In January, for example, the Japanese government amended an existing anti-stalking law to make online stalking and bullying criminal activities punishable with jail time.
The amended version of the law criminalizes actions, including sending messages repeatedly via social media, to recipients who don’t want to receive them, as well as repeatedly commenting on blogs and social media accounts against their wishes.
The previous version of the law only concerned stalking behavior carried out via email.