Belfast Telegraph

View from Dublin: Role of scrutinising tech now falls to Ireland

Ireland Communications Minister Richard Bruton
Ireland Communications Minister Richard Bruton

By Samantha McCaughren

A version of the old adage 'with great power comes great responsibility' could be applied to the position the Irish Government finds itself in with several of the US tech giants right now.

Politicians have greeted the thousands of jobs created by YouTube-owner Google and Facebook with open arms.

But the vast responsibility that comes with those hot new internet giants choosing Ireland for their European headquarters is just now becoming apparent.

For many years, the EU has applied the 'country of origin' principle to traditional television services, also called audio-visual services. The principle means that stations must follow the rules of the country where they are based.

It's why you see hard-sell betting ads on some UK channels available in the Republic, but would never see those ads on RTE or Virgin Media. Under a Europe-wide regulation called the Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) Directive, the stations headquartered in Ireland abide by the rules as interpreted by the Irish regulator, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI).

It doesn't matter where these stations are watched - the Irish rules apply.

The AVMS Directive was originally established in 2010 but the way people watch content has been radically transformed since then. The internet has opened up ways of watching video material that could barely have been imagined eight or 10 years ago.

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Anyone who has seen an eight-year-old engrossed in so-called unwrapping videos on YouTube will know that what we traditionally understood to be TV or audio-visual entertainment has been changed forever.

Technology has - as it always does - outpaced regulation. But just what this means for Ireland has only started to become clear in the past year. The revised AVMS Directive, agreed with EU member states, put a huge weight of responsibility on Ireland. Given that Google, Facebook and Twitter have their European headquarters here, it will fall to us to regulate their video content for the EU under the long-accepted country of origin principle. The scale of the task is not something that the Department of Communications underestimates.

Indeed, Ireland Communications Minister Richard Bruton's (below) briefing notes indicate this responsibility is a cause of concern. During the revised AVMS Directive negotiations, the extent of regulation was expanded significantly and this was naturally a cause of concern for officials.

"Ireland was opposed to the extension of the scope of this Directive regarding VSPS (video sharing platform services such as YouTube) beyond what has been proposed by the commission," state the briefing notes.

"Ireland stressed that this was not because we were in principle opposed to the objectives of the extension.

"Rather, Ireland was opposed to the extension because of the distinct lack of clarity regarding what services are to be regulated, and what the practical impact of this will be."

Ireland isn't keen on taking on all of the responsibility, but it has fallen to us nonetheless.

So which body will regulate these new social media giants, where hundreds of millions of video hours are viewed across Europe every day?

It was revealed two weekends ago that the BAI submission to government outlines how it should become the enlarged Media Commissioner to regulate the EU's video content.

It would also take in Ireland's Online Media Commissioner, under proposals in the submission to Bruton.

The BAI, which was responsible for implementing the previous AVMS rules, has been engaging with regulators across the EU on its proposals and pressure is mounting on Ireland to push ahead with its obligations. The BAI presented this proposal to fellow EU regulators just over a week ago, and has also met with Facebook and other tech companies on the matter for informal talks.

While it will fall to the department to make a decision on the form of the regulator and it may opt for something completely new, the BAI has already been working extensively on this project. Google, RTE and many others have backed the BAI to become the new regulator.

Critics of the BAI - and there are plenty - feel it has not been tough enough on a range of Irish media matters, from media ownership to ongoing deficits at RTE.

They say that the BAI does not have enough muscle to take on the might of the internet giants.

There may be some truth in these criticisms. The BAI does not have the type of experience needed to take on a video content regulation job of this scale. But what organisation does?

This is new territory for Ireland and for the EU. Regardless of the make-up of the new regulator, the huge onus now falls on the Government to ensure that it has a well-resourced and capable watchdog to take on this first attempt at overseeing social media content.

Belfast Telegraph