Belfast Telegraph

Social media firms to be fined for contempt over prejudicial posts as Republic of Ireland gets tough

By Cormac McQuinn

Social media companies face the prospect of unlimited fines in Irish courts if they fail to remove posts which risk prejudicing criminal trials.

Landmark legislation to be published this week in Dublin will push responsibility for online content back onto tech giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter rather than the individual who posts it.

Both the Irish Supreme Court and the Law Reform Commission have previously called for contempt of court to be defined in legislation, as it is in the UK.

The Bill, written by Fine Gael TD Josepha Madigan, aims to provide clarity to judges who are struggling to deal with contempt of court issues.

Under proposals going before the Dail tomorrow, the courts will be able to force companies to remove or prevent the publication of prejudicial content. It will be left to trial judges to decide the level of fine imposed if a company fails to comply.

Ms Madigan, who is also a solicitor, said she is concerned social media is not being treated in the same manner as traditional media. "We need to protect juries from being influenced in any adverse or prejudicial way," she said.

Her Bill will give the law on contempt of court statutory footing for the first time.

"It protects the balance between the right to free speech and the right to a fair trial."

During the summer, then-chief justice Susan Denham indicated that new procedures were needed in relation to how contempt of court laws apply to posts on social media.

She said courts in the Republic rarely had to use contempt of court laws to curb inaccurate and disruptive online communications about cases. But she added: "It would be naive of us not to plan for the future in this regard."

Ms Justice Denham continued that the right to a fair trial didn't change "in the face of any new means of communications" and that the rules "can and must reflect the new reality".

Ms Madigan's Contempt of Court Bill 2017 gives judges powers to direct that material which risks prejudicing court proceedings be removed from websites.

They would also be able to order that the website's operators take steps that the court deems "reasonably necessary" to prevent the publication of such posts. Failure to comply with such orders would be contempt of court.

The penalty for individuals found to be in contempt of court after they made posts on social media would be imprisonment or a fine. Websites could be found to be in contempt notwithstanding the fact that their administrators were not responsible for the original posting of the material. Internet providers may be ordered to block access to the offending sections of the website, under the proposed law.

Among defences allowed for in the Bill is if the website's operators could show they went "beyond what is reasonably necessary" to prevent the publication of material prejudicial to a case.

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