Tech company executives could face criminal charges and see access to their platforms blocked in Ireland if they repeatedly flout incoming internet safety laws.
Media Minister Catherine Martin has said the new Online Safety Commissioner will have “real teeth” to tackle non-compliance, with fines of 20 million euro in place, and tougher punishments for repeat offenders.
Ms Martin has also said she wants to see the “scourge” of anonymous online accounts who post abusive messages – sometimes known as trolls – dealt with under the forthcoming legislation.
The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill will establish a Media Commission, including the Online Safety Commissioner, which aims to recruit 300 staff and will tackle harmful content including cyberbullying, criminality, gambling and services promoting eating disorders, self-harm, or suicide.
“It will have real teeth, it will have a range of compliance and enforcement powers” Ms Martin said on Wednesday.
“That includes, I suppose, the powers to audit, to investigate, to acquire the provision of further information, reporting requirements.
“If a service is suspected to be non compliant, the Commission can appoint officers to investigate this.
“Those officers will have significant powers, and that includes obtaining search warrants, to question people under oath.
“Upon receipt of a report of an authorised officer the Commission, if it is decided the service is non compliant, they could receive that financial penalty of 20 million or 10%, whichever is higher.”
If services remain non-compliant, the Minister said the Commission “could hold individual executives responsible, criminally liable.”
She added: “So they would face court, and they (the Commission) could seek court approval to then block access to that service in Ireland.”
Ms Martin said the she hopes to bring the legislation before the Dail in the coming weeks, adding “as quickly as possible.”
She said she envisions it will be “rolling legislation”, with the first bill to establish the Online Safety Commissioner and further measures to follow.
Among those could be regulation of anonymous online accounts, which Ms Martin said could be dealt with by the forthcoming Media Commission.
She said: “As someone involved in politics, those anonymous accounts, as many journalists here will be aware of as well due to due to your occupation, it’s an absolute scourge.
“I would foresee and envisage that this is something that the Media Commission will seek to tackle as it deals with those platforms.”
The legislation also provides for regulation of “private communications services”, which would encompass all platforms which provide private messaging including WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even dating apps such as Tinder.
Ms Martin said the threshold for use of this provision was that it relates to “criminal content” such as incitement to hatred, image based abuse, harassment, posting offensive messages, assault and child sex abuse material.
The legislation will also see the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) dissolved, with the Media Commission taking over its duties of regulating television and radio broadcasts.
It will also have responsibility for regulating online streaming platforms and video-on demand services.