Experts speaking at a seminar organised by the National Union of Journalists yesterday were critical of recently proposed social media laws, describing them as “bizarre” and “dangerous”.
Journalists attending the event at Liberty Hall in Dublin heard a thorough description of bills proposed by Labour’s Senator Lorraine Higgins and former Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte, before they were compared with existing Irish laws and similar laws in other countries.
The bills, Harmful And Malicious Electronic Communications Bill 2015 and Public Electronic Communications Networks (Improper Use) Bill, were both introduced in April and caused a ripple of concern in the online community.
The Harmful And Malicious Electronic Communications Bill 2015 states that if a person is found guilty of an offence, they could face up to twelve months in jail or a fine of €5,000. The Bill describes Harmful Electronic Communication in serious cases, such as a person who “incites or encourages another to commit suicide” or in vague terms like “intentionally or recklessly causes alarm”. The vague language of the Bill has been criticised, with commentators saying the Non Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 already covers these areas.
Dr Eoin O’Dell, Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin, gave the keynote speech this afternoon – A Question of Balance: Free Speech and Online Abuse. Dr O’Dell echoed concerns from April about the vague language used in the bills, saying they could possibly make matters worse. Referring to a section of Senator Higgins’ bill that would allow a court to make orders even when no crime had been committed, Dr O’Dell described it as “utterly bizarre”. He said that it would be likely that both bills would be found to be unconstitutional if they were enacted.
5. – (1) If on the evidence the court is not satisfied that the person should be convicted of an offence under sections (3) or (4), the court may nevertheless make any of the following upon application to it in that behalf if, having regard to the evidence, the court is satisfied that it is in the interest of justice so to order:
(a) that the person remove or delete specific electronic communication(s);(b) that the person shares an apology or correction as the court deems appropriate in the circumstances;(c) that the person shall not, for such period as the court may specify, communicate by any means with the other person or that the person shall not approach within such distance as the court shall specify of the place of residence or employment of the other person.
(5) A person who fails to comply with the terms of an order under this section shall be guilty of an offence.
(6) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €5000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both.
Harmful And Malicious Electronic Communications Bill 2015
Following the keynote speech, a panel discussion featured contributions from journalists Sinead O’Carroll and Karlin Lillington, writer Fiona Kenny and barrister Fergal Crehan, chaired by journalist Gerard Cunningham of the Dublin Freelance Branch. Attendees heard different methods of dealing with criticism and abuse online, trolling and internet safety as well as avenues available to victims of harassment and non-consensual image posting (described popularly in the media as “revenge porn”).
Mr Crehan continued Dr O’Dell’s points on existing laws and spoke of his role in a number of debates on the subject, which took place on RTÉ television. He repeated comments he made during these debates about misconceptions people have of the internet as some sort of lawless, digital Wild West and said that existing laws could tackle issues if they were actually used. Mr Crehan also said that it was just as dangerous to spread the belief that there are no laws in place as it would be if the laws did not exist.
[Images:Damian Synnott, author’s own]