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Kick the question of online safety to a citizens’ assembly?

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This post originally appeared in The Times (Ireland Edition), April 23rd 2019

Richard Bruton, the communications minister, announced the introduction of a new online safety act on March 4. No text was produced — not even the outline of a bill — but rather a six-week consultation period, which has just closed. This is the latest in a series of half-steps and U-turns by this government in attempting to regulate social media. There have been policy debates and action plans, but little actual legislation.

When it comes to online safety, two things are clear. On the one hand, “something must be done”. On the other, nobody knows quite what. A good start would be a commitment to social science research, and a substantial campaign to raise public awareness, but no politician is going to propose anything quite as boring, sensible and expensive as that.

Hildegarde Naughton, chairwoman of the communications committee, recently suggested that Facebook users prove their identity by supplying their PPS numbers to the social media giant. This misguided idea was shot down last year by no less than the taoiseach after it was proposed by Jim Daly, another Fine Gael TD.

Consequently, I do not hold out much hope for this Online Safety Act. Besides, even if it makes it out of the Oireachtas before the next election, legislating to remove content that is deemed harmful but not actually illegal seems likely to end up in the Supreme Court. Hence we will have many more years of unworkable kneejerk reactions, and lots more heavy lobbying.

My proposal, as submitted to the consultation, is simple. Online safety has been kicked into touch several times, so why not really put the boot in and kick it into the stand? Let’s have a citizens’ assembly. It worked for other tricky subjects.

The inherent focus of citizens’ assemblies has been citizens’ rights, which have been somewhat lacking in debates about “harmful content”. We should be asking how we can protect citizens from harm while upholding free expression.

A citizens’ assembly would let government bring in the global experts and have them explain the advantages and disadvantages of various solutions. It would also allow daft ideas to be forensically dissected, without the government having to entertain them for the benefit of tabloid sensationalism. Crucially, such a setting should allow for children’s voices to be heard. These were noticeably absent during the debate over the digital age of consent.

There is no shame in not being able to fix the internet. The real shame is the political prevarication.

Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon is author of The Psychology of Social Media, Routledge, €12.99

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