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‘Dismay’ as algorithms not covered by online safety code

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The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has said it is dismayed that “toxic” algorithms which push harmful content into the feeds of social media users are not covered by an updated draft Online Safety Code published today.

The media regulator, Coimisiún na Meán, has released the updated code which will be submitted to the European Commission for assessment.

Recommender systems are algorithms that determine what social media users see based on personal data such as search history, past purchases, age and location.

Campaign groups and researchers have warned that these algorithms often result in inappropriate content appearing in users’ feeds promoting things like hate, extremism, eating disorders and self-harm.

Consultations were held on including a recommender system safety plan in the Online Safety Code but this has not happened.

Coimisiún na Meán said that while it recognises that recommender systems can have harmful impacts on users, especially children, it will be best able to tackle the potential dangers of these systems through its implementation of the EU’s set of online safety rules known as the Digital Services Act.

“The European Commission recently opened investigations into TikTok and Meta which related in part to their recommender systems and their impact on children and young people under the Digital Services Act,” the regulator said.

“Coimisiún na Meán is supporting the European Commission in its investigations as the Digital Services Coordinator in Ireland,” it added.

Dr Johnny Ryan, a senior fellow at the ICCL, said the council is dismayed that toxic algorithms are not included in the updated Online Safety Code, and that it appears the European Commission has blocked Ireland from reining in Big Tech.

“We are every week hearing new scandals about the harm these systems cause to our teens by promoting suicide and self-loathing,” Dr Ryan said.

“We are seeing how these systems turn communities against each other, which is so important now that we are facing an election across Europe and elections across member states.”

“And we’re particularly dismayed because in this case, it is Ireland that was leading by reining in Big Tech,” he added.

Speaking on RTÉ’s News At One, Dr Ryan said while the Digital Services Act was EU law it is “a very partial one.”

“What was on the way in December was a very elegant, simple, world-leading measure that would address toxic recommender systems across all of these platforms at a stroke, and it would put users in charge.”

Dr Ryan said relying on the new Digital Services Act, people would be waiting a long time “probably for very little.”

“So, we had a moment where there was consensus about what to do, and something changed. We do not know why there was this U-turn, but I suspect this is quite a significant problem.”

Online safety charity CyberSafeKids welcomed the publication of the updated Online Safety Code, but expressed concerns that some elements of the code are not specific enough and will allow video-sharing platform services (VSPs) to continue to largely self-regulate.

“We know historically that this simply won’t work,” CyberSafeKids said in a statement.

“For example, in relation to complaints, the VSPs are simply required to respond to user complaints in a “timely, diligent and objective manner” – these terms lack the specific parameters we believe are necessary,” the charity said.

TikTok concerns

In a previous submission to Coimisiún na Meán about the Online Safety Code, video-sharing platform TikTok highlighted concerns that elements of the code overlap and conflict with the Digital Services Act.

“TikTok believes a core impact of the additional national requirements proposed is that such additional requirements clearly overlap with, conflict or go beyond matters falling within the scope of the Digital Services Act,” the platform said in its submission.

“To create overlap or conflict between the two regimes would be contrary to the harmonised approach mandated and required by the DSA.

“For example, we note that An Coimisiún has raised the clear possibility in the potential supplementary measures of providing guidance on the use of recommender systems which goes significantly further than, and is in conflict with, the DSA approach on recommender systems,” TikTok said.

Fines of up to €20 million

The Online Safety Code is due to come into force later this year and will apply to video-sharing platforms that have their EU headquarters in Ireland.

The code will be legally binding, and platforms will face fines of up to €20 million for breaches of the rules.

Social media firms will have to protect children from specific types of harmful online material including cyberbullying, as well as content that promotes eating disorders and self-harm or suicide.

Platforms will have to prevent the uploading or sharing of a range of illegal content, including incitement to hatred or violence.

Tech companies will have to use age assurance to prevent children from encountering pornography or gratuitous violence online.

They will also have to provide parental controls for content which may impair the physical, mental, or moral development of children under 16.

Coimisiún na Meán is also responsible for the Irish implementation of the Digital Services Act.

The DSA requires big tech firms to do more to police illegal and harmful content on their platforms, including restricting the spread of disinformation, quickly removing illegal content and better protecting children using the internet.

The Online Safety Code will run alongside the DSA and form part of Ireland’s overall internet safety framework.

Disinformation not covered by the code

Disinformation is not covered specifically by the draft code.

Coimisiún na Meán said that when disinformation crosses the threshold of being illegal content covered by the DSA, or regulated content under the draft code, platforms must prevent it being uploaded or shared.

“Under the draft code, platforms also have to promote media literacy for their users, and publish reports on their efforts. Media literacy can help users to recognise disinformation, minimising its harmful effects,” the regulator said.

“The Digital Services Act has further obligations for the largest platforms to assess and mitigate the risks their services present in areas such as electoral integrity and public health, which will help to address the impacts of disinformation and misinformation,” it added.

What platforms are covered?

In January, Coimisiún na Meán named the ten video-sharing platforms that will be covered by the Online Safety Code.

They are Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Udemy, TikTok, LinkedIn, X, Pinterest, Tumblr and Reddit.

Tumblr and Reddit have both taken High Court actions against Coimisiún na Meán arguing that they should not be designated as video-sharing platforms.

Although Snapchat is incredibly popular among young people, it is not included on the list of designated platforms.

This is because it does not have its EU headquarters in Ireland.

Asked about regulating Snapchat, Coimisiún na Meán has said it will be working closely with its regulatory counterparts in other EU member states to hold platforms to account for how they keep their users safe.

What led to this latest draft of the code?

A call for inputs from the public and interested stakeholders in respect of the approach to the development of the code and the harms that should be addressed received 55 responses.

Coimisiún na Meán procured an expert report from PA Consulting on online harms.

A public survey was also commissioned as well as a public consultation on the previous draft code which attracted 1,400 responses.

“The volume of responses to the public consultation underlined the importance of finalising a Code which provides for enhanced safety for children and the public at large online, which sets out proportionate and effective interventions, and which can work alongside our powers under the DSA,” Coimisiún na Meán said.

The Online Safety Commissioner, Niamh Hodnett, said the updated code is an important step forward to hold platforms to account for keeping people safe online.

“It takes account of responses to our public consultation and our consultation with our Youth Advisory Committee,” Ms Hodnett said.

“We are now notifying the Code to the European Commission and once that process is complete we will apply it later this year.”

Executive Chairperson of Coimisiún na Meán, Jeremy Godfrey said the commission will ensure that it uses its full range of powers to improve people’s online experiences.

“Alongside our powers under the EU Digital Services Act and Terrorist Content Online Regulation, the Online Safety Code will give us a strong suite of tools to improve people’s lives online,” Mr Godfrey said.

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