Ireland

Social media giants refuse Irish minister’s request for better child protections

The Education Minister said there was ‘very robust engagement’ at the meeting.

Minister for Education Norma Foley and her officials met representatives from social media and phone companies
Pisa rankings Minister for Education Norma Foley and her officials met representatives from social media and phone companies (Niall Carson/PA)

Social media giants and phone companies have refused Ireland’s education minister’s request for greater measures to protect children online.

Minister for Education Norma Foley, a former secondary school teacher, had asked for greater controls from social media companies on age verification and for network companies to support parents in not buying phones for primary school children.

She emphasised that the Department was not anti-phone, and though social media was a “wonderful gift”, it comes with an “enormous responsibility and a duty of care”.

The minister and her officials met representatives from Meta, Google, Microsoft, TikTok, Three Ireland, Vodafone, Tesco and Ibec.

The social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, did not attend.

She said there was “very robust engagement” and a “very frank and open” discussion at the meeting, where ‘adult-to-child’ “sextortion”, recommendation algorithms, and AI were discussed.

“There were two that I was very keen to advance, and the first one was in the area of age verification,” Ms Foley said after the meeting.

“I’m very conscious that in particular, social media providers would tell us that they have a mandate around the 13 years of age, but I think we all know that there are children younger than 13 accessing these platforms.

“And I know it from my own experience, I know from engaging with parents, I know from engaging with schools, that they would identify it as a clear issue for them that there are children much, much younger than 13.

“I did seek an undertaking from them that they would facilitate age verification, whatever form that might take.

“I’m not prescriptive on the mechanism, but that we will have clear age verification because we know that children are well able to jump over that particular requirement. That wasn’t forthcoming at present.

“The other issue I very specifically raised, particularly with telecommunication representatives, was around their willingness to support in principle, the position we have taken in the Department of Education to support parents to hold off from purchasing smartphones for children while they’re at primary school.

“And again, I’d have to say, that wasn’t forthcoming at this point in time.”

When asked what the companies said as to why they would not commit to those requests, Ms Foley said that it was argued it was “a parent’s prerogative” to restrict smartphones for children.

“I absolutely accept that, and that’s why we’re working directly with parents,” the Kerry TD said.

“But they were not prepared to come out, in principle, to support the work that we’re doing in that area at this point, and I want to be fair around that, because they did commit to engage further.”

Representatives from Meta and other social media and phone service providers attended the meeting
Facebook demonstration Representatives from Meta and other social media and phone service providers attended the meeting (Brian Lawless/PA)

She said the companies raised concerns about how age verification would be done, and that a passport or a live selfie raised “privacy” concerns.

“I was clear, it’s not the mechanism, I’m not prescriptive on that. We just require a mechanism. I would need them to come forward with a type of mechanism, which wasn’t forthcoming at this point, a type of mechanism that would ensure categorically that the age verification is working.”

She added: “I think there can’t be an argument around age verification, I don’t think there could be an argument either around supporting in principle parents, as we encouraged them not to buy into the smartphone for younger children at primary school level.

“And then the other issues. So for example, other issues that have been raised with me, are around areas like sextortion, where we’re seeing that an adult can, if you like, trick a young person into providing explicit material and then there may well be efforts of financial extortion or whatever. That was raised.

“It was interesting to note as well, that there was a time when it was adult to adult, we’re now looking at adult to children. And I’m not saying that it is prolific everywhere, but it is an element that we must be aware of.

“Another issue that was flagged with me that I took the opportunity to raise today was around where images can be altered or distorted and the filtering of images and the lack of honesty or reality that applies to that and the impact from a wellbeing point of view that that can have on young people.”

She said that the ultimate responsibility in this area lies with Coimisiun na Mean, the newly established Irish regulator for broadcasters, on-demand services, and online media.

The body is establishing an online safety code for video-sharing platforms, for which public consultation has concluded.

Asked about how far the Irish government would push this, Ms Foley said that there is no one person or organisation to blame, but mentioned fines “up to 20 million euro, or 10% of profits” that could be imposed by the Coimisiun.

“There will be ramifications going forward for those who don’t invite themselves into the space.”