Last week’s proposals by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland that the Government should extend the quango’s powers to include the regulation of online video services, with the suggestion that regulators should be allowed to access and monitor the private communications of individual citizens if required, must surely rank as one of the worse examples of bureaucratic overreach that we have seen on this island in many years. It’s no wonder that the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and other concerned groups have reacted with alarm when an agency of the State is lobbying to police online activities, whether on relatively public platforms like YouTube and Facebook or on confidential platforms like Whatsapp and Snapchat. The BAI makes the latter ambition explicit when it argues that “investigators” from a proposed Online Safety Regulator (OSR) should have the right to examine and penalise the use of:
…both “open” online services (e.g. social media platforms) and “encrypted” online services (e.g. private messaging services).
In other words, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland or some branch of it would be authorised by law to force individuals to make encrypted messages on their phones or computers available for scrutiny by the authorities if concerns were raised about the possibility of libel or other controversial views being expressed in those electronic communications.
Naturally this is a system made for abuse by malcontents and the unscrupulous. Is your sulking ex-boyfriend hampered by a restraining order and finding it difficult to continue his sociopathic hassling of you? No problem! He simply needs to contact the regulator and claim that he is being libelled in Whatsapp messages between his former partner and her family and friends and then – boom! – along comes the investigators to sort things out. You don’t like that Instagram post from a dissatisfied customer offering a poor review of your business? No worries! Simply hit up that online complaint form and the next thing you know your unhappy customer is having her or his account opened up to an investigator, who might demand to see all of that person’s private internet activities just in case they’ve been repeating the same comments on other platforms.
Irish libel laws are some of the strictest in the world and we already have a wealth of rules governing illegal, threatening or defamatory behaviour, regardless of where it may take place. Adding a Big Brother element to these regulations is not about helping anyone or protecting anyone. It is about creating a cold house on the internet for a plurality of opinions and debate, about stifling free expression even if it is made in private messages between people. And it is about making us wary or outright frightened of the devices that we use to communicate with in the modern age.