Minister for Communications Richard Bruton has announced plans for new internet safety laws that would see the appointment of an Online Safety Commissioner with powers to prosecute and fine companies who break the rules.

The Online Safety Act would also give the new regulator the power to order internet and social media firms to take down content that breaches agreed codes of conduct.

This would include serious cyber-bullying, such as content which is seriously threatening, intimidating, harassing or humiliating.

Material which promotes self-harm or suicide, or that is designed to encourage prolonged nutritional deprivation leading to serious health damage or the risk of death, would also be forbidden.

Online operators would also have to draw up a safety code, which would outline what they are doing to keep their users safe.

This code would have to cover a range of issues, such as banning cyber-bullying material, as well as the provision of a complaints procedure that would enable people to request that material be taken offline within a certain amount of time.

It would also require safety to be designed into online platforms using technology and human intervention.

Under existing laws, online platforms must remove material which it is a criminal offence under Irish and EU law to disseminate.

This includes content that promotes incitement to violence or hatred, terrorist propaganda and child sexual abuse material.

But for some time online safety campaigners have been calling for tougher regulations to govern internet and social media firms, as well as the appointment of a Digital Safety Commissioner to enforce them.

And according to Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Richard Bruton, platforms will now have to take preventative steps to protect victims of such offences.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Mr Bruton said the act will establish a new regime with clear expectations for companies to keep their users safe.

He said parents cannot keep up with the rapid changes online and it was not sufficient to expect companies to self-regulate.

Mr Bruton said that companies can design these safeguards into how they run their platforms.

Mr Bruton said that elements of the act will be child specific and some of the take down powers will be clearly designed in that area, but it will also include protections for adult users.

He said that the Government was looking at the possibility of fining companies in breach of the laws, but added that in countries such as Australia, where similar acts have been introduced, there has been 100% compliance.

Mr Bruton added that the full powers to be given to the regulator have not been fully worked out.

The development has received a broad but cautious welcome from those involved in advocating for online safety.

"This announcement is a clear sign to industry that the age of self-regulation is over," said Tanya Ward, Chief Executive of the Children's Rights Alliance.

"The development of an Online Safety Act means that industry could be compelled to adopt the principle of ‘safety by design’. For far too long, providers have developed services and apps without considering the safety implications for children and young people."

CyberSafe Ireland said it had long campaigned for the need for greater regulation of the online service providers and it is delighted that the government has moved towards a more active position on implementing this.

"We believe that there is so much more that the online service providers could be doing particularly in relation to safeguards, including adhering to best practice around safety by design and by default as per the Council of Europe's recommendations on the digital rights of children in 2018," said Alex Cooney, CEO of the organisation.

"We have not yet seen the content of the bill but we hope that alongside regulation, we will see a strong educational remit given to this office, as is the case for the E-Safety Commissioner in Australia."

"The Australian E-Safety commissioner has as a core function, the remit to promote online safety for all citizens and to support, encourage, conduct, accredit and evaluate educational promotional and community awareness programmes that are relevant to online safety for Australians.

"We need an equally strong mandate for Ireland's Online Safety Commissioner."

The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) also welcomed the news, but said resources would be needed.

"It is imperative that any new regulator is adequately resourced in order to be able to sufficiently enforce their powers," said John Church, CEO of the ISPCC.

"Children deserve to be able to enjoy all of the learning, recreational and social benefits of being online – and while education programmes can be helpful in this regard, it is difficult for them to go far enough."

"The onus should be on industry and providers to ensure the Internet is a safe space. Children have a right to be protected and this protection extends to being online."

The minister is to hold a six week consultation period on the plans, after which draft proposals will be finalised and brought to cabinet.

Among the issues to be decided are how best to establish the office of the Online Safety Commissioner.

One option under consideration includes the establishment of a new Media Commission by restructuring the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, with the Online Safety Commissioner as an office within it.

The other option on the table is the creation of two regulatory bodies, including a restructured BAI.

It would be given responsibility for regulating content subject to editorial control, such as traditional TV and radio broadcasting, as well as on-demand audiovisual media services. 

A separate online safety regulator would also be set-up to oversee online content not subject to editorial controls, including social media and video sharing platforms.

The government proposals also envisage the new commissioner taking on responsibilities for the application of European law to video sharing. 

The Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMS) requires major alterations to how Ireland regulates audio visual content, both offline and online, including on-demand services like RTÉ Player, Virgin Media Player and iTunes.

These include ensuring video sharing platforms, like YouTube, have sufficient measures like age verification and parental controls in place.

It also means such services will have to have a complaints mechanism in place.

Facebook has welcomed today's announcement saying they support its "stated aim".

"Our priority is to make Facebook a safe place for people of all ages, which is why we work closely with safety experts, including the National Anti-Bullying Centre at DCU, and have spent many years developing a range of tools to help people have a positive experience on Facebook.

"We very much welcome the consultation Minister Bruton has launched today and support its stated aim of achieving a proportionate and effective approach to dealing with harmful content online.

"We also welcome his focus on defining "harmful" communications in such a way that does not curtail legitimate free of speech and freedom of expression online."