A new definition of harmful online content is being developed, with a draft due to be ready later this autumn.

Members of Coimisiún na Meán are appearing before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media this afternoon.

The body replaces the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and is also required to establish a regulatory framework for online safety.

Sinn Féin TD Imelda Munster asked those in attendance how soon we would see a definition for harmful online content.

Commissioner for Online Safety Niamh Hodnett said that a public consultation had taken place recently, from which 50 submissions were received.

Ms Hodnett said they were reviewing those responses with a view to delivering a definition later this autumn.

She said the focus of the online safety code in terms of harmful content covers; "protection of minors, incitement to hatred, xenophobic and racist content, CSAM (Child Sex Abuse Material) and terrorism".

Ms Hodnett said that a clear definition will be in place later in the autumn and it will then seek responses.

She said after that a binding safety code will be issued, which will be compulsory for all online platforms to comply with.

Fine Gael Senator Micheál Carrigy said he felt age verification was of vital importance when it came to social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat.

Ms Hodnett said Coimisiún na Meán is considering various ways of protecting children, such as setting time limits, geo-location being set to off, privacy settings being set to on, and no contact with strangers.

She said these things should potentially be the default settings.

These measures will be consulted on, she said, and based on the responses received, could be included in the final code.

Ms Hodnett said that age verification did form part of the public consultation launched last July, but that there was no silver bullet when it came to checking a child's age.

"Clearly self-identification or asking a child to declare their age is not an effective form of age verification under any measure," she said.

Ms Hodnett said some platforms are using age estimation using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to gauge a child's age, and at the upper end of the spectrum, Ms Hodnett said there was a requirement for what she termed "hard age verification" to access age-inappropriate content such as pornography.

There would be a requirement for a Government ID and a selfie likeness attached to access such content.

She said there is also a role when it comes to empowering parents and children to make safe choices, and informed choices when it comes to use of social media by young people.

Committee hears about use of algorithms

The committee also heard questions regarding the use of algorithms by the larger social media and video-sharing platforms.

Ms Hodnett explained that another topic included in the consultation last July was the amplification of harmful content.

Coimisiún na Meán has been designated as Ireland's Digital Services Coordinator and will be responsible for the enforcement of nearly all of the EU rules under the Digital Services Act in respect of platforms based in Ireland.

Executive Chairman of the Coimisiún, Jeremy Godfrey, said under the EU Digital Services Act, people have rights not to be recommended content based on profiling the user.

Another measure under consideration is requiring that platforms do not push a sort of "toxic feed".

Mr Godfrey said a piece of content in isolation might not be harmful, eg an item about beauty that is targeted at young girls. But when the algorithm keeps recommending more content along the same topic, that is when girls might become susceptible to eating and feeding disorders, for example.

He said "it's not so much the individual pieces they see, it's the relentless stream of content that's doing that.

"So, one of the things we're thinking about, is not should the algorithm be on or off, but is there a way of requiring providers to make sure their algorithms are safe?"

No final decision has been made regarding algorithms, he said, but that will form part of the online safety code.

Ms Hodnett said the Code would cover online video-sharing platforms and it would be imposing more detailed obligations on those video-sharing services.

She said there would be obligations on the platform to "think about safety by design when they're designing a recommender system or an algorithm to consider potentially ... whether there should be a safety assessment to consider the implications of a particular algorithm so the obligations will be on the platforms to ensure that they’re addressing the amplification of harmful or toxic content online."

Regarding the recent controversies in RTÉ, Broadcasting Commissioner, Celene Craig, said she wanted to put it on the record that "the events as they've unfolded in RTÉ in the last few months have been a source of great regret for Coimisún na Meán, and we are very concerned about public trust, it's absolutely vital [to have] a trusted public service broadcaster because of the contribution it makes to democratic discourse."

Ms Craig said they would await the outcome of the various reviews to take a position on the appropriate funding going forward.