Why Online Safety is a workers’ rights issue

“We should ensure that health and safety measures in all workplaces
take account of our mental health”

Ciaran Moore: Both the Dáil and Westminster are currently examining laws to deal with Online Safety, and examining ways to regulate the internet companies which have such a huge impact on our lives. Yet the debates in both parliaments miss out on a key issue – the workers who help make the internet safer.

Facebook whistleblowers have given evidence on the known impact of the company’s products both on our democracies and on the mental health of users, in particular young people. It is important that the regulation in Ireland and the UK doesn’t merely identify content which is harmful, but also the practices of companies such as Facebook, Google or TikTok in designing algorithms that put content onto our phones and computers which can cause harm – whether it is cyberbullying, suicide or self-harm promotion.  This is a complex area where rights to expression and freedom of speech need to be balanced against the impact of large amounts of distressing content delivered to vulnerable people. But some of the most vulnerable people in our communities need more support than is there at present, and the establishment of an Online Safety Commissioner is an important and welcome step.

“A key part of this discussion has been overlooked – the impact of reviewing problematic material on the workers who are performing this important task.”

A key part of this discussion has been overlooked – the impact of reviewing problematic material on the workers who are performing this important task. The content moderators who work on behalf of Facebook gave evidence to an Oireachtas committee earlier this year – they spoke of the impact of non-disclosure agreements and outsourced contracts where they were not allowed to tell their partners who they worked for, or what they did in their jobs. They lacked supports for their own mental health while they dealt with hugely distressing material day in and day out.

In their submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee looking at the regulation of internet service providers, the mental health charity I work for proposed that the regulated bodies should be audited for how they supported the workers who kept their platforms safe, in the same way they would be audited for handling complaints on time or removing illegal content. This would both be for the benefit of those workers, and for the benefit of users of the platforms who rely on these workers not being desensitised or burnt out as they handle complaints about material online.

In the same way that other industries have sector-specific health and safety issues in respect of which there needs to be regulation, the mental health of both the users and the workers on these platforms need to be protected.

“Our union does and will fight for mental health to be included in health and safety assessments”

The union movement has led on the development of health and safety standards in a wide range of industries – whether it be proper breaks for transport drivers, proper training and protective gear in construction, or the huge drive around Covid that our health and safety committees and representatives have been at the heart of. As many workers have shifted from working collectively to working from home the informal supports to our mental health, the colleague who would suggest a cuppa after a hard meeting, are no longer available, and the risks to the mental health of many workers have increased. Our union does and will fight for mental health to be included in health and safety assessments, and the ICTU has recently published an important policy paper on this.

This is why the struggle for supports for content moderators as part of the regulation of the internet giants should be supported by all trade unionists.  Regulating the large companies which determine what we, our children and our communities see when we are online is important for all of us. We all benefit by ensuring that the mental health of workers is protected, and when a worker’s health is at risk the onus is on their beneficial employer to put the necessary safeguards and protections in place.

The recent Pre-Legislative Scrutiny report from the Committee failed to recommend that these workers should be supported in the proposed legislation. We should call on politicians in the Dáil and Westminster to include the protection of the workers who are employed to keep our internet safe in their plans to regulate the sector, and we should ensure that health and safety measures in all workplaces take account of our mental health.

Ciaran Moore works for a mental health charity and is Chairperson of Unite’s Des Bonass 102 Branch.

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