DUBLIN — Jeremy Godfrey will soon have immense powers to police social media. He’s just not quite sure how he’s going to do it.
Working from a nondescript building a mere stone’s throw from the offices of many of the tech giants now under his oversight, Godfrey is nine months into his tenure as executive chairman of Ireland’s Coimisiún na Meán, or Media Commission. The newly created regulator is on the front line of enforcing the European Union’s new social media rules, known as the Digital Services Act (DSA), as many of the companies under its purview — like Google and TikTok — have their European headquarters in the Irish capital.
But ahead of early next year, when the Commission’s powers — including levying potentially hefty fines for infractions — take effect, Godfrey and his team of 75 regulators are still figuring out how it’s all going to work.
The Irish watchdog’s remit covers everything from overseeing the country’s broadcasting industry to enforcing EU-wide online terrorism regulations. It also must coordinate with other European regulators on policing the bloc’s online content rulebook. It will share powers with Brussels on many aspects of the world-first social media legislation, which aims to quell the spread of hate speech and disinformation on the world’s largest online platforms.
“It’s a collaborative effort,” Godfrey, a British citizen who has spent more than 30 years in government roles — first in the United Kingdom, then in Hong Kong, and finally in Ireland since 2013 — told POLITICO at the agency’s headquarters, located next to rundown terraced housing and a children’s playground in the eastern part of Dublin.
“The question of the precise roles and responsibilities of the [European] Commission versus ourselves when it comes to supervision is something that still will need to be worked out,” he added. “It’s going to take a bit of time.”
But time is not on the Irish regulator’s side.
On February 17, the watchdog will be given extended powers as a so-called Digital Services Coordinator, alongside other agencies across the bloc. Such national entities are empowered to act under the EU’s social media rules, including policing domestic online activity and working across borders — and with the European Commission — on thorny questions linked to illegal content and potential digital foreign interference.
“None of us want to duplicate what others are doing,” said Godfrey. “There’s no sense in having a turf war.”
The devil is in the detail
So far, few countries beyond Ireland, France and Italy have tapped a national regulator to fill the Digital Services Coordinator role.
Under the online content rulebook’s complex structure, these agencies will work via a pan-European board on both EU-wide and domestic digital issues. Several of these appointed watchdogs have met regularly since last summer to coordinate how outsiders can flag potential harmful content on platforms and how EU citizens can make formal complaints — both requirements under the bloc’s content rules.
The European Commission’s separate enforcement team will equally have regulatory powers for so-called very large online platforms, a designation that includes firms like Meta and Amazon. In a sign of things to come, Brussels announced an agreement last month with its content-policing team and those from Ireland and France in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict that had spilled out online. That relationship may evolve into official joint investigatory teams on specific content issues, according to two EU officials who were granted anonymity to speak about ongoing deliberations.
“You’re doing things for the first time, and you learn from that,” Godfrey said when asked about how the new pan-EU enforcement system would work. “It’s not a great idea to try and sit around in meeting rooms for a year trying to think about every scenario that might happen.”
Faced with this uncertainty, the Irish regulator is staffing up, thanks to €7.5 million earmarked from the country’s government.
Since March, the agency has almost doubled, to approximately 75 individuals, with a goal of doubling that figure again, to 160 regulators, by the end of the first quarter of next year. By the end of 2024, Godfrey said he wanted up to 250 personnel on his books, although not everyone would be focused on social media. In comparison, the European Commission has about 120 people in its content enforcement team.
Such hiring does not come without controversy.
Given Ireland’s aggressive courting of U.S.-based tech giants — primarily via lucrative tax incentives — critics across the EU allege Dublin has become too cozy with these firms.
The Media Commission has recruited staff from other national agencies, including John Evans, a former telecom regulator, as the agency’s point man on European coordination. But the four as-yet unnamed individuals who will oversee the daily supervision and investigations of digital platforms under the Commission’s remit all come from industry, according to Godfrey.
Johnny Ryan, director of enforcement at the local nonprofit Irish Council for Civil Liberties and an outspoken critic of how the country’s privacy regulator has enforced EU-wide data protection rules, said many tech executives working in Dublin had become disillusioned with Silicon Valley and were now looking to use their expertise to hold these firms to account.
“If a person with the right knowledge is in charge of enforcement, then that could be a very positive thing,” he said.