Dáil debates

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017: Report and Final Stages


4:00 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour) | Oireachtas source

People will know this Bill has been a long time in gestation since I introduced it three years ago. Technology has changed as well and so we need to look very carefully at every aspect of it. All of the debate thus far on the Bill has focused on the sharing of intimate images. That element is only one part of the Bill but a very important part, and one that has come into greater focus in recent times because of the terrible harm that is being done by the sharing of intimate images. The other element of the Bill is online bullying and harassment, which, as we have heard, has literally driven young people like Nicole Fox to suicide. It is a really important part of the Bill as well.

I have described the right of people to use social media and the Internet. It is a public space and people should be as protected there as they are in any public space, be that on a street or in a public park. There are no such protections and the most terrible harm is being done to people. For this reason, I have been very anxious to start the process of regulating that environment. This legislation is a significant start, but I am under no illusion that it is only a start. As technology evolves and the outworking of this Bill impacts, we will be back with amendments to it in the future.

The legislation will give reassurance to people who are suffering terribly. Since I first published this legislation and held a press conference on it three years ago, I have been contacted by an unknown number of individuals about their personal experiences. Much of this activity is not visible. As I said, it is not like an assault in a street. It is not visible but the harm can be horrendous.

On this group of amendments, I share Deputy Martin Kenny's view on the notion of holding images. It is something we thought about and was referred to on Committee Stage. The point about blackmail is covered. Blackmail is a criminal offence, separate from anything we do here. Threatening to distribute will be a criminal offence under this legislation. A person can hold images and not distribute them. Under section 2, threatening to distribute an intimate image of another person without his or her consent would be a criminal offence.

I have a reasonably open mind on whether offenders under section 3, which deals with the distribution of intimate images of a person which can cause terrible harm, should be added to the sex offenders register. Simpliciterit looks like a sexual offence. There would be instances where that would be warranted. In terms of it encompassing young people, there is a section in the Bill whereby the prosecution of children, which under the Children Act is anybody under the age of 18, could only happen with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP. That is right and proper. It would be only in serious cases that minors would be prosecuted. Whether there are cases where it might be justified to have such offenders included on the sex offenders register is a matter on which I have no absolute fixed view. I am interested in hearing the Minister of State's view on it.


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