Dáil debates

Friday, 24 January 2014

Report of Joint Committee on Addressing the Growth of Social Media and Tackling Cyberbullying: Motion


11:05 am

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call on the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications to present its report.

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann notes the report of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications entitled, Report on Addressing the growth of Social Media and tackling Cyberbullying, which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 18 July 2013.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and welcome the opportunity to outline the context, background and recommendations of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications which were published last July following a number of hearings and engagements with and submissions by many of the stakeholders involved in this issue. It is interesting that in this morning's proceedings Members are moving from debating a Bill that refers to something that is outdated to seeking to catch up with the amazing progress made in how information is disseminated and so on. Essentially, that is what the report is about. I refer to the importance of reports from committees which have the opportunity to examine in more detail the minutiae of an issue than can otherwise be debated here. In the past reports were published by committees and forgotten on the day after their launch. In this case, I hope the report can feed into what is happening within all Departments. In addition, its purpose was to examine the issue in a cross-party way. I again refer to this morning's debate which at times appeared to be more about quangos and their removal than about the issue. The importance of having these debates in committees is that matters can be dealt with in a cross-party fashion and not treated as political footballs. This is to be welcomed and while the report is only one small feature within a wider political reform, nonetheless it is important.

I also welcome the presence of the Minister who has responsibility for this issue. Only last November, on foot of the joint committee's report, he established an Internet content governance advisory group under the chairmanship of Dr. Brian O’Neill of Dublin Institute of Technology who had made a submission on the joint committee's report last year. Underpinning the joint committee's recommendations was the need for a more co-ordinated approach to tackling the irresponsible online platform, consisting of experts in the fields of child safety and online behaviour, as well as technical and industry experts. This specialist working group is an important initiative and should have everyone’s support in carrying out its work.

It was recognised at the outset by everyone on the joint committee who examined this subject and those who made submissions that social media had enormous potential for public good and civic engagement and the committee’s primary concern was to ensure it did so without having an adverse impact on individual rights. However, because of the challenges posed by cyberbullying and online harassment, the joint committee decided to commence hearings on the challenges facing individuals, families, communities and schools from the rise of social media. In a digital age, as social media are changing the way many of citizens interact with one another, members thought it was important to examine the topic, particularly in the light of the disquiet expressed in some quarters that there were no curbs on the irresponsible use of the channels. The joint committee invited the social media platforms Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to make presentations. They engaged with members very constructively, as did the Office for Internet Safety, the National Anti-Bullying Coalition Ireland and Digital Rights Ireland. The joint committee also received a large number of informed submissions from individuals and groups.

One difficulty in dealing with this issue is that technology is changing and being upgraded so rapidly that by the time one problem is addressed, another presents in a manner not envisaged even a few months earlier. In other words, it is difficult to get ahead of the curve. That is the challenge in facing this issue. When he appeared before the joint committee, the Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, pointed to other difficulties that presented on this issue, including the point that Internet governance had to be conducted on a multi-jurisdictional basis. In other words, the issue is both global and national and must, therefore, be tackled globally and across borders. The Minister also pointed to the fact that different Departments, as well as his own, namely, the Departments of Education and Skills, Children and Youth Affairs and Justice and Equality, all had different responsibilities and had been addressing them within their remit. I seek his views on how they can be co-ordinated more effectively. That is the reason for what I perceive to be the main recommendation made in the report. While the joint committee has made eight recommendations in total, the key recommendation is the sixth, that a single body be given responsibility for co-ordinating the regulation of social media. When there is a plethora of agencies and Departments involved, the danger is that those who are vulnerable will fall through the cracks and will not have knowledge of a clear pathway towards solving the problem. It was the view of members that the Office for Internet Safety did not adequately deal with cyberbullying or the traceability of tweets and other social media. That is not a criticism of it because it is not resourced to do so in the first place. Moreover, the office does not have a formal regulating role, as its primary function is to monitor the current self-regulating model agreed with the Internet service providers.

I will turn to the other recommendations. Despite age restrictions being in place by media companies, many children under the prescribed age are opening accounts on social media sites. The joint committee recommends that where this is identified, the relevant company be swift in closing the account. These accounts are often opened with the assistance of parents, sometimes unwittingly. The idea is that parents must be better informed and educated in a better way, including of their responsibilities in this area. The joint committee also recommends that the child protection guidelines incorporate guidance for all professionals working with children to aid them if they encounter issues relating to cyberbullying and the inappropriate use of social media. This includes all sections of the Garda, teachers, youth workers and so on.

Third, the joint committee recommends supporting and repeating the recommendations contained in the action plan on bullying and that the definition of bullying in the new national procedures for schools include a specific reference to cyberbullying. In addition, guidelines specific to cyberbullying should be put in place in order that school principals in dealing with instances of cyberbullying have a clear protocol to follow. In the course of its study the joint committee was given examples at first hand of the difficulties principals encountered in dealing with the problem. There was a time when bullying was confined within the school grounds and premises, but, obviously, cyberbullying is a 24 hour phenomenon. Bullying is not as visible as heretofore, which is the challenge in this regard. Moreover, the joint committee learned that cyberbullying in schools was not confined to students bullying one other.

In some cases it relates to students bullying teachers. The main difficulty principals had when dealing with it was to know how to get material taken down quickly. The damage done between its discovery and its being taken down - in some cases it is not taken down at all - is a great problem. The curriculum should incorporate education on social media. That may be in the social personal and health education, SPHE, course. With the new junior certificate course being planned it could be incorporated into that in some way. Parents, children and everybody involved are learning about this and it should be done at every level.

Referring to the fact that it seems to be more prevalent in the younger age groups, the Ombudsman for Children has described cyberbullying as one of the most prevalent forms of bullying experienced by children in Irish schools. Another report found that the incidence of cyberbullying among Irish teenagers is the highest in the EU, so it is a particular problem here. The next recommendation stated that employers should have a social media policy outlining what constitutes cyberbullying and what actions are to be taken if the policy is breached. We have seen cases of this within the workplace here.

What brought many of these issues to the fore in the first place is the link between cyberbullying and suicide, which, unfortunately, is very prevalent in our society. There have been a number of high profile cases of suicides especially among young people where cyberbullying has been suggested as the underlying cause of some teenagers in particular taking their own lives. However, our conclusion based on many people involved in this concurs with research in North America which found that cyberbullying is rarely the sole or main cause of suicide. It is important to realise that there are many dynamics in suicide. However, cyberbullying can be a contributing factor and have lasting effects resulting in distress, anxiety and low self-esteem.

In this context it is interesting to note how other countries have dealt with the link with suicide. Last year New Zealand introduced legislation which will create a new offence of incitement to commit suicide. The offender can be jailed or fined whether or not suicide resulted or was attempted. This could be considered for future legislation here. Earlier I referred to the difficulties in schools in particular. In the UK, school principals have a direct line whereby they can phone a person in an agency who can direct them on what is available to them or how they can deal with a situation. That could be followed here. This report does not have all the answers by any means but hopefully it will be a useful piece of work that will feed into the various actions that are taking place and decisions that are being made in the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and other Departments. We need to see the positive use of modern technology but we also need to protect our communities, children and people from the dangers of the Internet.

11:15 am

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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I thank the chairman, Deputy O'Mahony, and his committee for addressing an immensely important and very complex subject in a very thoughtful way. I congratulate the committee on a well-considered and valuable contribution to the debate on social media and governance. This report is an important milestone, being the first publication on this issue by an Oireachtas committee. It not only addresses the complex nature of social media and of some of its impacts, it will also inform the next step, as we will see. The fundamental reason why this debate exists at all is simple: widespread Internet access has given people great power and reach, the power to access and share information, the power to conduct business or the power and consume media, all in a way that is utterly transformative. It should not surprise us, regrettable though it may be, that there are those who would misuse or abuse this power. Such is human nature.

We must first acknowledge that the Internet is an immense social good, and that to a substantial degree this is due to its free and open nature. It has absolutely and categorically made the world a better place, something that can be said of relatively few inventions. Any measure that threatens these fundamental characteristics of the online world, and method that might stymie or restrict debate or freedom of expression online simply will not work, nor should it be allowed to. More specifically, the consequences of social media have been similarly positive. They enrich and enliven the lives of millions of people around the planet on a daily basis. Moreover, as I pointed out to the committee when I spoke to them, social media are a broad and diverse church. Technically, they can be described as online platforms that allow people create, share and exchange information, and to comment among themselves in virtual communities and networks. In reality the term covers everything from a vast universe of online discussion fora and boards to picture sharing websites and apps.

Just as importantly, social media are categorically not new. They have been around, in one form or other, for at least 20 years, and if we include bulletin boards, more like 30 years. There can be no avoiding the fact that the sector has reached a form of critical mass over the last five or six years and has emerged as a wholly mainstream phenomenon. Online and social media are no longer a fringe concern, the preserve of the early adopter or the technically adept. They are universal and, for young people in particular, they are pervasive. Thanks to smart phones and widespread Internet access, social media are everywhere.

Because we are living through this expansionary phase, it is sometimes easy for us to overlook the extent to which this has reordered some critical aspects of the lives of young people in particular, but these changes have been dramatic already. Regardless of the extent to which the sector will continue to evolve - and it undoubtedly will - the revolution in social media has already fundamentally changed the way people, particularly younger people, interact with and experience media. It has also recast how they engage with society and with their peers, and by all of these means substantially colours their developmental experience.

For the most part, this is a good thing, but as we know and as Deputy O'Mahony has outlined, there are downsides. There are real risks associated with children and young people using social media and the Internet in general. As a State and a society we have a responsibility to protect children. That much is clear but the extent to which the State should, or indeed can, act is much less clear.

The nature of the technology and the rate of change is such that even determining the correct role for the State, for Government, for industry and for users is difficult. The sector is evolving at a pace far in advance of the capacity for reactive short-term policy responses. This question of a measured and appropriate response is complicated immensely by the truly international nature of the Internet and the diverse constitutional and cultural complications this entails for policy makers. The response preferred by one state may not be acceptable or even possible in another yet there can be no "local" solutions to many of the challenges posed. This therefore is a new and rapidly evolving policy space. No country or jurisdiction has cracked it or has found a way to appropriately balance the many issues that arise in this space, most pertinently in the context of today's discussion, such as how we can ensure freedom of speech and access to information while protecting children from content that may very well be harmful to them.

Critically also, we are not starting from the beginning. Many of the questions that arise as a consequence of Internet access in general and social media in particular have been of concern to people as a consequence of other media or technologies. The postal system brought us the poison pen letter, the telephone brought us abusive phone calls, the print industry and then the broadcast media brought us the possibility of age inappropriate viewing of content. This should tell us two things. First, social media is not the first form of media to be portrayed negatively. Concerns inevitably attend every new development in media. Second, while the methods that were used to redress earlier issues may or may not be relevant or useful to deal with newer technologies, an accommodation is always found and the world continues to turn. That is not to say that while we cannot, and indeed should not, attempt to regulate the Internet in a formal way, we should not shirk from looking at existing or new tools in a rational and coherent way to see if we can make improvements.

We are not without means in this case. As social and electronic media in general have been around for an extended period of time, aspects of the legal and administrative system have adapted to some the issues involved. Legal responsibility for measures to deal with harassment and abuse online sits with the Minister for Justice and Equality by means of the same methods used to deal with the same issues in the offline world. Moreover, his Department has established an executive office, the Office for Internet Safety, that deals explicitly with internet safety, particularly in regard to combating child abuse material online.

The Department of Education and Skills has also done some very positive work in ensuring that parents and teachers receive the support they require in terms of understanding the nature of the threats that children can encounter online, including the publication of an action plan on bullying last year detailing a number of concrete measures in this area. Schools and principals continue to make valuable strides in this regard.

A set of robust legal measures in place for defamation, introduced as recently as 2009, covers online comment. Similarly, section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997 deals with harassment. We have existing mechanisms to deal with the abuse of the postal or telephone system. The Communications Regulation (Amendment) Act 2007 introduced measures dealing with the use of the telephone system to send messages that are grossly offensive, or " indecent, obscene or menacing", or "for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety to another person". Other issues, like data protection and cyber-security, have also been addressed on a number of occasions and policy in these areas continues to evolve apace

As Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, my policy responsibilities with regard to Internet governance flow originally from my role in ensuring the provision of a supportive legislative and regulatory environment to facilitate the development of high quality communications infrastructure and services. However, my Department has also long been engaged in broadcasting and media discussions at an EU and Council of Europe level. In recent years, the focus of these discussions has shifted to online content, specifically on the implications for government, business and citizen of media convergence and of the rise of social and participative media. Unsurprisingly, child safety and protection has been at the forefront of this work. This growing awareness at a European level is mirrored across member states. Our challenges in this area are not unique. Rather, they are universal, and there is much to be learned from examples of best practice elsewhere.

To that end, late last year I established the Internet content governance advisory group, under the chairmanship of Dr. Brian O'Neill of DIT and comprising experts from industry, the legal profession and child protection. This group, which will report at the end of May, has been asked to answer a series of questions on the most appropriate next steps for policy with regard to online content governance. The terms of reference for the group require that particular attention is paid to the report of the joint Oireachtas committee and I trust that the group will consider the recommendations of the committee in depth when coming to a view. As I have already outlined, the nature of the sector is such that several Departments have an active role in the area, and recommendations are likely to have implications across several areas. The group will discuss these issues with other Departments as part of their considerations. In turn, any future policy decisions on foot of the group's reports will be brought forward by several Ministers. The group also launched a public consultation today, and is seeking views from any party on a series of questions reflecting the main themes of its work, namely regulation, governance and Internet safety; bullying and harassment; accessing age inappropriate content online; and education and awareness raising.

I am very grateful to Dr. Brien O'Neill and his colleagues on the advisory group for agreeing to undertake this complicated and important task and am grateful for their time and expertise. The task before the group is not easy. The issues are complex and involve balancing fundamental and constitutional rights with the protection of children and young people. I look forward to an open and representative consultation process and to that end would encourage all those present to make their constituents aware of this opportunity to make their opinions known on these issues.

11:25 am

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the publication of the report on addressing the growth of social media and tackling cyberbullying. Fianna Fáil believes action must be taken to address the growing problems of cyberbullying. The State cannot disregard its responsibility in this area by saying that social media is too difficult an area to regulate. The practical steps outlined by the Oireachtas committee on this issue should be embraced and taken seriously by all concerned. The committee recommendations are wide ranging and would go some way to addressing the current difficulties in this area. The recommendation that child protection guidelines would incorporate guidance for all professionals working with children, to aid them if they encounter issues relating to cyberbullying and inappropriate use of social media, is good one should be acted on as soon as possible.

Similarly, the recommendation supporting and reiterating the recommendation contained in the action plan on bullying that the definition of bullying in the new national procedures for schools should include a specific reference to cyberbullying is necessary and timely. It is clear that there is a need for guidelines specific to cyberbullying to be put in place, so that school principals, who are dealing with instances of cyberbullying, have a clear protocol to follow. This common sense proposal must be welcomed.

Employers also have an important role to play in putting in place a social media policy which can guide management when serious issues arise. There is a need to outline what constitutes cyberbullying and what actions will be taken in the workplace if there is a breach of such a policy. Employers must be made aware of the importance of introducing a social media policy given its presence in every aspect of daily life. It is important that employers are aware that cyberbullying falls within the definition of harassment, and section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 may apply in such cases.

Fianna Fáil very much welcomes recommendation No. 5 of the committee's report, that a review of international best practice on the registration of prepaid SIM cards be carried out by the Government. This would be with a view to exploring the feasibility of preventing the use of these cards for malicious or illegal purposes. It is common practice in Europe to have to register one's ownership of a particular SIM card, which prevents the anonymous use of numbers when the number has been used for illegal purposes. However, it is important to strike a balance on regulations in this area.

With regard to recommendation No. 6, which states that a single body be given responsibility for co-ordinating the regulation of social media content, I put forward to the House that the feasibility of this proposal be examined by industry and the Government. The final recommendations are with regard to the continuous updating of information for professionals who deal with victims of cyberbullying. This is common sense and must be implemented as soon as possible.

As the House may be aware, Fianna Fáil is proposing legislation in this regard which would represent a major shift in the law to protect people, particularly children, from cyberbullying. Under the legislation proposed by our party's spokesperson on children and youth affairs, Deputy Robert Troy, it would be an offence to engage in cyberbullying and it would also be an offence to assist or encourage it. This would be the first time the offence of cyberbullying would be defined in Irish law. The legislation would address the fact that cyberbullying only has consequences for the victims. This is wrong and now is the time to ensure there are also consequences for the perpetrators. A report by the special rapporteur on child protection states that the growth of cyberbullying has almost overnight created a readily accessible forum for bullies to target children, with little or no regulation or sanction. There is no question that cyberbullying and the emergence of online hate campaigns are a major issue, particularly for teenagers. We need a strong basis in law to help tackle it. The tragic deaths of a number of children who were allegedly the victims of cyberbullying underscore the need to address this for the health and well-being of young people.

As the report states, a recent survey found that incidences of cyberbullying among Irish teenagers were among the highest across 26 European countries surveyed. Cyberbullying is carried out through text messages, pictures, video-clips, phone calls and e-mails, on social media, in chat rooms and through instant messaging. Fianna Fáil's proposed legislation would make cyberbullying a specific offence for the first time in Irish law. It would make provision for parents to attend mandatory parenting courses and only provides for criminal prosecution where a parent continuously and knowingly permits cyberbullying by a child. Our legislation states that parents will be deemed to have committed an offence where they know cyberbullying is taking place and do not take any steps to stop it. Any parent found guilty of cyberbullying would initially be required to engage with parenting courses, but in serious and persistent cases people could face a prison sentence of up to two years or a fine of up to €20,000 or both. It is important to state that trials of those aged under 18 would be dealt with in the Children's Court.

There is a balance to be struck in how we deal with cyberbullying. This much is clear. Awareness campaigns and better education are essential, but strong sanctions are also needed to act as a deterrent. Failing to tackle the issue head-on will only result in more distress for the people targeted by bullies. I welcome the report and I thank all those who contributed to it. I thank my fellow members of the committee for the amount of work and dedication they put in to it. I commend the report to the House, but we need to see action taken on its recommendations.

11:35 am

Photo of Michael ColreavyMichael Colreavy (Sligo-North Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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Social media have grown rapidly in a short number of years. Recent reports suggest that the number of text messages being sent in Ireland is on the decline, with social media becoming the leading mode of electronic communication. Social media changes rapidly, with new forms of technology and new smartphone apps emerging every year. This makes our jobs as legislators difficult. How do we, or should we, legislate for an area that is so new and so rapidly changing? The sites used by the general public are displayed in the report, but I imagine that even since the report was drafted barely six months ago these figures have become dated. While Facebook and Twitter are still leaders in the field of social media, new apps such as Snapchat have grown in prevalence since the report was published, and therefore any discussion we have on such a rapidly changing field must be seen in this context. Social media have broken out of what was traditionally viewed as a young person's world. There are now more people than ever in their 50s, 60s and above using social media as a means of communication, and not just on Facebook; people use Instagram to share photos and Tumblr to share topics of interest.

Social media in Ireland have found a distinct advantage in this age of mass emigration. They have allowed families to stay in contact with each other from different parts of the globe, practically for free. There was a time when emigrants in the United States or Australia would have to budget part of their weekly income to afford a phone call home to Ireland. Thanks to social media and to Skype, families in Ireland can see what is happening in the lives of loved ones around the world. This, of course, does not eliminate the suffering that families go through when a loved one is forced to emigrate in search of gainful employment, but it does make the world that little bit smaller.

Social media have played an important role in spreading new ideas and opinions, especially in countries where freedom is not taken for granted. In the Arab spring of 2011, social media were used as a tool by protestors to bypass government-controlled media and spread the message of protest to others. Social media afforded mass communication that was previously unattainable due to government repression. Social media have also enabled stories to emerge in real time from major events and tragedies throughout the world, and the growth of what has become known as citizen media has developed from this.

However, social media can be and has been used for negative purposes. It is our role as legislators not to suffocate social media but instead to work with the industry in an attempt to make social media as user-friendly and safe as possible. Unfortunately, bullying has always existed, including in Irish schools. With the advent of social media, bullies use them as a platform to harass and inflict suffering on their victims. In compiling this report we found that 17% of 12 to 18 year old students had suffered cyberbullying at least once. It is clear that guidelines should be given to principals on cyberbullying so they have clear protocols to follow. Of course cyberbullying can happen to adults also. It can occur in the workplace. This falls under section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997.

A number of very young people from my area have died by suicide. In some of these cases there was evidence that they were victims of cyberbullying or cyber-abuse prior to their deaths. I would love to think our report and the actions to follow would ensure that I would never again have to share the desperate anguish and pain of parents, families, friends, neighbours and communities mourning the premature death of a young person following sustained periods of cyberbullying, yet I know this will not be the case. We can only do so much.

Cyberbullying is about a lack of respect and consideration. It is as difficult to address as verbal or physical bullying in the schoolyard or on the way to and from school. The difference is that with cyberbullying the bullies follow their victims into their homes and, indeed, into their bedrooms.

One good aspect of the committee's work was that we found a willingness on the part of the larger social media companies to help eliminate cyberbullying and to respond quickly and effectively to complaints. Education of children, parents, teachers and social media companies can and should minimise, if not eliminate, sustained cyberbullying if everyone works together.

Young people need to be educated in the proper use of social media, as this report points out. This should include digital skills, how to use the Internet safely without fear of private information being used against one's will and intention, how to interact with other users of social media in a respectful manner and the harm that cyberbullying can inflict on others. This approach needs to be carried out in conjunction with parents and social media companies. Welcome initiatives have been taken to promote awareness among young people about cyberbullying. The Watch Your Space campaign was a step in the right direction. However, the Government must keep on top of this issue because every year there will be a new set of teenagers who will need to be educated on a continuous basis about the dangers of cyberbullying.

The reports states that the Office for Internet Safety does not adequately deal with cyberbullying or with the traceability of tweets and other social media. It recommends that a single body be given responsibility for co-ordinating the regulation of social media content. The funding and organisational models for this agency should be agreed with social media companies. This would result in the industry taking proactive and positive steps to tackle the problems caused by cyberbullying.

It is important that we recognise cyberbullying for what it is - an extension of real-life hatred and prejudices in a digital form. Racist or sexist abuse that is spouted on the Internet is a reflection of racist or sexist attitudes in society. While it is important to tackle these issues online, we cannot ignore the fact that we must battle these prejudices in real life. Social media have allowed people to communicate in an entirely new way. They have broken down barriers that once existed and allowed people who had little ability to express themselves the option of doing so. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Social media is a powerful tool but we must work in any way we can to ensure that no one is harmed through its use.

I hope our report and the action it proposes will be a first step on the road to minimising cyberbullying and promoting respect across all platforms. In a worldwide communications environment, we must accelerate steps to ensure a uniform European and worldwide response to protect privacy, ensure open access and prevent cyberbullying. This will not be an easy task and it will take time. It will also take a different way of thinking and vigilance to ensure that autocratic states do not use this as a reason to inhibit access to views, opinions, facts and news anywhere. However, this work must be done if we are to make a difference.

11:45 am

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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I thank the Deputies who have contributed to this discussion. I am grateful to the committee, under the chairmanship of Deputy O'Mahony, for the manner in which it went about preparing the report. This can be an emotive issue, for reasons everyone understands, which Deputy Colreavy advanced in his contribution. It is one of these issues that takes off in the media generally from time to time, especially if there is a tragic or regrettable incident relating to the misuse or abuse of technology. In those circumstances, it is easy to understand why parents and teachers are concerned that the State take adequate steps in the protection and safeguarding of children and minors in particular. This issue can be emotive and it is a tribute to the work of the committee that it managed to absorb everything while at the same time giving a considered judgment to the issues that were thrown up and the recommendations it made.

An important contribution has been made by the committee. I would like us to debate the issue in the House again in the not too distant future, perhaps when the Internet content governance advisory group makes its report, and to hear from a wider cross-section of Members than is feasible during a Friday sitting. I know from the contacts we have had that a great many Members have expressed similar sentiments to the Deputies who contributed and it is important that, apart from drawing attention to the importance of freedom of expression and the fact that the Internet is undoubtedly a public good, we acknowledge the necessity for balance and for the State to take reasonable measures, consistent with not unreasonably intruding on freedom of expression, to modernise the safeguards that might be put in place.

Little enough attention has been devoted to the Internet content governance advisory group established late last year under the chairmanship of Dr. Brian O'Neill of DIT. Dr. O'Neill is the head of the school of media in DIT and he has written at considerable length on this and related issues. The group also comprises Mary Aitken, a cyberpsychologist and a director of the cyberpsychology research centre at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and a research fellow at the RCSI Institute of Leadership; Professor Joe Carthy, dean of science at UCD and director of the UCD centre for cyber-security and cyber-crime investigation; Áine Lynch, chief executive officer of the National Parents' Council; Kate O'Sullivan, vice president of corporate affairs at UPC; Ronan Lupton, a barrister specialising in the areas of commercial law, chancery, defamation and intellectual property, copyright and competition law, who has spent 12 years in various regulatory and engineering roles in the Internet and communications market; and young Mark Caffrey, a transition year student in Ratoath College, County Meath, and former president of the Irish Secondary Schools Students' Union. The group, therefore, has specialists, experts, parents and a young person, a gender mix and so on. It is not easy to assemble such an expert team pro bono and I am grateful to its members for these acts of good citizenship to address an issue that is always of concern to parents and teachers and that ought to be of concern to society as well.

There is a very good balance of industry experts, parents and young people. The advisory group has begun its public consultation today. That ought to be promulgated and people who have views and concerns ought to make their input, as invited by Dr. Brian O'Neill. I think it is part of the formal terms of reference that it will be required to take account of the report published by the joint Oireachtas committee in its discussions. It will also meet the major companies, child protection bodies and parents' organisations. Between the public consultation process and these formal meetings, it will consider itself to be well placed to meet the May deadline to bring forward a report on this issue. For that reason, it would not be appropriate for me to engage in a point by point commentary on the matters raised by colleagues in the House. Deputy John O'Mahony raised the issue of take-down policy, while other colleagues raised issues that were equally relevant. The time to have that discussion is after publication of the report of the Internet governance advisory group. I have seen what the joint Oireachtas committee stated in its report about these issues and, to be honest, I share a great deal of it, but we will wait until we receive the report of the advisory group. I suggest it would be appropriate at that time for the Chief Whip to roster a discussion in the House.

I am grateful to the Oireachtas joint committee for addressing a thorny issue in modern day Irish society. It is ironic that I was deputising earlier for my colleague, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, on an issue that shows the two Irelands, the Private Members' Bill introduced by Deputy Niall Collins on the abolition of the Censorship of Publications Board and the Censorship Appeals Board. The past is indeed a foreign country, but it is a coincidence and an irony that in the course of the one parliamentary sitting we have had a debate on the 1924 and subsequent Acts relating to censorship and now are discussing how we can assert some accountability in the era of the Internet. This shows the dramatic change that has taken place in recent decades. Without doubt, we will be returning to this debate in the near future.

11:55 am

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Having listened to the debate for the last hour or more, the challenges and opportunities presented by social media have been well discussed and ventilated, which is to be welcomed. As pointed out by all speakers, this is an evolving, fast moving and changing story, but, having been involved in and present for all of the hearings and presentations and visits, as was Deputy Michael Colreavy, to the headquarters of the various social media companies in Dublin, there is a greater awareness on their part of the difficulties families, schools, school principals and communities have and there was a greater awareness among us of the efforts they were making and wanted to make because it is also in their interests that this is got right. We emphasised this point to them. Apart from anything else that comes from the report, it was a useful exercise and I am glad that the Minister's advisory committee will also be engaging with them.

I thank Members for their contributions. I also thank the Minister for presenting to us when we were hearing submissions and also giving us an update this morning on what is happening. It is important that the public realise action is being taken and progress made. I am glad that we will have a debate when the advisory group comes back with its findings. It is an important part of modern society and we want to accentuate the positive, while eliminating the negative. That is the challenge and what this debate was about.

Question put and agreed to.

The Dáil adjourned at 12.10 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 28 January 2014.