Wednesday, 31 January 2018
Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]
I believe the Internet is a public space, and I believe that, as with all public spaces, our people deserve to be protected there just as they would utilising a public park or a public roadway. Some will disagree. Some see the Internet as a great libertarian or anarchist play space but the view of the Labour Party is that this space is truly important, is growing in importance and needs to be regulated.
Back in 2013, my party colleague, Pat Rabbitte, during his time as Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, set up an independent expert Internet content governance advisory group. It was chaired by Brian O'Neill of the Dublin Institute of Technology, DIT, and the group was asked to report on a range of issues related to online content following a growth in public concern over cyberbullying and related matters.
The report of the group made a series of structural, legislative and administrative recommendations. Included in them was a suggestion the existing offence of sending messages that were grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing be updated to include all new forms of electronic communications, including the new platforms that we all use to communicate nowadays. As the law stands, the offence covers only telephone and text or SMS messages. Obviously, that is hopelessly out of line with the normal daily practices of all of us. That the law in this area has not changed since the invention of the text message speaks volumes and is surely reason enough to reflect on whether our law is up to date or in need of urgent refurbishment.
Last year the Law Reform Commission reported on harmful communications and digital safety. It confirmed that the criminal law applied to some harmful communications but that there were significant gaps, in particular in respect of newer forms of communication. It proposed that the current law, together with new measures to tackle new forms of harmful communications, be consolidated into a single easily understood statute. That is the core of the Labour Party Bill which is to consolidate and reform the criminal law on harmful communications. This involves replacing certain provisions of the Post Office (Amendment) Act 1951 relating to electronic communications – the fact that we have not changed the law since 1951 also speaks volumes - and the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 relating to harassment.
The Law Reform Commission's report was in two parts, the second of which proposed a system of oversight and regulation under a new regulator to be called the digital safety commissioner. I had understood creating a new statutory agency was outside the remit of a Dáil Private Members' Bill, but I gather other colleagues have been more successful in having such measures pass the scrutiny of others and have tabled such proposals. Had I known that, I would have included such provisions in this Bill. If it is passed on Second Stage, we should include the measures on Committee Stage because it is an important component of the suite of recommendations made by the Law Reform Commission. The Bill seeks to implement the thrust of the commission's proposals on the reform of the criminal law in this area. We produced a draft Bill last year. I express my gratitude to the many NGOs and experts who provided comments, suggestions and submissions on it.
The Bill has five key features. First, it adopts the broadest possible definition of "communications" to capture the communication of information by any means. It includes the communication of information generated, processed, transmitted, received, recorded, stored or displayed by electronic means or in any electronic form.
Second, the Bill sets out an updated offence of harassment. Our new version provides that a person who, intentionally or recklessly and without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, engages in harassment will be guilty of an offence if he or she acts in specified ways to seriously interfere with the peace and privacy of a citizen or cause him or her alarm, distress or harm. The actions specified are: if a person persistently follows, watches, pesters or besets another person; persistently communicates with another person, or persistently communicates with a third person about another. The punishment is a class A fine or imprisonment for 12 months or, on conviction on indictment, in the case of a more serious offence, a fine or a maximum term of imprisonment of seven years.
Third, the Bill allows for stalking to count as an aggravating factor in sentencing and to be so regarded by a judge. In other words, if the conduct of the defendant seriously interfered with the victim's peace and privacy and caused him or her alarm, harm or distress, the court may take that fact into account as an aggravating factor. If the defendant and the victim were in an intimate relationship, in the course of which an offence was committed, that is to say, the defendant made use of personal information on the victim or of an electronic device or software to monitor, observe, listen to or make a recording of the victim or his or her movements, activities and communications without his or her knowledge and consent, again the court may take that fact into account as an aggravating factor.
Fourth, the Bill creates a new of offence of distributing an intimate image without consent. This is what is commonly referred to as revenge porn. It occurs where a couple are in an intimate relationship and one of the parties uses intimate photographs and distributes them with the objective of causing harm or damage or hurt to the other. A person who takes, distributes or publishes an intimate image of another without consent, or threatens to do so – I am afraid that is often what arises in many of the cases about which we hear - and in doing so causes serious harm to the peace and privacy of the other or causes him or her alarm, distress or harm is guilty of an offence and liable, on summary conviction, to a class A fine or imprisonment for six months or both.
The Bill deals with prohibited messages. It provides that a person who distributes or publishes a threatening, false, indecent or obscene message to or about another is guilty of an offence. Again, it is limited to situations where the action is taken with intent to cause alarm or distress or recklessly or persistently undertaken. Under our proposal, the offence will be punishable, on summary conviction, by a class A fine or imprisonment for 12 months or both and, on conviction on indictment, by an unlimited fine or imprisonment of up to seven years. The provision will replace section 13 of the Post Office (Amendment) Act 1951.
These are the main provisions in the Bill. I have made it clear that we believe these proposals are proportionate to the real harm caused and danger posed by people who believe they can act with such reckless disregard for the well-being of others. We firmly believe these safeguards are required. I do not intend to list all of the other elements of the Bill, but some are worth noting. In the case of children, the Bill states criminal proceedings against someone under the age of 17 years may not be taken, except with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. This is a safeguard against prosecuting children, although, in some instances, it might be merited. No one is seeking to unfairly punish children. A measure is included to ensure only the most serious of crimes committed by them will be subject to criminal proceedings. As a further protection for victims, the Bill provides for the protection of their identity. This provision has been modelled broadly on reporting restrictions in the Criminal Law (Rape) Act. Importantly, the Bill makes it clear that it cannot be interpreted as altering the law so as to prohibit or restrict the exercise of constitutional rights of assembly, peaceful picketing and so on.
My time is up. I hope Members will address these important issues and that the Bill will be passed.
I hope we will all be on the one page in dealing with this issue. Everyone in the House should support the Bill. Deputies may have amendments to propose, but this is being done for the right reasons. We all know the issues we are facing.
Before I entered the House, I worked as an e-business information technology business manager.
I think I was at the top of my game in 2007. However, I do not recognise the online world of 2017 from the perspective of the online world of 2007. Everything is available on every medium one can imagine, including Instagram, Snapchat and Kik, and the lack of regulation is frightening.
Given that the law in this area has not been updated since 1951, Members of the Oireachtas must collectively address this matter, as other jurisdictions such as Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have done. In light of recent events, with which all Deputies will be familiar, the Oireachtas may be at a slight advantage in that we could learn from what other jurisdictions have done in this area and be even more up to date as a consequence.
It will be necessary to establish the role of a digital safety officer or regulator. This issue needs to be fleshed out in detail and the regulator must have substantial powers and ensure citizens' privacy is protected.
We do not delve into the role of online companies enough. These companies have a major responsibility and I am not sure they take this responsibility as seriously as they claim. Many social media companies employ large numbers of people in Ireland and provide fantastic media platforms. However, with billions of users and valuations of billions of euro come responsibilities to work with the various agencies, specifically the Department of Justice and Equality, on the volume and types of complaints they receive. They must be able to provide data on these matters in a format that legislators can use to develop our views and draft legislation that will address issues that arise online, including harassment, the use of revenge porn and other online behaviours. Without such data, we will not be able to address these issues. It is critical, therefore, that they are provided.
I welcome the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission. Everybody has an online presence and we all make our own choices on the media we use to communicate our messages. Members of the public should be protected and feel safe in this online space, just as I should feel safe when I walk from Kildare Street to the NewsTalk offices to do an interview in a few minutes. While Members of the Oireachtas are public figures who are open to criticism, members of the public are entitled to their space and entitled to interact in a fair, civil and social manner. As we know, this is frequently not the case.
The Labour Party, through this legislation, wants to ensure our online engagement, which is part of daily discourse and interaction for everyone and part of the socialisation of young people, continues and is a valuable source for all of us and society in general. At the same time, we want the space about which I spoke to be protected for people to ensure it is enjoyed by everyone in an acceptable manner.
Joni O'Sullivan is the mother of a 17 year old girl who attempted suicide twice because of online bullying. Joni took the brave decision to go public, first on Facebook, and then in the Limerick Leaderlast weekend, to highlight what was happening to her daughter and stop it for her daughter and others who are affected by similar bullying. Joni's and Zoe's story shows just how devastating the effects of cyberbullying can be. I will read out some of Joni's Facebook post, which is already public.
I never post long posts on Facebook and especially not of personal information but current events in my daughter's life have left me no alternative but to reach out on social media myself for help. As you are all aware suicide In Ireland is an epidemic at the moment, and suicide among teens from online bullying Is something we should never see. I can't help thinking of the parents of children who have committed suicide from bullying and wondering whether they were even aware it was going on, and whether they felt they had done enough to try to stop it. That's the reason I'm posting such sensitive details of what is going on for my daughter right now.
The post then features a photograph of Joni's daughter, Zoe, and the words, "This is my daughter Zoe and she is 17 tomorrow." Joni's post is fairly long. It describes the bullying, which has been taking place for more than a year. Zoe was receiving upwards of 50 messages a day calling her names, which I will not repeat in the Chamber. This resulted in her making two attempts at suicide. She stayed in bed for weeks and did not go to school as she tried to get away from the bullying. Joni's post continues:
No one will understand fear until you wake up to your teen screaming from inability to cope with online bullying coming in through their phone into what should be the safety of their own home... I will not lose my child because of online bullying. I will fight it. I lay beside her last night as she slept frightened to close my eyes in case I lost her.
We can all imagine what this mother and her young girl went through. It is the reason legislation is urgently needed.
In an interview published in the Limerick Leader last week, Joni O'Sullivan stated she was overwhelmed by the response to her post. Her daughter, Zoe, stated:
I just want the cyber-bullying to stop and for that video to not be shared and removed from the internet. A random disgusting video that was posted saying it was me, and messages I received telling me I was disgusting and to kill myself, caused me so much pain and made me want to die to escape the torment, and I never want to feel like that again.
Zoe also spoke of feeling good and her mother stated she believed she had done some service in bravely posting her message on Facebook. The Limerick Leader also notes that Joni O'Sullivan called for the progression of the Bill the Labour Party is presenting today to bring the current "laws into the 21st century and pass the current Bill on cyberbullying and enact it into law before we lose more young lives."
What happened to Zoe and many other young people shows how urgently we need to bring our laws up to date. The various social media platforms are used extensively by young people and need to be policed to protect those who are harassed and bullied in the horrific way I described. I highlighted the case of Zoe and Joni O'Sullivan to give a sense of what it is like for young persons who suffer online bullying and their parents.
Other measures required include education and awareness initiatives for young people and the appointment of a digital safety commissioner. We did not provide for such an appointment in the Bill because we understood this could result in it being disallowed on the basis that such a measure would give rise to costs on the Exchequer. As Deputy Brendan Howlin stated, we will be pleased to include such a provision in the Bill at a later stage.
The case I highlighted gives an understanding of the harm and damage being done by online bullying, which has become pervasive, particularly in the lives of young people. We must stop it and quickly implement the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission. I hope the Minister is in a position to indicate Government support for the Bill because we must proceed as quickly as possible. Young people are subject to online bullying every day, with some probably experiencing it as we speak.
Deputies will have read about a case that came before the courts last week. It was a completely different scenario from the one I described as it involved the exploitation of very young girls. We cannot allow this to continue. There are precedents and models available to us and we must enact this Bill as quickly as possible.
I acknowledge the contribution of Deputy Brendan Howlin and thank him and his colleagues for bringing this Bill before the House for consideration. I believe all Members will agree that the Bill is broadly similar to legislation being drafted in my Department, which has been the subject matter of discussion in the House. I will be the first to admit the process is taking somewhat longer than I would have wished.
I welcome the opportunity to have this debate. This Bill in the name of Deputy Howlin and his colleagues is timely and appropriate. In that regard, it will not be opposed by the Government at this Stage.
Like many Deputies in the House, I have been appalled at some of the stories emerging in the media in recent weeks. I wish to commend the Garda Síochána for successfully apprehending a vile criminal. I acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed inside the House and outside it in the broader community about Internet safety, particularly in the context of that recent case. I acknowledge, of course, that the Internet has changed our lives in many ways for the better. It is important that we state unequivocally that there are negative aspects and that we cannot ignore acting on these.
These are issues with which Governments across the world are grappling. Important work is under way in the EU Commission, led by Commissioner Jourova, whom I had the opportunity of meeting to discuss these issues, among others, late last year. Ultimately, we need to ensure is that we achieve a balance between the right to privacy of an individual on the one hand and the right to freedom of expression. That is the challenge. We have an essential role to play as lawmakers, and so too do the Internet companies, parents and schools. I wish to invite the Internet companies to participate actively in the debate. I acknowledge that they have a leadership responsibility in this issue and they must involve themselves by way of full active engagement in the matter of Internet standards and Internet safety.
In recent days there has been a debate centred on the darker aspects of the Internet and social media, the access children have to the Internet and the activities of criminals on the Internet, in particular where vulnerable children are targets. Some of these issues are relevant to the Bill and some are separate issues. The offences in this Bill may be distinguished from offences such as grooming which are already on the Statute Book. I want to advert to the Chid Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998, as amended by the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which contains a number of new offences to combat the exploitation of children.
There are a number of initiatives under way across government to promote Internet safety, in particular where children are concerned. My own Department operates the Office for Internet Safety, OIS, which provides information and guidance, including a series of booklets aimed at parents with information on various aspects of Internet safety, including filtering, using social networking sites and cyberbullying. If members of the public becomes aware of activity that might be regarded as bullying activity on the Internet, which they suspect may be Illegal, they can report it confidentially to hotline.iewhich is operated by the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland with oversight by the OIS in my Department.
My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Naughten, who will speak later in this debate, is examining proposals for the creation of a digital safety commissioner, as referred to by Deputy Howlin. This area is complex and multifaceted and involves a number of Government Departments. Work is under way in Government to introduce a clearer policy framework to better inform the public and, of course, this House on the structures and laws in place. An open policy forum on digital safety will take place in March to involve the views of stakeholders. In the meantime, I am working with the Ministers, Deputies Naughten, Zappone and Bruton, to develop a more unified whole-of-government policy across this issue and this legislation plays an important role in that regard.
Turning to the Bill itself, it is broadly based on many of the recommendations made by the Law Reform Commission, LRC, in its 2018 report on harmful communications and digital safety. The LRC report is a significant piece of work in the area of online harm, and the changes that are needed to ensure our laws and system are equipped to deal with this growing problem. I commend the LRC for producing this valuable piece of work.
While I am entirely in support of the intention and spirit behind this Private Member's Bill, I must point out that there are certain drafting issues in the Bill as published last May. Initial observations by officials in my Department, as well as the Office of the Attorney General, indicate that a significant number of amendments would be required to get the Bill to a point where it could be safely enacted. I will briefly mention some of my key concerns, but I want to acknowledge the base this Bill is and will have in terms of further engagement.
Section 4 of the Bill appears to be an amalgam of the LRC's approach to the offence of distributing intimate images. The LRC proposes two new offences. The first is distributing an intimate image with Intent to cause harm. This would include behaviours commonly referred to as "revenge porn". The second is the taking or distributing of an intimate image without the consent of the other person. This targets behaviour such as "upskirting" or "downblousing" and does not include the element of intent to cause harm but rather it is an offence in the strict liability code.
It would appear that the penalty structure set out in section 4(1) of the Bill is intended to accommodate the behaviours envisaged in sections 4 and 5 of the LRC proposals as outlined above. I have concerns there may be procedural difficulties with the prosecution of this offence. However, we can deal with these issues on Committee Stage. Section 4(3) provides for an aggravating factor for the purpose of sentencing where the complainant has certain disability such as to restrict his or her capacity to guard against harm. From a policy point of view, clarification should be sought as to why this provision is considered appropriate or necessary. The vulnerability of a particular victim is a factor which a court normally takes into account in sentencing an offender. It is also queried as to why it is limited to this section of the Bill and not others, possibly suggesting that vulnerability linked to disability would not be an aggravating factor for other offences in the Bill.
Section 4(4) provides that an offence under this section is a sexual offence for the purpose of the Sex Offenders Act 2001. Given the range of behaviours that can be covered under section 4 of these proposals, it would appear to me that less serious adolescent behaviour could result in a young person being subject to the Sex Offenders Act, which might not always be appropriate. Section 7 provides for jurisdictional matters. Pursuant to Article 29.8 of the Constitution, Ireland may only exercise extra-territorial jurisdiction in accordance with the generally recognised principles of international law. As this Bill attempts to provide for jurisdiction for offences committed outside the State regardless of whether the perpetrator is a citizen or resident of Ireland, this may raise constitutional issues unless Deputy Howlin can provide some basis in international law for this provision.
These are my initial comments on the Bill. I will write to the Deputy Howlin setting out my full list of concerns. In principle, I believe our intentions are broadly similar and that is why I do not intend to oppose the Bill at this Stage. I wish to assure Deputy Howlin of constructive engagement in this matter with both myself and my Department. As the Bill deals with serious criminal offences, I am sure the Deputy will agree it must be carefully constructed, and constructed in a most accurate way so as to avoid constitutional or any adverse consequential issues that might not appear immediately apparent or obvious. I refer also to issues of interpretation or conflicts with other legislation in the criminal justice area.
I acknowledge the importance of this debate and of the legislation before us. There is much more work to be done in this area before the Bill can proceed further. I am sure Deputy Howlin will reflect on these issues and I thank him for bringing forward the legislation. I agree with Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's comments not only on the importance of the legislation but also on a certain urgency involved having regard to apparent vacuums in the law.
I wish to acknowledge what we are debating. We can bring the matter on to the next Stage and in the spirit in which the Bill was tabled by Deputy Howlin, I wish to assure members of his party of constructive engagement with my Department and Government. We will also be monitoring and indeed actively engaging in the work of other ministerial colleagues, in particular, the Minister, Deputy Naughten. There will be a role for the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, and for the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton. However, from a criminal justice point of view, I am happy to accept the spirt of this Bill. There are some issues regarding the letter that we can deal with in due course.
I commend Deputy Howlin and the Labour Party on bringing the Bill forward. I have contributed on this issue a number of times previously, particularly in the context of revenge porn. Fianna Fáil will support the Bill but we will bring forward amendments to strengthen it on Committee Stage because cybersafety is the child protection issue of our time. There is no doubt that in many instances a mobile phone, tablet or laptop can be a crime scene. Currently, the online world in which all Members and many of our friends, family members and children are immersed is largely self-regulated. Ireland is completely behind the curve in legislating for the online and social media sphere, and this has given rise to the shocking and distressing stories we hear day after day about revenge porn, cyberbullying, online stalking, upskirting, downblousing and other forms of harassment and offence. The Law Reform Commission, LRC, has linked these types of activities to serious psychological harm for the people affected, as the aim is to humiliate and degrade and the proponents are usually successful in this regard. The Garda has reported a significant increase in the number of victims of this crime, especially young people. We were all shocked when we turned on our televisions last Friday night to see how vulnerable our young people are to predators in the online world and it behoves us, as legislators, to move with great haste to extend the offence of harassment to ensure it includes activity online and on social media.
The Government, despite assurances from the previous Minister for Justice and Equality in 2016, has failed to deliver anything in this area. Many loopholes in our current legislation need to be closed to address these unfortunate modern realities and our laws need to be updated in order that we can efficiently prosecute offenders. Parents and concerned citizens are navigating a difficult area at this time. According to the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC, on average 14% of students aged between 12 and 16 have been cyberbullied, which could be a conservative estimate, while, according to recent EU Kids Online research, 99% of young people aged between nine and 16 in Ireland use the Internet and more than half have set up their own profile on a social networking site. Ofcom in the UK reports that most children spend more than twice as much time on the web as their parents think - an average of 43.5 hours per month as opposed to the 18.8 hours their parents estimate. Further research alleges that more than half of cyberbullying incidents in Ireland happen to children on Facebook and that 25% of women say they have experienced body shaming online.
The LRC report of 2016 recommended the establishment of a digital safety commissioner who would implement existing social media safety measures and also educate people about safe online behaviour as well as working with Government policy. Education is hugely important but this has not happened. I am pleased the Minister said that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment will examine this. As the Labour Party speakers said, this is essential going forward. Since the LRC report, we have seen example after example of the damage that can be caused by activity online. These include the Dublin man, Matthew Horan, and I hate to use his name, who used sites such as Flic to gather thousands of images of young children, the suicide of a young woman tormented by cyberbullies, the abuse suffered by a former Senator, the threatening and intimidating online messages directed at both private persons and public figures, and many more anecdotes we have heard from our constituents and friends. A constituent of mine took his life because of revenge porn and I also know a young woman who attempted to take her own life again because of revenge porn.
This is a good Bill but we will table amendments on Committee Stage. Technological advances made in recent years have benefited society hugely through the availability of information, the connectivity generated by an online community, and the ability of social media to empower young people and allow them to connect with people all over the world. However, the information overwhelm, the social peer pressure and the significant privacy concerns can at times outweigh these benefits. The web is a place of both opportunity and danger, and self-regulation is insufficient to address harmful communications effectively. The Bill is a good start in getting Ireland up to date with its legislative duty to protect its citizens from the dangers of the online world. I would like to acknowledge the excellent work being carried out by the national anti-bullying research and resource centre in DCU and the special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, who made excellent recommendations in recent weeks on how to deal with this issue.
I welcome the Bill and I commend the Labour Party on tabling it. We will support this excellent measure. I tabled legislation in a similar vein, albeit taking a different angle, prior to Christmas and I acknowledge the Labour Party's support for that. There was support from most sides of the House, although not from the Government. When the issue was debated by the LRC, I made a submission in 2015, which fed into the wider report. Important and much needed recommendations flowed from that. We are all aware of recent cases and the abhorrent and shocking tales that have been related. One of the issues that emerged was the need for a digital safety commissioner, which we all agree is long needed. Unfortunately, the Government appears to be at sea on the issue. I welcome the Minister's indication of the Government's support for the Bill to proceed. However, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment indicated he was in favour of a digital safety commissioner before Christmas, yet the Taoiseach dismissed that during the Christmas recess and then the Minister said the proposal was back on the table last week. I am not sure where it sits now. The Government also rejected my Bill, although it was voted through on Second Stage by the House.
The Minister in his contribution referred to territoriality. Section 9 of the criminal justice (amendment) Bill 2018 may address the concerns he raised. As happened when Deputy Howlin appeared on radio earlier, the same questions are coming up about enforceability of regulations and how we can police these issues, but we can do this. The regulation of online gambling demonstrates that there are many ways to police activities that may not be rooted physically in the jurisdiction. It is important that, as a legislative assembly, we make a statement on whether certain behaviours are acceptable and do so in such a way that it can be codified into law with the enforcement following later.
I watched "The Late Late Show" last Friday evening during which a number of parents and children in the audience talked about the shocking events that had unfolded in their lives and the reaction to them. The Internet is a fantastic tool for education and it is at our children's fingertips. It is a great resource which has transformed education, but it brings dangers. I will close with the words of a child who spoke on "The Late Late Show". She said that even with all the activity going on and all the scare stories, "Don't ban the children, ban the bad people." That makes a lot of sense.
As Deputy Lawless said, the Internet has transformed people's lives and continues to offer transformational possibilities. Unfortunately, it has a downside and it can have a negative effect, but for the vast majority of users it enhances our lives and enables networking and global connectivity in a way that never previously existed. I welcome and support the Bill. In 2008, while in government, Fianna Fáil established the Office for Internet Safety, but as of October 2017, the office only had two staff. Perhaps the Minister might be willing to comment on that. I wholeheartedly support the thrust of the Bill and look forward to contributing further on it as it goes through the various Stages in the House.
I welcome the Labour Party's Bill, which is good, welcome and timely, but it should not be needed.
It has become very clear that the Government is deeply out of touch on the issue of Internet safety and regulation. That is reflected in the lack of action, a strategy and coherence. Before Christmas we heard the Taoiseach say he was deeply loath to go down the route of a digital safety commissioner, but the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, has now announced that there will be one. The question is whether the Cabinet and the Taoiseach support him in that regard. We often hear of the real world against the online world. If anyone has any doubt, recent cases have shown that the two are married together. The online world is very much part of the real world. It is reaching out everywhere and deeply affecting everybody, particularly young people, especially their mental health. In 2012 the level of smartphone ownership passed the 50% barrier. There has since been clear evidence of a substantial increase in mental health problems, especially among young people, among young women in particular. There have been profound psychosocial outcomes, including depression, anxiety, isolation, addiction, eating disorders and even suicide. Senior staff in Google, Apple and other major technology corporations are raising their children digital-free. The phrase "don't get high on your own supply" comes to mind.
It is accepted that social media do have certain positive aspects. Young people in difficulty have other outlets to reach out such as Childline online. However, social media are also having a deeply profound negative effect. The area is unregulated, ungoverned and damaging. In particular, issues such as revenge porn, cyberbullying, threats and the basic right to privacy arise. There is also the issue of permanency. There is no way to forget and move on. This needs a whole-of-government approach. It cannot be based solely on the Department of Justice and Equality and prosecution. There are roles for the Departments of Communications, Climate Action and Environment; Education and Skills; Health; and Children and Youth Affairs. They all need to be brought together to deal with this very serious issue. It can be dealt with, but it needs to be dealt with quickly.
I welcome the Bill brought forward by the Labour Party which seeks to consolidate existing law but which also deals with new crimes. In some ways, it tries to catch up with the advances in technology which very often have outpaced our laws and probably always will.
The effects of online harassment on citizens and us as public representatives are very stressful and damaging. They are lasting and stay with a person. The stories are numerous. Reports in recent weeks on the effects on young children and how they have been attacked and sought online by those masquerading as friends and people of the same age have been quite disturbing. What can we expect from interactions online and what should we expect? I think we all agree that the way people behave online, the things they are willing to say and type and the things they will say from the comfort of their own couch while tapping away furiously on their phones or iPads are probably very different from the interactions they would have face to face. We often hear the term "keyboard warrior" or that someone is very brave behind his or her keyboard. It does matter and does make it easier for people to be quite nasty, vindictive and scathing of others online.
The other challenge with which we will all have to try to think of ways to deal is that of fake accounts. How will we enforce the laws on those with faceless, nameless and troll accounts? There are many laws on the Statute Book which are difficult to enforce, but that does not mean we should not criminalise something that is clearly wrong. Obviously, we should try to incentivise citizens to do the right thing. Clearly, we will have a huge challenge in trying to enforce these laws and track down those who are making harmful communications and attacking people online, including children, other citizens and all of us. We need to do everything we can to endeavour to protect everybody online because, as Deputy James Browne said, the Internet should be a safe space. In addition to making these actions illegal, giving recourse to the courts and putting laws in place to protect people, we absolutely must educate the public and allow them to equip themselves to protect themselves.
Deputy Danny Healy-Rae might like to get off his phone while we are debating such a serious issue in the Chamber. It is quite outrageous.
We have to make these things illegal. There must be recourse to the courts. We know the difficulties in prosecuting crimes, in particular revenge porn and posting material made without consent online. We know the difficulties in prosecuting cases of sexual harassment which happen physically in person, but that does not mean that we should stop trying to correct these wrongs. I welcome the Bill. We have much work to do, but it is good to see cross-party support in the House on this issue which causes lasting damage to many.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I am glad to be in a position to say my party supports the Bill. I come from the village in which Matthew Horan lived for a number of years. It is important to highlight that the conversation, both locally and nationally on the various chat shows, has been about how we can protect young people. There is a real void. If one looks at the case of Matthew Horan, he was first arrested in 2004 and computers were seized. There was subsequently another raid and phones, USB storage devices and so forth were seized. The point I am trying to make is that the focus of the raids was very clearly on the hardware, rather than the various platforms on which he was engaging with children. To be effective, it is important to focus on that area and that is where this legislation goes.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan talked about young people and the dangers and risks they faced. She is right. There are young people at home sitting in their rooms terrified of what is on their smartphones and other devices. We owe it to them to deliver a solution and protection very quickly.
In his opening comments the Minister alluded to the fact that his Department was to prepare legislation and that it was progressing more slowly than he would like. He also said he would not be opposing the legislation brought forward by the Labour Party. I appeal to him to be pragmatic and go further because there are resources available to him and the Government in drafting legislation, including the advice of the Attorney General. There is a willingness in this House to work collaboratively to bring the legislation to fruition and to do so quickly. Rather than diverting and wasting time in preparing parallel legislation, I appeal to the Minister to work with the Labour Party, as others suggested. My own spokespersons have said we will be bringing forward amendments, but this needs to be done and really quickly as we are behind the curve in dealing with this issue. When one listens to debates on radio shows, parents are at their wits' end in not knowing how to look after their young children. That responsibility falls to us. Therefore, I appeal to the Minister to work collaboratively. We, on this side of the House, have facilitated him in government. I now appeal to him to work with the Labour Party on an all-party collaborative basis to bring a solution to this problem as quickly as possible.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Lucht Oibre as an mBille seo a thabhairt chun cinn. Tá géarghá chun rud éigin a dhéanamh mar gheall ar mhí-úsáid ar an Idirlíon. Ireland is completely behind the curve in enacting regulatory legislation for the online and social media spheres. As things stand, the online world is self-regulated and, while that will work for most, it is just not sufficient where people set out to do damage to one another. Parents are hugely concerned about the way in which their children are being targeted by predators or bullies. Of course, others are threatened by revenge porn or the endless torment of faceless bullies hiding behind their keyboards.
From my own involvement with schools and youth clubs and as a parent, I am very conscious of the way in which many young people are exposed. They are hugely attached to technology. It is unimaginable for them to be without their phones. The phone is a significant part of their contact with their friends and social circles. That means, unfortunately, that the school bully is not left behind at the school gate. He or she follows home, right the way up the stairs and into the bedroom. It can be relentless and there is no escape. We have seen horrific examples of online abuse in recent times. There has been the case of the 14 year old Belfast girl whose pictures were poseted repeatedly on Facebook, as well as the case of Matthew Horan, the 26 year old who was using various platforms to gather images of children as young as nine years. Despite assurances from previous Ministers that there would be legislation, unfortunately, the Government has so far failed to deliver. While I acknowledge that the Minister has said he is drafting such legislation, things are moving on. Time is passing and we need things to move faster.
The Bill seeks to address issues such as stalking online, cyberbullying and revenge porn. Of course, there are benefits to the Internet and being online. It has opened up great avenues for many. I am constantly in the Chamber raising issues related to broadband and looking for greater access in various places. There is, however, a dark side which needs to be addressed. It cannot be left open and exposed as it is. For our colleagues and friends but, most of all, our children and future generations, things cannot be left as they are.
Táim ag roinnt leis an Teachta Denise Mitchell agus an Teachta Brian Stanley. Tógfaidh mise cúig nóiméad.
Ar an gcéad dul síos, cuidím leis an mBille seo.
I thank the Labour Party, and Deputy Howlin in particular, for tabling this Bill. Given the headlines and public debate of recent weeks that a number of Deputies alluded to, as well as Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's eloquent reference to the case of Zoe in her constituency, there is concern among the public. We need to reflect on that.
This legislation is valuable. It updates the law in significant ways and introduces new offences. My colleague, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien, drafted similar legislation last year, although it was never moved. The Law Reform Commission, LRC, which regularly produces valuable proposals, created the paper from which this Bill draws significantly.
As a few Deputies have reflected on, the Internet is a public space. It creates great value but also great challenges. It has already changed our relationships with one another to a large extent and will continue to change public life in ways that we are yet to imagine. That applies across a wide range of areas. Deputy Kelly mentioned how he used to be an online consultant in 2007 or so. I was doing my leaving certificate then. Although it was only a little over ten years ago, it may as well have been a generation ago. To all intents and purposes, it was a different generation from an online point of view. In terms of apps and behaviours, 2007 was like the Dark Ages by comparison. The pace of change will continue to increase.
In that context, we need a measured, proportionate and sensible response. This Bill is a part of that. While we face significant challenges, there is no sense or value in a moral panic. It would not assist us in resolving the difficulties. We need legislation that criminalises behaviours that deserve to be criminalised, increased resources for the relevant offices and legislation that ensures corporate responsibility. The Taoiseach has correctly said that there is a role for the major providers and platforms. If they are not going to perform it voluntarily, they need to be made to perform it. There is also a role for society and culture to develop where this issue is concerned. The matter is multifaceted, but this Bill plays a valuable role.
Measures that are not practical and sensible will not work. Putting in place measures that we believe protect young people but in reality just force them into finding other ways of accessing materials is not the approach to take. Balance is required.
I commend the Bill. It is a necessary updating of the law. Section 4 in particular is significant. It deals with what is often called "revenge porn" by imposing a sentence of up to seven years for distributing that kind of material or using it for blackmail purposes. It is right and proper that these be serious criminal offences, as they can create considerable trauma. It is a crime of great violence in many respects.
Section 6 deals with the liability of corporations. They can play their role voluntarily, but if they are not willing to do so, legislation will be required.
Section 11 deals comprehensively with the protection of privacy, which is important. The other sections update legislation dating from 1951, as the types of communication that exist today did not exist back then, and relate to policing behaviours in that regard.
My legislation, which I hope to move soon, proposes an office of a digital safety commissioner. Stemming from the same LRC paper, it would ensure that digital service providers - websites, social media platforms and so on - abide by minimum codes of practice and national digital safety standards. Central to that would be take-down mechanisms to remove the harmful communications referred to in this Bill. I hope to move my legislation soon and that the Government position on same will be made known.
Neither the digital safety commissioner nor this Bill is a silver bullet. Much more is required. However, both can play a significant role. I hope that the Government supports this legislation and continues to move in that direction.
I thank the Labour Party for this good Bill. When it comes to the matter of harmful communications and digital safety, we are falling far behind. In recent weeks, numerous cases have been before the courts involving young children who have been exploited online by predators. We have seen many other cases in which people have been blackmailed with the threat of intimate images being distributed to their friends and families.
Since this is an issue that the Committee on Children and Youth Affairs has been busy examining, I welcome the Dáil's focus on it today. Despite the work being done by the Garda, there is frustration among the public who fear that not enough is being done. While we must ensure that legislation is in place, we also need to make sure that the Garda has adequate resources to tackle this serious problem. The LRC has called for an office of a digital safety commissioner and my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, has a Bill to that effect, so I hope that the Government supports it.
No Deputy is suggesting that we become a nanny state. While we should be focusing on engaging with social media companies and enforcing take-down requests, the protection of children must be the top priority. We need to foster a culture of responsible Internet usage among the public, particularly young people, educate people about how to use digital resources, apps and social media in an appropriate way and ensure that they are aware of potential dangers. I am happy to support this Bill.
This is a welcome and timely Bill, given how social media and new forms of communication have grown rapidly but the law is yet to catch up. It is an area that will inevitably lead to a body of case law and require greater legislative action. This is not just about updating existing criminal law. The online communications world will need its own regulatory and governance structure.
Sinn Féin introduced a Bill on this important issue last year. Its proposals were in line with those contained in the LRC's 2016 paper and aimed to establish an office of a digital safety commissioner as a stand-alone body. Our Bill also proposed to establish an advisory committee on a statutory basis. Of the committee's membership, 50% would come from civil society organisations, 25% from industry organisations and 25% from the relevant Departments and statutory bodies. The issues of independence and digital governance would be essential.
Social media has brought in equal measure great freedom of expression, which is welcome, and an easy avenue for those with wrong intent. Unfortunately, we have seen the latter in a number of court cases in the past week or two. We will have to balance against political interference and restrictions on political expression and the vital protection of the individual and organisations from abuse and exploitation. Balance may best be achieved independently of the Government. We already regulate other areas in this way, for example, energy. There may also be a role for the Garda.
The key to dealing with online abuse, of which we have seen much, is addressing its anonymous nature. Keyboard warriors hide behind their anonymity. While I realise the difficulty in dealing with this area, accounts linked to specific individuals or businesses will not hamper freedom of expression.
It will create greater accountability and help to protect people from exploitation and abuse. That is the key to this. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and thank the Labour Party for bringing it forward. I hope the Bill can be progressed through the Houses in a speedy manner.
This is a very timely topic because over the past 20 years there have been massive changes in society due to technology. These changes have been largely progressive. People are able to get information and can communicate. There are ways to organise politically and so on through new forms of media. People are able to share their opinions, challenge media narratives, etc.
The negative aspects of social media include how it is used to facilitate cyberbullying, harassment, exploitation, the grooming of children and the controlling of women who are in abusive relationships. It is not good enough that it has taken 20 years for the Parliament to consider laws. It is as if we did not think the Internet would catch on. It is timely that this issue is being considered.
What are the types of abuse we are seeing through social media? A Women's Aid report published in 2015 referred to 293 accounts of digital abuse. Language is very important. The term "revenge porn" is not accurate. It is not revenge. The term "revenge" suggests a person did something wrong and another person is taking his or her revenge. It is not revenge or porn. Rather, it is the abuse of somebody using digital media.
According to Women's Aid, women's personal details have been shared online, lies have been told about them and they have been impersonated through their social media profile by their abusers. The most common abuse involves spreading damaging rumours online, distributing intimate images without consent and even having details advertised on so-called escort sites. We need to do some research. This abuse makes people who are the victims of it very fearful. They suffer from a lack of sleep and feel as if they have no control and that their privacy has been invaded. It is horrendous. Examples have already been given.
In one EU survey, 12% of Irish women and girls over 15 years of age had experienced stalking online. Some 50% of those described physical and online stalking. In the UK, 41% of women who were in abusive relationships experienced online abuse. We hear Deputies and people in general condemning the Internet, but this is all connected. We cannot blame the Internet. Rather, we have to blame the culture which allows these things to happen in the first place.
It is connected to particularly backward attitudes to women in society, where women's bodies are commodified throughout the media, advertising and pop culture. Women are not even meant to be independently sexual, and therefore they should be shamed, an idea which has its roots in religion. Women are victim blamed continually, something we see in comments such as "Why did she go on this date?", "Why did she go to the hotel room?" or "Why did she have her picture taken?". We see the same in rape trials and so on. It has its roots in a culture where it is accepted that men should be allowed to have an opinion or control over women in the first place.
Some of the abuse which has been referred to includes so-called upskirting and downblousing carried out by a stranger unbeknown to a woman. It could happen on public transport or anywhere else. It speaks to that culture of misogyny which is out there. There are cases where a person is known to have images which they may have shared with another person, and are then abused when the relationship breaks down, which is so-called revenge porn. As I said, we should change the language around that. Such behaviour reflects attitudes which are quite prevalent in society.
LGBT people are also victims. It will no longer be tolerated. We see that with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. People say the #MeToo campaign has gone too far, but it has not gone far enough in many ways. At least social media has allowed people who have been the victims of harassment or abuse to speak out without having to prosecute a case. That is one positive feature.
The Law Reform Commission made recommendations some time ago in respect of issues dealt with in the Bill. Perhaps the Minister could clarify exactly when he expects to be able to move legislation on this. The Law Reform Commission recommended the introduction of two new offences. One was so-called revenge porn or digital abuse, where a former or abusive partner shares images, and a second to deal with so-called upskirting and downblousing where a stranger shames a person. It also recommended the amendment of other offences, such as harassment, to include online harassment and threatening images. It is vital that it is moved on.
We have seen the impact of online abuse. People mentioned the story of Jane who had images of her posted online by an ex-boyfriend. They had been online a year before she even knew what had happened. She went to the Garda which said it could do nothing. Action needs to be taken on this. People who want to abuse others will use social media to do so.
We have heard of landmark cases where companies like Facebook have been taken to task in respect of their responsibility to ensure that children and teenagers, in particular, do not have naked pictures shared online. It is the first time Facebook has had to settle a case out of court.
There is an app which advertises the ability to track one's partner if he or she is playing away from home. One can see how that could be used against somebody who is under the control of a particular person. These are used to control and monitor a partner's movements. They do not allow a person to leave an abusive relationship. It is critical that legislation is discussed in this Parliament and brought in very quickly to deal with that. If this Bill adds to the impetus for that to be done, it is certainly welcome.
I note the core purpose of the Bill is about consolidating and reforming the criminal law concerning harmful communications. One of the difficulties with legislation is to trying keep up with the continual developments in technology. I acknowledge the work that went into the Bill, including the definitions relating to communication, stalking, harassment, intimate images and prohibited messages.
We all value technology, the advances which have been made, online convergence and the Internet. I have a lot of reservations about it being used to make so-called friends or virtual friends. I find it difficult that somebody can say he or she has hundreds if not thousands of so-called friends, whether on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter or Instagram. We know devices are fertile ground for misuse and abuse for sad, sick individuals who prey on children and young teenagers. We have seen many examples of how this has led to inappropriate and very risky behaviour. A lot of damage is being done to young people. This was highlighted in a recent court case and other cases. It also highlights the loneliness, vulnerability and need for friends and affirmation of some young people, something which is recognised by those people who use all of that to their advantage.
Apart from sexual predators, the online world is very fertile ground for bullies. Those who do not have the technical skills to understand the other world their children access face a dilemma. Some parents want to respect their children's privacy, not be overly intrusive, and do not want to jeopardise trust. They are almost being politically correct. It is a difficult one. Trusting young people at an age when they are most vulnerable to be able to make adult-type decisions is difficult. At times, parents have to throw caution and being correct aside and learn exactly what their children are up to.
The Irish Internet Safety Awareness Centre can help parents with apps, their appeal and risks to young people and how to navigate between the two.
Young people face many challenges, not just in the online world outlined in the Bill but also in their educational career and dealing with drugs, alcohol, their sexual identity and gender and sexual activity. They need the skills to navigate them. Their relationships with adults and parents are vital in that respect. This also relates to their sense of self, identity and self-esteem and being comfortable in their own skin. It is important that they have the language and confidence to navigate these feelings and issues and express themselves openly without having to turn to that other world. It is okay to say they feel lonely, sad, anxious or hurt because not expressing these feelings, not having real friends or a significant adult to talk to or share with means that they will turn increasingly to the Internet, chat lines, etc. on which they will be particularly vulnerable to those who will take advantage of them.
The offender profile shows many of the same needs, lack of self-esteem and identity, loneliness, feelings of anger and jealousy and not being able to connect. Over one quarter of all sex offenders detected by gardaí are teenagers, some as young as 13 years. I know of teachers who have been referring to what they see as inappropriate sexualised language among primary school students. There is a need for intervention and therapy, work the Northside Inter-Agency Project, NIAP, has been doing unobtrusively. I understand, however, that there are waiting lists. It is disastrous to delay that intervention and therapy. We all know of the importance of early intervention to stop behaviour worsening. Unless that happens, it is likely they will be the online predators of the future. There is a programme for jailed sex offenders who want to engage in a rehabilitation process when they show real remorse for and an awareness of what they have done. Perhaps there are those who believe they are beyond rehabilitation, but I believe in supporting those who want to rehabilitate and will be amenable to intervention.
I know that there are differences of opinion on having a digital safety commissioner, but we need to know more about the possibilities by studying international best practice. I have seen reports that the existing laws and the courts are sufficient and adequate to deal with the offences committed. Internet and technology companies have responsibilities and can do better on the issue of online safety because closing down technology is not the answer. Companies have been very remiss in neglecting to deal with the issue of cyber safety, especially for young people.
Schools can only do so much. Mobile phones have been banned from schools. Students, teachers and parents did without mobile phones for many years and parents even managed to contact schools using a landline. When I was teaching, I often had to confiscate mobile phones because they were being used during class time. We do not know what is going on in these situations. Parents are vital in taking on this issue by limiting the time their children and teenagers spend on gadgets, mobiles, smartphones, the Xbox and PlayStation. There is 24-hour access to Wi-Fi throughout the home. Parents do not know what happens when children bring their mobile phone to bed. It is a question of being lonely and friendless which is horrible for young people. We need to encourage them to socialise in other ways in real life because, apart from the dangers of online socialising, it is very lonely. It takes the human out of human interaction. I am all for helping children and young people to make real friends through sports and other activities and especially giving them the language they need to articulate what they feel and to be able to work on with what they are uncomfortable when they are engaging in some of these activities online. It is very opportune that the Labour Party has brought forward the Bill as it gives us an opportunity to discuss the issue because there is no doubt that we are behind the times on it.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak to the Bill. The issue has been raised by parents all around the constituency of Kerry. There have been tragedies as a result of cyberbullying and parents were not really aware of what was happening. Before now, children were safe when they came home and went to bed. Now blackguards of every creed and description can get at them from any part of the world, even when they are at home. The companies that are so good at providing the technology need to put in place proper regulation. The technology has moved on quickly and there are no blocks or proper ways to detect or stop things that should not be going on, especially the way teenagers and students are being blackguarded. Young people can take things to heart. People being constantly at them, even from miles away, has, sadly, created tragedies where I come from. It is harassment, endangerment and the blackguarding of youngsters and especially teenagers. We have been talking a lot about little babies for the past few days and weeks, but they are human beings too and we need to protect them. Legislation and technology together must protect them from these threats.
The Garda does not have the resources to trace the phone numbers of those who make threatening calls or do different things. Only now does it have the capability to follow someone who has committed a murder. That is not good enough. We need resources to be made available.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to speak to this important Bill and commend my colleagues in the Labour Party for bringing it forward. It aims to update and reform the criminal law in a technology neutral way as it applies to online and offline communications. These recommendations came from the Law Reform Commission's detailed report entitled, Harmful Communications and Digital Technology. It is particularly important that we update the laws on technology and electronic communications. Technology has advanced at a rapid pace in the past ten to 15 years. It is frightening to realise our laws have in no way kept up with these advances. The last occasion when the law on harassment or harmful communications was dealt with was at the time of the invention of the text message.
There has been a plague of mental health issues among the younger generation. Many say social media, online harassment and harmful communications are at the root of it. Tragically, only last week, we read about a 21 year old girl who had taken her life owing to online bullying and harassment. It was not the first case of someone taking their own life as a result of this type of harmful communication, but it must be the last. People treat social media as a free-for-all, on which they can say what they want with no repercussions. It is high time that the law dealt with these bullies and offenders. The Bill provides that a person who, intentionally and without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, persistently follows, watches, or pesters another person, or persistently communicates with another person is guilty of harassment where these acts cause alarm, distress or harm to the other person. It also regulates the unlawful distribution of a person's private and intimate images without consent. These proposals which amend the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997 and involve punishment with a term of imprisonment of between 12 months and seven years for engaging in harmful communications are much needed.
I wish it was the case that such a Bill was not necessary and that the issues I have raised did not arise but, unfortunately, they do. I support the Bill and the proposals made by other colleagues in the Dáil who intend to introduce similar cyber-safety legislation. Our laws must keep up to date with advances in technology.
I agree completely with the thrust of the Bill to regulate appropriately and-or prevent harassment on whatever media platform is used to cause it.
As always, there is a matter of some considerable difficulty in establishing where the boundaries lie between free speech and speech that can be constituted as harassment. The Bill defines harassment as actions by a person who, without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, intentionally or recklessly persistently follows, watches, pesters or besets another person; persistently communicates with another person; or persistently communicates with a third person about another person and by those acts seriously interferes with the peace and privacy of the other person or causes alarm, distress or harm to the other person. Such a person is guilty of the offence of harassment. I commend the Labour Party for bringing this Bill forward.
There is no doubt that we live now in a culture where online bullying is rampant and where the destruction of reputations is achieved with malicious ease. This must be addressed. I would suggest, however, that we do not limit ourselves to thinking that the idea of harassment is exclusively related to social media or to other online forums. There are plenty of ways in which apparently "respectable" institutions can and do engage in vicious harassment. I ask in all sincerity whether the definition of harassment that this Bill advances would capture the activity of some of the banks, mortgage providers or debt collectors towards distressed mortgage holders and other people who have loans with these institutions. They are routinely guilty in my view of intentionally pestering families. They are most certainly guilty of seriously interfering with the peace and privacy of the other person. Will this Bill capture the communications of such banks and lenders? If not, why not? We must look at that because that is terrible bullying.
I agree with the sentiment of the Bill, particularly because with young people, one would nearly get their finger nails off quicker than one would get the phone out of their hands. Unfortunately, that is the way it is. We must try to deal with this and stop the ruthless and merciless invasion of people's bedrooms and classrooms and their every living minute on this planet. It is very unfair. Every time Deputy Coppinger comes in here, she tries to blame it on the church. No matter what it is, the church, particularly the Catholic Church, must get a kick and a lash. It is a sad reflection that this is all she can bring up each time. No matter what the occasion is, she never lets it go.
I thank all of the Members who have spoken to support this very important legislation brought forward by my colleague and the leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Howlin. The question needs to be asked. How suicides, depressions and breakdowns do we require as evidence of the problems before we take any action with regard to cyberbullying, harassment, hate, hate speech and hate mail? This Bill is a modest Bill that seeks to put some powers back in the hands of society with regard to these problems, which are now pervasive not only in Ireland but across the world. Any controls over free comments are obviously controversial and difficult but racist and homophobic comments are properly subject to controls in the published media and these controls are not regarded as censorship. I think that is very important. There are domestic and international laws that require manufacturers of cars and other products to have full regard for public and consumer safety with huge penalties for any failures. Buildings are built to certain standards to prevent them being engulfed in fire and if that happens or if balconies collapse, the parties involved may be taken to court. However, we have a cyberspace and a social media space that are broadly free of regulation in any meaningful way. The mega billionaires of the Internet age who guard their own privacy with immense care are very cavalier about any controls or restrictions on the content their products transmit with no regard to the damage or hurt caused to individuals who become the targets of online abuse and hate speech. From reading books, articles and interviews by many of them, it appears that many of them, along with many of the residents of Silicon Valley, heavily restrict their own children's access to devices, particularly when they are young teenagers.
I spoke to a number of people today in the context of this Bill being put forward. One of the things that stood out was that parents, particularly mothers, said that I should make the point that children are now sharing online from about the age of ten or 11. As many people have said, it has become part of their lifestyle. Schools are not really well equipped to deal with this because much of this happens outside of school time but continues into school. It follows the child around, be it in the sports club or school environment. It risks overwhelming the child's ordinary life.
I do not know if many Members have seen a video by Luke Culhane from Limerick under the hashtag "CreateNoHate". It is very short but very good. It explains in a very simple way the journey that a young child makes with regard to the impact of bullying and how it is effectively as bad as or worse than assault. He makes a recommendation, which is that teenagers should adopt a three-word code - stop, block and tell. They should stop it, block it and then tell a responsible adult such as a parent, guardian or teacher. It is brilliantly effectively and I urge the Department of Justice and Equality to become active. The Government has a special communications unit with its €5 million allocation. In many ways, we would be better off if some of that money was put into providing for this legislation and looking at how we can empower children, in particular, to defend themselves and bring an end to this cycle of hatred, which risks overwhelming whole areas and societies.
While the social media companies have made efforts to reach out and respond on public platforms and television programmes and partake to some degree, they really do not make it easy to lodge a complaint. I invite anybody here who is aware of something like this to seek to make a complaint. To be honest, it just goes into a kind of black hole. It is almost impossible to follow and it is almost impossible to get a response. It is a really difficult issue with regard to privacy. However, like adult abuse, we all know that 100 years ago, a huge amount of violence against women was the norm in many societies and still is among some people but we have recognised that abuse is about power being exercised over somebody who, for whatever reason, is perceived as less powerful. This is what much of this is about. In respect of the state to which it reduces victims, particularly children, like others, I have heard harrowing stories from parents who have told me about suicides, depression and the destruction of somebody who was once lively, positive and strong but who has been really damaged and in some cases, destroyed by what has happened.
Fergus Finlay and Barnardos have run courses around the country. I note that many schools are now utilising home-school liaison teachers to take up the issue with the perpetrators where it is within a school-related community.
Various schools run anti-bullying campaigns which pertain in part to social media in particular. Many schools in my constituency are doing this. In Britain the Princess Diana Awards specifically reward schools that try to develop this. Quite a few schools in Ireland have developed a programme. Barnardos runs courses for parents. While much is being done, the tide of hate is very strong.
I will give a simpler example relating to adults. I found out today that Maura Derrane, a very popular presenter on television, was being taken apart on social media and subsequently in the newspapers because somebody felt that a striped jumper was not the right thing to wear on television. We need to get over ourselves a bit and not be so hurtful to other people in a thoughtless way. It has become the go-to because the people who are doing this are very confident that they have high levels of anonymity if not total anonymity. That, in turn, passes down to younger abusers, some of them children and some of them young adults. I agree with Deputy Jan O'Sullivan that some of them have issues in their own lives. They are causing a great deal of damage to others.
The Government has as good an understanding of this as any of us has; I do not believe that Ministers live in a completely isolated bubble. The Government must make a decision in principle. Will it take this legislation in hand? We will work as much as is required to address any issues that arise with the Bill. Will the Government work to bring this to a point where it can be prosecuted? If the Government decides to be hands off, then one would have to say perhaps the influence of the social media companies in Ireland is excessive. They have great tax deals. It would also seem they will potentially have great deals in how they respond to this absolute crisis of this decade.
I am speaking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Naughten. I welcome the robust debate on this measure in the House. As has been highlighted by Deputies, many tragic cases have appeared in the headlines in recent years that prove the significant harm that can be perpetrated online. We must ensure that our laws can adequately deal with such incidents so that individuals who engage in this type of behaviour are prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law.
As the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, outlined, the Law Reform Commission, in its 2016 report on harmful communications and digital safety, identified a number of areas where our response to crimes of this nature could be improved. I thank the Law Reform Commission for its valuable contribution to this debate and for identifying many opportunities for reform.
I appreciate that the Bill is attempting to capture many of those recommendations. The introduction of new offences relating to the distribution of intimate images will ensure that those individuals who post images online, or threaten to do so, can be brought to task. Clarifying the law on harassment to ensure that, regardless of the platform used, an individual who harasses another can be prosecuted would be hugely beneficial to victims and law enforcement alike.
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, believes the principle of freedom of expression is very important. It constitutes one of the fundamental foundations of a democratic society. However, it cannot be used to deny an individual’s right to privacy or to damage one’s reputation and other rights. I believe only behaviours that cause serious harm should be criminalised and I believe this Bill is taking such an approach.
However, I must echo the sentiments of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, that there is a significant amount of work to be done on this Bill before it can be enacted. As is the case with any legislation involving criminalising behaviour and imposing penalties, the principle of proportionality must apply. I particularly welcome the safeguard provided in section 10 that the DPP must consent to the prosecution of a person under 17 years.
As many Deputies know, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is leading the co-ordination of an open policy debate on the subject of online content on 8 March 2018. This event is being organised with the support and participation five other Departments: the Department of Justice and Equality; the Department of Education and Skills; the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation; the Department of Health; and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. My Department is also engaging with the relevant online platforms, ISPCC, parents’ groups and other stakeholders which will be participating in the initiative. The overall aim of the event is to raise awareness among all participants of the activities which are being undertaken by the Government, by the European Commission, by industry and by NGOs.
The establishment of an office of digital safety commissioner is one of a number of recommendations to be discussed in detail at this event. It is intended that the event will identify issues requiring further consideration and areas where additional co-operation between stakeholders would be beneficial. Following the event, I will engage further with my ministerial colleagues on these matters.
I understand from the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, that we will support the passage of the Bill on Second Stage.
In wrapping up, and responding on behalf of the Labour Party, I thank Deputy Howlin for drafting the Bill. I thank all parties for their support for the Bill. I thank the Government for facilitating the Bill in its onward trajectory.
I am disappointed at the response of the Minister, Deputy Naughten, through the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, to the issue. There has never been a more opportune and pertinent time for this legislation to be passed through the Dáil in a timely fashion because of the gravity of the issue at hand. For the Minister of State to come before the House and state there will be an open policy debate on 8 March after which the Minister will then come back and consult with his colleagues suggests that the Minister is embarking on another consultative process that will falter and run into the ground.
Members of the Minister of State's party along with me and others are members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. We have had ongoing engagement with the telecommunications providers on the need for safety and a legislative mechanism to ensure safety on the Internet.
It is not appropriate to engage in another open policy debate given that we have had the 2013 independent expert Internet content and governance advisory group, the Law Reform Commission report and now this legislation arising from the Law Reform Commission report. There is no need for another consultation when everybody within the community knows that legislative action is needed. The parents of children do not feel confident in engaging with the technology without a 100% penetration in the schools of the programmes available. People now want guidance from this House to ensure the space children inhabit on the Internet is safe and that there are mechanisms in place to punish those who transgress. That is the purpose of the legislation.
The offence of harassment is found in the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. This new version provides that a person who intentionally or recklessly and without lawful authority or reasonable excuse engages in harassment is subject to the punishment of a class-A fine. This allows for the development of the new media that have arisen in recent years and these new media are reflected in the legislation, making it fit for purpose.
That is what we are doing today. It is worrying that our harassment laws do not currently cover communications that we use every day, including iMessages, WhatsApp and Facebook messages. Our laws have not been updated since the invention of the text message. Young people, who are primarily the victims of cyberbullying and revenge porn, are more likely to use WhatsApp, iMessage and Snapchat to communicate with each other and we need to ensure that they are protected under our laws and that we have a legal basis that reflects these new media. While protecting freedom of expression, we need to bring the law up to date to protect people online. Revenge porn, threats, false messages and online bullying need to be stopped. There needs to be punitive action against it online. As a parent, I appreciate that children are becoming more tech-savvy than ever so it is imperative that we educate parents and teachers on the dangers on the Internet. Young people, our children, are often aware of the dangers of sharing images or video. However, they may not realise how easy it is for another person to take images and share them online. We are clear on what constitutes online bullying. The procedures recently published by the Department of Education and Skills, for instance, say "placing a once-off offensive or hurtful public message, image or statement on a social network site or other public forum where that message, image or statement can be viewed and/or repeated by other people will be regarded as bullying behaviour." It can happen to anyone.
We are here tonight to seek to ensure that this House takes a primary role by establishing a legislative framework to reflect the Law Reform Commission's report on this matter. I note the response of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, to the Bill. We believe strongly that the Bill can be amended as needed in a fitting way. There is a clear political consensus here across the party political divide that we should ensure that punitive measures are put in place for when people transgress. The existence of the media should be recognised and the law updated to recognise it. I ask the Minister not to turn 8 March into another talking shop. I go back to the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, a cross-party committee which has deliberated on this issue for months, going into years. It may be wonderful for people to gather on 8 March and feel like they are taking action on the issue but I suspect that, at that event, a report will be drafted arising from the interventions at that event, it will go through the machinery and nothing will happen. The Minister himself has said that he will appoint an online digital safety commissioner and that he will wait until the forum on 8 March, and that will set the foundations of the new office. If the Minister is going to wait until then, he will be waiting until kingdom come.
The Minister has an opportunity to respond to the legislation before this House which has cross-party support; seeks to identify all that is good on the Internet; recognises that organisations such as the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland are very good at take-down notices but that they cannot be policemen of the Internet and are mere conduits with regard to the content that goes across the Internet; and that we cannot expect a self-regulatory regime to persist. We believe in this party that the parents of Ireland now want a legislative and legally sound response to the fears that they have about the activities that exist on the Internet. They have been well-articulated in the debate heretofore.
We thank Members of this House for their support of this Bill and acknowledge that there have been other attempts to bring in legislation of this nature, which is an ongoing process. I think that all of us in this House have an opportunity now to do some very good non-partisan work. I hope the Minister will take a proactive approach to this legislation. If we are to capture the zeitgeist that exists throughout the homes of Ireland at present, there is a strong sense that parents want clarity on the legislation to ensure that there are punitive measures for the cases we have witnessed in recent months, in particular that of Mr. Horan. It is important to say that, in that particular case, the US authorities picked up on that gentleman's activities and made contact with the gardaí about a particular email account being used. It is important that, in the course of talking about this legislation, we ensure that the Government, through the Department of Justice and Equality, is deploying resources to the gardaí. There are not enough people deployed within the gardaí to try to tackle crimes of this nature. There needs to be a debate about the need to resource the gardaí to be able to tackle this issue, which I hope will happen in the course of this legislation.