Friday, 18 December 2020
Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister of State. I also commend Deputy Howlin for instigating this important Bill which he first introduced in 2017. I am pleased that the Government has worked constructively to bring it to fruition. It is regrettable that it did not take the same approach to Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire’s Bill on establishing an online safety commissioner. Maybe as a new year’s resolution, the Government would set out to work with the Opposition on Private Members’ Bills, especially where they seek to address real gaps and deficiencies in our legislation.
Since the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill was restored to the Order Paper in September, it has moved swiftly, which is to be welcomed. That is because a truly collaborative approach has been taken by all parties, which reflects the seriousness of the issue. Through co-operation and a genuine desire to make this legislation robust and fit for purpose, many of the loopholes highlighted at the start of the process have now been addressed. That said, there are, as has been conceded by many Senators today, area that can be improved. A number of amendments have been submitted and I am sure the Senators who submitted them will speak on them later.
I share the view of many organisations that we need to get this Bill passed as soon as possible to put the critical protections in place. We have seen the devastation that was caused when the Victims Alliance discovered that thousands of images of women and girls had been shared online. I commend Linda Hayden and the Victims Alliance on their Trojan efforts in bringing that situation to light. Up to 140,000 intimate and sexual photos were shared without consent and traded on the Internet like children would trade trump cards. This is a profound violation of the rights of women and girls. I cannot even imagine the hurt, pain and emotional toll it would take to be told or to find out that one has been violated in this way.
It is long overdue that we as a nation face up to the fact that we have a problem with consent in Ireland and that we need to start addressing it immediately. It is too late at third level. We have to start much earlier. The Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution made recommendations on sexual health and relationships education and called for these to be addressed in our school system, youth clubs and all organisations involved in education and interaction with young people. The case for education on consent was never so stark as when one scrolled through the responses to those who had highlighted the online sharing of intimate images. It was terrifying to see the level of victim blaming and misogyny that poured out over the Internet. Just because consenting adults create and share intimate images does not mean that those images can be widely shared with random strangers or friends.
I disagree with Senator Craughwell. It is absolutely up to individuals, whether they are in relationships or not, to share images if they so desire. The issue is whether those images are shared with others.I welcome that the Bill has been amended to include deep-faking, which involves the superimposition of someone's face onto someone else's body and is becoming a more common form of image-based sexual abuse. Everybody agrees this is good legislation, even with the omissions, and it will provide essential protections that are currently lacking leading to exploitation due to the lack of legislation in Ireland. Getting this Bill passed today is critical because we need it. It will be beneficial to the safety of women and girls. That said, the legislation is only as good as its ability to be enforced. We tend to be good at passing legislation but not so good at implementing it. Ireland has a disturbingly low rate of detection and sanction of sexual offences and other forms of gender-based violence.
We need to hear commitments from the Minister of State that the Garda will be fully resourced and that its members will be trained to deal with reports made under this legislation and provided with the technology and the powers to ensure material can be taken down swiftly from the Internet and that those responsible for the offences will be pursued with vigour. We also need assurances that victims will be treated with the utmost care and professionalism when they come forward.
I thank Jackie Fox, who has fought tirelessly to get laws enacted to deal with online bullying. We have all heard how Jackie's beautiful daughter Nicole, known affectionately as Coco, was subjected to relentless online bullying, which eventually led to her suicide. It is only through the campaigning of her devastated mother that this Bill is brought to the Dáil and the Seanad. It is only right that the Bill should be known as Coco's Law. Coco was a beautiful young woman with her whole life ahead of her. When she needed the protection of this State, it was not there. That changes today and that is a good thing.