Thursday, 7 May 2015
I raise this matter on the Commencement of the House today to call for the creation of a single body to lead the charge against cyberbullying, work on awareness and establish an educational campaign on the issue. Currently, eight Government bodies are involved in tackling the issue of cyberbullying, including the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Office of Internet Safety, the Data Protection Commissioner, the Commission for Communications Regulation and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. Such a broad arrangement is not conducive the to type of urgent and dedicated attention required to deal effectively with the issue of cyberbullying. A cyberbullying task force would also act as an invaluable source of support, training and knowledge sharing.
As has so often been reported, teachers, parents and young people throughout the country are struggling to deal with issues related to cyberbullying and are crying out for additional supports. A cyberbullying task force would provide desperately needed tools of empowerment and education to enable citizens to navigate online environments safely and confidently without any fear. There is no doubt about the many freedoms and benefits we enjoy in the Internet age, but cyberbullying detracts from these and causes a great deal of hurt and distress that has very real effects on people and their lives. It is time for us as a Government to mobilise against such behaviour and to render cyberbullying as unacceptable as bullying in the offline world. By establishing a dedicated cyberbullying task force and implementing the kind of legislation the former Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, and I have proposed, the Government would send a strong message of support to those in need and a clear message of intent to those who offend.
We have seen the wonderful work that agencies like the Road Safety Authority have done to curb road traffic accidents and fatalities. Given that cyberbullying is ageless and the biggest issue confronting generations of online users, we ought to be as proactive as possible when dealing with it. With that in mind, I ask the Minister to consider earnestly my submission.
I thank Senator Lorraine Higgins for raising this matter. The pervasive use of social media together with the rise of connected mobile devices has created a new and unique set of challenges for individuals and Government. The issues are complex. The Internet is difficult to regulate and a balance must be struck between preserving freedom of expression online and protecting all our citizens from cyberbullying and harmful and grossly offensive content, particularly, but not exclusively, children.All governments across the world are grappling with the challenge of finding an appropriate model for the governance of online content. A cohesive Government response to this issue is necessary to achieve a safe and healthy online environment, which allows us to enjoy the many benefits of the Internet without exposure to unacceptable behaviour or risk.
Aspects of the legal and administrative system have adapted to the issues posed by electronic communications, and work has also been undertaken at European Union level. The European Digital Single Market promises to bring new standards of accountability to the online world and provide greater powers for individual citizens to respond to online wrongs. Here in Ireland, the Government established the Internet content governance advisory group in late 2013 to provide independent, expert advice on these matters. The ICGAG's comprehensive analysis and recommendations were brought to Cabinet and published last June. The ICGAG's recommendations have formed the basis of subsequent action, including the establishment of a cross-departmental group that is considering how best to implement the recommendations.
This cross-departmental group is chaired by an official from my Department, and includes representatives from the Departments of Health, Justice and Equality, Children and Youth Affairs, and Education and Skills. The group is also taking account of the issues identified by the Law Reform Commission in its issues paper on cybercrime affecting personal safety and privacy, including cyberbullying. The group will report back to Government shortly and the final report will be published in due course. I look forward to having a debate in this House on that report to see how best we can move this agenda forward at that stage.
I agree with the Senator that the issue of cyberbullying would be best addressed in this context if only because the distinction between cyberbullying and other forms of undesirable online behaviour is unclear. I understand the Senator listed eight Government bodies including a number of Departments that have an involvement in the area. While it would be desirable and essential to have a coherent response, it is inevitable that different bodies will still have some responsibility over this area. For example, for broadcasting the regulator is the BAI; the criminal dimension is the responsibility of the Department of Justice and Equality, and the Garda Síochána; the Data Protection Commissioner's responsibilities are set out in legislation and so on. That said, I have considerable sympathy with the Senator, whose work in the area is well acknowledged, in saying that the response must be coherent, pulling together all the strands of Government activity both within Government and through agencies. I look forward to discussing how best to achieve that when I bring a report to Government following the cross-departmental group's analysis of the ICGAG report.
I thank the Minister for his response. I accept that cyberbullying issues will always straddle various Departments. However, I am suggesting having one dedicated task force.
While enacting law in the area is one thing, it is essential to have awareness and education. I recently spoke to a number of teenagers at an event. They did not have a clue as to whether they were cyberbullying and it took a long time to get that point through to them. The number of gardaí, students, teachers and parents, who have contacted me since I came out and spoke publicly about my experience, proves that this is a very serious issue. At least three young people have told me they are self-harming as a consequence of the online bullying in their lives. With due respect, the issue needs to be addressed with urgency. The Department needs to act as swiftly as possible as soon as the report from the cross-departmental group becomes available.
I do not disagree with the Senator. We need to find the most appropriate instruments, which requires consideration and care as to how we proceed. I can always understand frustration over the time it can take for decisions to be made. I again draw the Senator's attention to the extensive recommendations in the ICGAG report, which is a very strong report in many respects. It requires me to pull together activity in different Departments to ensure the cohesive approach the Senator correctly advocates. I look forward to returning to the issue in this House with the Senator at some point in the not too distant future.