Wednesday, 8 March 2017
Telecommunications Services Provision
I thank the Minister for coming today. We are delighted to see he has made a good recovery. The Minister has seen the outline of my Commencement matter on the regulation of SIM cards and SIM-only, ready-to-go and pay-as-you-go phones. Many of the larger companies have this quite well regulated. They look for identification, proof of age and utility bills before they sell any of these. I was surprised to learn this is not the policy of all companies and is not in legislation. If it is, some of them are flouting it. There has been a huge increase in cyber bullying, trolling and sexting. They are things that are heavily prevalent among teenagers. It is causing fundamental problems in our society. Many gardaí will say that criminals are prospering by hiding behind anonymous identities. I am curious about that. The Minister knows the general point. I will not delay him because he has a busy portfolio and was here yesterday as well. I am curious what our stance is on this. What does the Minister see as the way forward in tightening up the regulations?
I thank Senator Davitt for raising a very valid question on an important issue. From a telecommunications perspective, Ireland favours easy access by our citizens to mobile communications on the basis that such access is of benefit to society. There is currently no Irish legal requirement to register the personal details of owners of SIM cards. Where mobile service providers are extending a line of credit in the form of telecommunications services to bill paying customers, assurances are sought that the bills issued will be received and paid and that any relevant debt will be recoverable. In that regard, personal data such as proof of identification and residence are collected and processed for legitimate business purposes and solely in connection with the delivery of the mobile service. For SIM cards and prepaid phones with no line of credit being extended, no requirement for collecting personal details arises. Although there is currently no mandatory registration system for SIM cards in Ireland, there is a voluntary registration system in place for prepaid phones which has a high take-up because of incentives offered by operators. Customers have tended to register their details on foot of being offered commercial incentives for doing so, such as top-up credit. My Department would only legislate in this area if there was comprehensive evidence emerging to indicate a widespread or serious problem which a policy change would rectify. The proposal to register all customers for mobile phone services was considered previously by my Department and identified complex legal, technical, data protection and practical issues. Such issues include the ease with which a foreign or stolen SIM card could be used, the difficulties that would be posed by verifying identity in the absence of a national identification card system and data protection issues arising from the development of a register. It was concluded that the proposal would be of limited benefit because it would not solve the illegal or inappropriate use of mobile phones by persons determined to abuse the technology. Furthermore it was found that data protection issues associated with the concept and the routine collection and retention of individuals' personal data information would be contrary to the Data Protection Acts 2008 and 2013. There are no proposals to compel mobile telephone service providers to register all customers.
As the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, I continue to support the mobile industry in its work on a safe and responsible use of mobile phones. I am aware that representative groups within the telecommunications sector are alert to the need to adopt high standards for mobile operators on parental controls for the access by minors to mobile services. In that regard, three operators - Three Ireland, Vodafone and Meteor - have, since 2014, developed a code of practice for application in the Irish market. The code establishes the standard which mobile operators will adhere to on issues of parental controls for minors' access to mobile services, malicious or offensive communications, spam, internet access, premium rate service and access controls for content services. While I have overall responsibility for electronic communications policy, the Senator will appreciate that policy responsibility in respect of combatting crimes that might take advantage of or abuse electronic communications rests with the Minister for Justice and Equality. Policy responsibility in respect of child protection rests with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The Seanad will also appreciate that prevention, detention and investigation of criminal conduct is a matter for An Garda Síochána.
There are also civil liberty issues at play here. ComReg, as the telecommunications regulator, seeks proof of identification from its bill paying customers purely for the purposes of billing. That is an entirely separate matter from any policy developments that might be considered in criminal justice or child protection spheres. If the State wanted the register to identify all owners or users of mobile phones, it would be a matter for the relevant Minister.
I thank the Minister. It is not a simple issue to solve. I would be the last person to trumpet any state or anything to that effect. The Minister hit on quite a valid point when he said the three main operators have a voluntary code of practice for this. I do not say this lightly. We have regulation for underage drinking and we are very regimental in carrying out stings on publicans to make sure they are held to account and run good shows. It is not right to give mobile phones or access to mobile phones to kids of any age. It is causing serious issues in households which will become bigger problems going forward. The Minister hit on it there. The code of practice used by the large companies is good. We should not hide behind regulation and privacy. It is possible to bring in a minimum age for use of a phone. If a parent wants to give a kid a phone and flout the regulation that is his or her own business. A minimum age for access to a mobile phone of perhaps 14, 15 or 16 is the way forward.
To bring in a law on mobile phones, we have to ask what a mobile phone is. It is a mobile device not a mobile phone. Most of the tablets we have now also have SIM cards or are linked up to mobile phones. My children have tablets in school. The school has purchased them. I was in Roscommon Community College during the week and rather than having e-books and using e-learning, the children now bring in their device, whether it is a mobile phone or a tablet, and they can link up with the services that are there.
Of course they do. I do not agree with the Senator's proposal to have a ban on the use of mobile phones at particular ages. The only way we could do that is to have a ban on the use of the SIM card rather than the device as a result of the way technology is changing. With the wider use of the internet, we will see a situation where very small children will have a bracelet with a SIM card in it in case they get lost. That is the way technology is going and the way the internet is developing. That kind of regulation will not happen but there are a number of things we can do. We need to make parents far more aware of the issues.We need to strengthen the legislation in this area and I am actively considering this. The Law Reform Commission has examined this and I have already said I am exploring issues in this area. In fact, there is a paper on the subject on my desk as I speak.
It is important to remember that we are part of the European Union. In recent weeks, after a long period of negotiation, we successfully signed up to the EU "roam like at home" initiative, which will allow mobile telephone users in Ireland to roam right across the European Union and pay the exact same charges they would pay here in Ireland from 15 June. That is a reciprocal arrangement. It means any SIM card from abroad that comes here and that could be unregistered can also be used here. We all know that people who want to avoid detection will easily find ways of doing so. Putting in place an administrative system that registers 99.999% of SIM cards will still not deal with the criminal issue. Powers exist to intercept telecommunications messages. I am quite willing to examine these on a national or European basis to determine whether we need to review them to deal with criminal activity.
What we need to do is make people more aware of the risks and work with the various companies. Gmail, for example, has an age limit for registration and it opens up quite a number of services. There are a number of responsible companies at present. Many more of them would like to put more formalised procedural structures in place, just as 3, Vodafone and Meteor have done in regard to their codes of practice. In general, the device companies, operators and social media companies moving into this space are very anxious to put in place the types of child protection measures that should be in place. That is better because, if we can achieve this, not only will it apply to Ireland, but Ireland will effectively regulate what happens in Europe. This can apply right across the European Union and protect children no matter where they live in the Union.
I thank the Minister. I appreciate the work he is doing. He mentioned to me outside that legislation is proposed. I appreciate all the hard work he is doing in regard to this and I hope this can feed into it. The last thing I want is a ban on people using phones. What we are doing is the way forward but a certain amount of regulation is required. At present, a five-year-old child could rock up to a shop, get a SIM card and gain access to anything he or she wants. This is not good enough.