Friday, 18 December 2020
Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017: Second Stage
I am delighted to introduce the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill to the House today, following its approval by the Dáil yesterday. As Senators will be aware, this Bill is a Private Members' Bill, sponsored by Deputy Brendan Howlin, which was heavily based on recommendations made by the Law Reform Commission in its 2016 Report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety. The report identified areas of the law in relation to harmful communications online that needed to be strengthened to ensure that people are adequately protected. I thank Deputy Howlin for introducing this important Bill and for working with the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and me to get it to this point.
I also thank Senators for agreeing to take all Stages of this Bill in the House today. I think we all agree that the issues addressed in the Bill are significant and I welcome the support it has received from across the Oireachtas. I understand and appreciate that Senators would probably have preferred more time to consider the issues involved. However, I think there is an appetite to get this done before the end of the year, and we can all be happy that we will have done work of real value today, when the Bill completes its passage.
The Bill was amended significantly on Committee Stage in the Dáil to reflect the policy aims of the legislation and to strengthen its provisions. As a result of these structural changes, my Department has published a new explanatory memorandum to the Bill on the Oireachtas website. The new memorandum recognises the role of victims in campaigning for a change in the law, particularly Ms Jackie Fox, who tragically lost her daughter Nicole to suicide. I thank Ms Fox for sharing her story and for keeping these issues in the spotlight.
In today's world, more and more of our interactions and communications are taking place online. While this has been a largely positive advancement which enables us to communicate instantly with people anywhere in the world, it can also mean that people who wish to do us harm have a readily accessible platform from which to do so. This Bill will strengthen our response to harm perpetrated online, as well as offline, to ensure that individuals can be punished in a proportionate manner.
Senators will recall the recent leak of intimate images that was reported widely in the media. While I cannot comment on any individual cases, there was obvious concern that the once-off sharing of intimate images without consent is not a criminal offence in Ireland. The Bill addresses this by creating two offences to deal with this behaviour. The first will address the distribution or publication of an intimate image without consent with intent to cause harm to the victim. It will also be an offence to threaten to distribute or publish such an image. The second offence is a strict liability offence to target the recording, distribution or publication of an intimate image without consent, with no requirement to prove an intention to cause harm. These two offences will mean that this type of activity will no longer go unpunished.
The Bill will also deal with other areas of harmful communications by creating a new offence of distributing, publishing or sending a threatening or grossly offensive communication with intent to cause harm and will extend the current offence of harassment to deal with communications about a person, as well as communications to a person. I am confident that these offences will act as a real deterrent and will make people think twice about the type of behaviour they are engaging in online.
It must be acknowledged that while this Bill is a positive development, the criminal law is not the only way to tackle the spread of harmful communications. Education and awareness-raising, particularly among young people, is also crucial to ensuring the Internet is a safer place for all users. The Government's action plan for online safety addresses a number of areas for improvement and work is ongoing to that end.
Turning to the detail of the Bill, I would like to outline its key provisions. Section 1 defines the key terms used in the Bill, the most notable being the term “intimate image”, which is used in the offences created under sections 2 and 3. This definition was subject to much debate in the Dáil and it has been amended, taking account of some of the concerns raised by Deputies.It does not require that the person was the subject of the original image, so long as they are represented in the image in some way. The term "harm" is defined as including psychological harm. This is extremely important, as much of the impact of the offences in the Bill will be psychological. The word "communication" is not defined. This is to ensure that it does not limit the wide interpretation of this concept to date in the courts.
Section 2 creates a new offence to deal with the publication or distribution of an intimate image without consent with intent to cause harm, or being reckless as to whether harm is caused. The person who distributes or publishes the intimate image must have intended, or been reckless as to whether these acts would seriously interfere with the peace and privacy of the other person or cause the other person harm, alarm or distress. This will be considered in light of whether a reasonable person would think that the behaviour would interfere with the peace and privacy of the other person, or cause him or her harm, alarm or distress. Threatening to distribute or publish such an intimate image is also an offence. The maximum penalties for this offence for conviction on indictment are up to seven years' imprisonment and-or an unlimited fine.
Section 3 is the second offence to be introduced in relation to intimate images. It provides for an offence of recording, distributing or publishing an intimate image without consent. This is a strict liability offence, as the person who records, distributes or publishes an intimate image without consent does not need to have a requisite intention to cause harm. It will be sufficient that the taking, recording or distribution of the intimate image seriously interfered with the other person's peace and privacy or caused him or her harm, alarm or distress. This is aimed at voyeuristic behaviour where an individual may not even know the victim. The maximum penalty for this offence on summary conviction is 12 months' imprisonment and-or a €5,000 fine. Senators will appreciate that strict liability offences do not attract the same penalties as those where there is a clear intention to cause harm.
The Law Reform Commission, in its 2016 report, recognised the harmful effect that one single message may have on the person who receives it. While we have strong laws in respect of persistent communication, there should be an offence to tackle once-off harmful messages through the use of any platform. Therefore, section 4 provides for an offence of distributing, publishing or sending a threatening or grossly offensive communication. This offence applies to all forms of messages or communications. It will be an offence to send a threatening or grossly offensive message where the person who is sending the message or communication intends to cause harm to the person who is the recipient of the message. This offence is intended to deal with the most harmful forms or messages and communications, both online and offline, where there is a clear intent to cause harm. This offence is narrow in scope to ensure there is no undue interference in freedom of speech and to avoid criminalising adverse comment, for example. The maximum penalties for this offence for conviction on indictment are two years' imprisonment and-or an unlimited fine.
Section 5 provides for the anonymity of victims of an offence under sections 2 or 3 of the Bill, that is, the two offences that deal with the recording, distribution or publication of intimate images without consent. Section 5(1) creates an offence where any person distributes or publishes any information that may lead to the identification of the victim of the offences.
Under section 5(2), a judge may, if it is in the interests of justice to do so, direct that certain information may be published or broadcast in such manner and subject to such conditions, if any, as he or she specifies in the direction. I brought forward an amendment to this section on Report Stage yesterday to make it an explicit requirement on a judge to take into account the views of the victim in such a direction. It shall be an offence if any person publishes or broadcasts any information in contravention of a direction under section 5(2).
The maximum penalties for conviction on indictment for an offence under this section are up to three years' imprisonment and-or an unlimited fine. It shall be a defence for a person to prove that he or she was not aware that the material published or broadcast was material that was subject to the provisions of this section or a direction under this section.
Section 6 provides for the liability of corporate bodies as well as officers and directors of corporate bodies in respect of the offences under the Bill.
Section 7 relates to summary prosecutions. There is normally a six-month time limit for the bringing of summary proceedings under the Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act 1851. This has been extended to two years for summary offences under this Bill to ensure that there is sufficient time for evidence gathering, particularly where mutual legal assistance may be required if data is held outside the State.
Section 8 is an important safeguard in respect of prosecutions against children under the age of 17 years. The consent of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, must be given prior to proceedings for an offence under the Bill where the alleged offender is under 17 years of age.
Section 9 amends the Schedule to the Bail Act 1997 to include the offence of distributing, publishing, or threatening to distribute or publish, an intimate image without consent with intent to cause harm, or being reckless as to whether harm is caused, under section 2 of this Bill. This will mean that a member of An Garda Síochána may make an objection to bail under the 1997 Act in the case of a person who is remanded in custody for an offence under section 2 of this Bill.
Section 10 amends the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997 to strengthen the offence of harassment under that Act. The amendment will provide that harassment may be as a result of persistent communication with a person but also persistent communication about a person, sometimes referred to as indirect harassment. The maximum penalty for harassment has been increased from seven years' imprisonment to ten years' imprisonment to reflect the serious nature of harassment and the wide range of behaviours it represents.
Section 11 amends section 40 of the Domestic Violence Act 2018 to include the offences at sections 2 and 3 of the Bill as "relevant offences" for the purposes of that section. Section 40 provides that where a "relevant offence" is committed against a "relevant person", it shall be an aggravating factor for the purposes of sentencing for that offence. This means that it will be an aggravating factor for the purposes of sentencing a person for an offence under section 2 or section 3 of the Bill if that person is the spouse or civil partner of the victim, or is, or was, in an intimate relationship with the victim.
Section 12 provides that a review of the operation of the Act must be carried out within three years of the date from which it was commenced.
Section 13 provides for the Short Title and commencement of the Act and is a standard provision.
We can all agree that this Short Bill represents a big step forward in terms of harassment and harmful communications, and I am hopeful that the support in the Dáil for the Bill will be echoed in this Chamber. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and I are both strongly supportive of this Bill. Deputy Howlin made the point yesterday that this is an evolving area and it is an issue that we are likely to have to come back to in the not too distant future, to address new technologies and trends in online activity. I could not agree more on this point. That being said, I am looking forward to a good debate on this measure here today and I commend the Bill to the House.
I would like to join with the Minister of State in paying tribute to the courage of Jackie Fox, whose daughter Nicole died in the most tragic of circumstances, and whose championing of this campaign on behalf of her daughter and everyone in this State has led to this Bill being put forward. I pay tribute to Deputy Howlin and the Labour Party for pursuing this Bill. I know it has broad support, but it is important that this legislation has been put forward to protect people from those who intend to cause them harm.
I welcome the Minister of State back to the Chamber. As the Cathaoirleach outlined, Fianna Fáil is delighted to support this important legislation which is referred to as Coco's Law, in memory of Nicole Fox Fenlon. We are thinking of Nicole's family at this time, particularly given the time of year, and our thoughts are with them.
The Bill provides for the creation of two new offences in respect of the publication and distribution of intimate images without consent. The first offence concerns the distribution of intimate images without consent, or the threat to do so, with the intent to cause harm. The second relates to the distribution or sharing of such images without consent. It also provides for a number of other measures to strengthen the State's response to harassment, including increasing the maximum sentence for harassment to ten years' imprisonment, civil restraint orders, and providing that harassment may be the result of persistent communication about an individual rather than directly to an individual's face.
Recently, there was an outcry following a case that was widely publicised. Unfortunately, this case was not an isolated incident, and there have been numerous reports of individuals, the vast majority of whom are women, who have been targeted with such abuse. Yesterday evening, on the way home, I listened to Senator Hoey who is present today, as she outlined on the radio, her experience with harassment. I sympathise with her and I admire her bravery in that regard. The level of abuse to which the Senator was subjected is not good enough and simply should not be tolerated by anyone. For that reason, I wish to commend Deputy Howlin, Senator Bacik and the Labour Party for their great work on this issue.I am delighted that further action will be taken in the month ahead to address harmful behaviour online through the online safety and media regulation Bill. I welcome that Bill and I look forward to it coming before the Houses.
On a more general note, I too am sometimes depressed by the level of abuse generally on social media. I use some social media platforms, mainly to pass on information to the public rather than to give my opinion on any particular item. I am amazed at the level of abuse that comes back in my direction. I suppose it is part of the game we are in to a certain extent but it is sad nevertheless. I often think that if I posted online the winning numbers for next week's lottery draw, there is no doubt that certain individuals would come back with a range of abuse and personal attacks aimed at me. All Members have to accept such abuse, although maybe we should not have to accept it. It is very sad that it has come to that point. Unfortunately, that is the world in which we live today.
I very much welcome the Bill. I am delighted that we in Fianna Fáil will be 100% behind it.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, who is present, and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, for absolutely prioritising this legislation. It is among the most important legislation to come before the Houses this year. The fact that it was prioritised in the programme for Government sends a very strong message to the perpetrators of these vile online crimes that their actions are not just wrong and immoral, but that they are now illegal and that they will be criminalised for these activities.
There is one plea I wish to make to the Minister of State. He has acknowledged the work of Jackie Fox in terms of highlighting the whole area of cyberbullying. Indeed, credit is due to Ms Fox and many other civil society organisations such as Rape Crisis Network Ireland, the Victims Alliance and the National Women's Council of Ireland, which have done a significant amount of work in terms of ensuring this legislation was a priority. I also acknowledge the work of Deputy Howlin and the Labour Party on this issue.
As I stated in the House two or three weeks ago, the Bill should be known as Coco's Law for several reasons. We need to recognise the significant work done by Jackie Fox in memory of her daughter. Young people in particular may not be attuned to the parliamentary language we use around legislation and it may be that the Bill being known simply as Coco's Law would make it more relevant, particularly for the younger people who we wish to help and support. I ask that this proposal be considered again.
The fact that the Bill creates two new offences relating to the publication and distribution of intimate images without consent is very important. The first of those offences relates to the distribution of intimate images without consent or the threat to distribute those images with the intent to cause harm and the second relates to the actual distribution or sharing of images without consent. The creation of those offences is very important but there are several other important measures contained in the Bill to strengthen the response of the State to harassment, including increasing the maximum sentence for harassment to ten years, provision for civil restraint orders and offences relating to persistent communication about an individual.
All Senators know and have spoken in the Chamber about the significant shock to young women in particular that was caused by the 10,000 intimate images and videos, mainly of Irish women, that were shared without consent. That is the clearest indicator to date of the urgent need to address image-based harassment. Of course, Members also know about other individual situations.
It is very important to note that further action to address harmful behaviour online needs to be taken following the passage of this Bill. Of course, that will be done through the online safety and media regulation Bill, as well as the fact that there will be an online safety commissioner.
There is much to be commended in the Bill. One particular issue of note is the fact that it will be irrelevant that consent was given for an intimate image to be taken. The fact that it will be irrelevant in terms of a case going to court is very important, particularly to young women who ended up with a sense of guilt or shame because they allowed an image to be taken with consent by a person with whom they were in a trusting relationship at the time. I thank the Minister of State for his work. I commend and support the Bill.
I thank my Independent Group colleagues, particularly Senator Craughwell, for swapping their time with the Labour Party Senators. In light of the unusual origins of the Bill, it is appropriate that the Labour Party would have the opportunity to lead for the Opposition on the Bill and I am delighted to do so.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I ask him to pass on our words of thanks to the Minister, Deputy McEntee, who has done so much to pilot the Bill through the Houses following its initiation in the Dáil three years ago by my Labour Party colleague, Deputy Howlin. I pay tribute to Deputy Howlin, who led on this issue from the start and initiated the legislation. His enormous contribution to law reform in this area has very fairly been acknowledged by all in the Dáil and in this House also. I am delighted to see that the revised explanatory memorandum published with the Bill this week recognises the role of Deputy Howlin and the fact that the Bill started as an Opposition Bill introduced by the Labour Party but has now been taken up by the Government through a constructive engagement process with Deputy Howlin and has been steered through the Dáil with support from all parties and Independents. I hope it will make similarly smooth progress, albeit with robust debate, in this House.
I also wish to pay tribute to the extraordinary campaigning work of so many whose lives have been so severely affected by the scourge of online abuse, digital bullying and so on. I refer in particular to Jackie Fox, the mother of Nicole Coco Fox Fenlon. Nicole, who was known by the nickname "Coco", tragically took her own life tragically in 2018 at the young age of 21 following years of being subjected to vicious abuse and bullying online. I again thank the Minister of State and the Minister for revising the explanatory memorandum. It states:
The content of this Bill is strongly influenced by persons who have lost their lives because of online abuse, in particular Nicole Fox. The Bill is in recognition of her mother’s determination to honour the memory of her daughter and to strengthen the law so that others can be safer. As a result this Bill can be referred to as Coco’s Law.
That is a really fitting way of marking the enormous contribution made to law reform by Nicole's mother and the other bereaved families who have lost young people to suicide, often as a result of serious online abuse and bullying. Deputy Howlin hosted an incredibly moving event outside Leinster House some months ago which I know a number of colleagues attended and at which we heard directly from Jackie Fox and other parents as to the seriously detrimental effect that online bullying had on their children and teenagers. That brought home to many of those present the very serious nature of this phenomenon and the need for law reform in this area. As I stated, Deputy Howlin pioneered this legislation and had originally introduced the Bill in 2017. Thanks to the galvanising of support from across the House and, indeed, thanks to the support of the Minister, Deputy McEntee, the Bill has been progressed much more swiftly in this Oireachtas term and for that I thank colleagues.That is why, in the interests of seeing it passed into law now without further delay, we have listed it to be taken through all Stages today. That was by assent of all of us represented at a recent leaders and Whips meeting.
Many NGOs have also engaged very constructively with the process and are anxious to see the Bill become law. Safe Ireland sent us a very powerful email last night asking for the swift passage of this law with no further delay. I pay tribute to Safe Ireland, the Rape Crisis Network and all the other NGOs that have been so actively engaged in respect of the Bill, including the National Women's Council and Women's Aid, which have done great work to support survivors and victims of domestic abuse in recent months. Women's Aid and others are seeking further improvements to the Bill even at this late hour. However, I believe colleagues appreciate that there is an imperative to get the Bill passed in order to ensure that we have, for the first time, a robust legal framework to protect those who are suffering from online abuse and harassment, including the sharing of intimate images we have seen reported in recent months.
Once it is introduced, legislation is subject to amendment. I quote Deputy Howlin, who on this point on Report Stage in the Dáil yesterday stated:
The one thing I am very clear on is that there is no end to the amendments we could actually consider. People have been contacting me about this over the years, but also recently. Since there is such an urgent need for legislation in this area, our objective should be to establish a framework. As I said in my opening comments on this, the framework should not be the final word, by any stretch of the imagination. We will be building on it ... New technologies will have to be addressed in the future.
The Minister of State referred to this as an evolving Bill, which is right. it provides us with a first robust statutory framework. Clearly, it needs to be built upon, as the Law Reform Commission pointed out in 2016, through the enactment of further legislation to deal with civil remedies relating to online abuse and harassment. That is clearly not being dealt with in this Bill, which is a criminal Bill, as Deputy Howlin pointed out. It will also need to be dealt with through other mechanisms beyond law reform, through, for example, education programmes and the establishment of awareness-raising programmes the Minister of State also mentioned. It will take further legislation to establish, for example, the digital safety commission that the Law Reform Commission called for in 2016.
Our priority today should be to get this Bill passed, but we recognise that further legislation will be required to deal with other aspects of online abuse and harassment. We are also cognisant that the Bill was amended quite extensively on Committee Stage and even on Report Stage in the Dáil. Yesterday, and I believe on Committee Stage, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, indicated that a justice (miscellaneous provisions) Bill will come before the Oireachtas next year and that any issues with this Bill could be addressed via that legislation. We are conscious that there is scope for further evolution of the law in the area, particularly in view of the speed at which technology is changing. Even in the three years since Deputy Howlin first introduced his Bill and the four years since the Law Reform Commission issued its important report on harmful communications and digital safety, we have witnessed extensive technological change and much greater pervasiveness of social media access by much younger teens. I speak as a mother of teenagers. We are all conscious that that has been a feature.
In previous debates, colleagues have mentioned the visible coarsening and degrading of discourse and abuse online that all of us have received as public representatives. In recent weeks just in respect particularly of our citizenship law and the Born Here, Belong Here campaign, I and other Labour representatives have received horrible abuse online. We are all aware of that. That has been a changing landscape which we need to navigate and address in our laws.
As Deputy Howlin has pointed out, this Bill is long overdue, even though we recognise that further evolution will be necessary. Some of the law it seeks to reform is half a century old, including the Post Office (Amendment) Act 1951 relating to communications. Even the much more recent Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997, which itself was a major consolidating piece of legislation, is now 23 years old and much has changed during that period.
I will speak briefly about the content of the Bill and how it is now coming to us. Essentially it seeks to address two different aspects of online abuse and harassment, first the sharing of intimate images and online sexual abuse we have seen reported on so widely recently. The non-consensual sharing of intimate images of women and girls has caused much alarm in recent months. That aspect of online abuse is dealt with in sections 2 and 3. These sections provide a clear framework for dealing with the more serious aspect, which is the intentional or reckless sharing or distribution of intimate images which carries a maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment and is provided for in section 2. Because it is a more serious offence, it has a higher threshold to meet for prosecution. Having looked at it extensively, I think it fits within our criminal law framework adequately. Section 3 contains the less serious offence, which is a strict liability offence and does not require proof of intention or recklessness and therefore carries a lesser penalty. However, it also addresses the terrible harm of recording, distributing or publishing an intimate image without intent. That is a clear and robust scheme.
The second aspect of online harassment relates to the online bullying and harassment that does not involve the sharing of intimate images. That is dealt with through two provisions in the Bill. Section 4 creates the new offence of distributing, publishing or sending threatening or grossly offensive communication. This offence carries a penalty of two years' imprisonment. It is a crucial reform which is long overdue because it covers once-off abuse, the sending of a single abusive message which currently no law addresses. Importantly, section 10 updates the existing offence of harassment in section 10 of the 1997 Act. It expands the definition of that so that is not just communicating with somebody, but now crucially also communicating about them - the sort of horrible bullying we see taking place online where people are vilified through posts or messages to others. There is also an increase in the penalty from seven to ten years' imprisonment. That is a good scheme. We have two graded offences under each heading, under the heading of the sharing of intimate images and under the heading of more general online bullying and harassment.
Deputy Howlin spoke about the motivation in introducing the Bill. He said that the Bill is based on a fundamental view that the Internet and use of social media and online space generally is a public space and people who use that public space should be protected there and have their behaviour regulated in the same way that we regulate behaviour in a public street or a public park. Clearly, we must also be mindful of balancing protections against the right of free speech and free communication. We need to recognise the enormous benefits the Internet and social media platforms have brought us, but it is fair that we regulate that space, which is the purpose of the Bill.
The Bill also contains important safeguards such as the provision in section 8 that children can only be prosecuted with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, which is right and proper. We are all mindful of the need to ensure a balancing of the more serious offences and a higher threshold.
We are anxious to have the Bill passed by both Houses before Christmas. We want to give relief, succour and reassurance to the many people, the women and girls, the teens and young adults who have suffered bullying and abuse online, who will continue to suffer from such bullying and who want to see, as their families do, some measure of redress and accountability for the perpetrators. In particular, they want to know that there is a robust legal framework to protect them. This Bill can provide that robust legal framework. On behalf of the Labour Party, I am delighted to speak in support of this legislation which we initiated. I ask colleagues across the House for their support. I thank the Cathaoirleach for the extra time he afforded me for my contribution.
I thank Senator Bacik for championing this Bill for so long. It is very rare that a Bill from the Opposition reaches this point. I thank colleagues for their understanding in allowing more latitude than normal in these circumstances.
I welcome the Bill. We recently had statements on exactly this issue and the Bill was discussed extensively on that occasion as well. This is very important legislation and I will not repeat what other speakers have said about its import. Suffice it to say that most people find it astonishing that this kind of activity is not already against the law. We are behind the curve on the matter.It is right and proper that we should correct that this week, so I look forward to the passing of this Bill into law.
I wish to comment on the fact that this is a Private Members' Bill. It is a tremendously important function of these Houses that legislation comes forth from Members other than those in the Government. I acknowledge that it has been amended somewhat in the Dáil, but to a great extent the Bill that was drafted by Deputy Howlin, with the assistance of the Law Reform Commission, stands and will become law. We should mark the importance of that. All too often, Private Members' Bills from this and the other House are brushed aside. There was an improvement in that regard in recent years, particularly in the previous Houses when there was a need, perhaps, to engage more with the Opposition. Both Government and Opposition Members have an equally valid opportunity to put forward legislative proposals and I welcome the fact that this is one such proposal that makes sense and has been championed by the Government.
I pay tribute to the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, in that regard as well. In fairness, she came to the House for statements recently and she did a great deal of work on this Bill in the committee. It is a tribute to her, as has been said by Senator Bacik, that she has taken this legislation on board and agreed to bring it forward and champion it in some respects. It is not possible for an Opposition Member to do that to the same extent.
I also acknowledge the content of the explanatory memorandum. Senator Bacik quoted the final paragraph of the background section on the first page in which specific provision is made for this to be called Coco's Law. I am aware of the extraordinary campaigning Jackie Fox has done on this subject on behalf of her late daughter, but also on behalf of the myriad victims of this type of behaviour across the country. It is appropriate that we acknowledge that, and credit is due to the Minister for flying in the face of convention, to a large extent, to make provision in the explanatory memorandum to specifically acknowledge this as Coco's Law. It is only a convention and there is nothing to stop us calling it Coco's Law in the Title of the Bill. However, that is more of an American affectation and, unfortunately, I associate that behaviour in America with much more reactionary, populist legislation, as opposed to this legislation, which is incredibly important and grounded in fact and in an identifiable problem. The fact that it is in the explanatory memorandum is an important recognition of Nicole Fox and what she went through and of the campaign her mother launched in this respect.
I will not go into the details of the Bill. In specific sections some of the changes that have been made by the Department in the drafting are, perhaps, unnecessary. They are done now and I do not propose to try to undo them on Committee Stage. However, I return to the point I was making about Private Members' legislation. When something is drafted a particular way and it does the job, it does not have to be written in the Department's style for it still to be perfectly legal, correct, justiciable and functional in the context of prosecutions. I slightly resist the desire sometimes of the Government and the permanent government, if I can put in those terms with the greatest respect to the people who keep the country going, to write things in a Bill in the official form. It can make it more wordy, less accessible but no better in real terms to what was drafted in the first instance.
Finally, I wish to make a comment in respect of what I said earlier about the Law Reform Commission. This is a perfect example of where Members of the Oireachtas have an opportunity to make the best of what the commission does. The commission is a State body that makes recommendations on legislative changes. It provides incredible reports that are very detailed and bring forth the benefit of extensive research and consideration of legislative changes. It also publishes consolidated legislation. Reference is made to many legislative measures in this House, but they are amended all the time. The Law Reform Commission publishes consolidated legislation on its website for the benefit of everyone. It is free of charge for everyone as well. The commission produces reports time and again, on budget and on time. It is remarkable for that fact because it is not an enormous organisation. The fact that Deputy Howlin, no more than any Member of this House, can benefit from that expertise, professionalism and depth of understanding is extraordinary. I encourage all Members to engage a great deal more with the commission, take on board its suggestions and bring forward Private Members' Bills such as this, which identifies and solves a problem that very clearly exists.
It is wonderful the Bill is here and that we are making progress. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, for the work he has done and for coming to the House, and all Members for allowing this Bill to pass quickly today. That is exactly what should happen.
I will begin by paying tribute to Jackie Fox and the memory of her daughter. It is fitting that this Bill will be known as Coco's Law. I thank the Minister for bringing it forward and the Minister of State for all the work done on it.
I read Deputy Howlin's contribution in the Dáil very carefully. It was an extraordinary piece of parliamentarianism, if that is a word.
Yes, it is now. It was, and I am proud to participate in the passing of this Bill by the House. It is extraordinary that we live in an age in which the threat of the publication of an image and the harassment of individuals can happen online in the manner in which it does. It is appalling, and I am delighted that it will quickly become a criminal offence. It is long overdue.
I have great respect for Safe Ireland and all the other NGOs that contributed and have spoken on it, as well as their email to us urging us to get on with getting the legislation onto the Statute Book and into effect as quickly as possible. I am glad that consent is irrelevant in the context of this Bill. That was extremely important. The phenomenon of the use of social media is quite extraordinary. I pay tribute to Professor Mary Aiken who published a book, The Cyber Effect, in which she deals with what happens in our psychology whereby things we would never say to somebody in person we would say online or over social media. She explains that phenomenon very well. It is amazing.
In the abuse I have received people refer to me in the most extraordinary and certainly unparliamentary language. They will do that in a Facebook post in between celebrating a daughter's birthday and something else for another family member. They can do it without considering that perhaps the child may grow up to be a Member of the Oireachtas and be subjected to similar abuse. Hopefully, as a consequence of this Bill, the child will not. It is important that the discourse online is safe, and that it is a place where we can all engage in a positive and constructive manner with our freedom of speech.
I welcome the Minister of State. This is the first time I have addressed him since his elevation and it is great to see him here.
I was proud to step aside and let the Labour Party take the slot, given the debt of gratitude that is due to Deputy Howlin, the party and, indeed, Senator Bacik, for bringing this legislation forward. It has been a long and arduous journey. I wish to tell Jackie Fox that Coco did not die in vain. The outlandish and horrendous torment, abuse and harassment she took from bullies online was not in vain. She has made this country, at least, a safer place. I met the family outside the gates of Leinster House thanks to Deputy Howlin. It was a harrowing meeting, to see what was done to that beautiful child. She could have been 21 years old, but she was somebody's child.
Something terribly wrong is happening in our society with respect to the use of social media. The fact is that one can register anonymously and throw out any abuse one wishes. There is a misconception that it is scumbags who engage in this type of behaviour. My personal experience is that I asked a question in this House about the HPV vaccine. I asked it because I knew nothing about it and I called for a debate.Talking about online harassment and what it does, on one particular Saturday evening I found my own mental health being challenged. The people who were bullying me were not scumbags but registered general practitioners in medical practice. I still have the screen captures of what they said to me online. One of them went as far as to diagnose me as somebody who needed mental treatment. At that stage, I contacted him and told him that I knew who we was and that he had gone too far. Within three minutes, every tweet was gone. These tweets came from medical practitioners. If medical practitioners can behave like that, what are those who do not understand the damage they are doing capable of?
This Bill is about use of images and the horrendous work that is done on young ladies. I understand this issue as I was a teacher for 25 years. One of the worst things someone can do online to a girl is not to comment, for example, if a girl puts up an image of herself in a new dress. That is one side of it. The other side of it is one on which I have to speak to the young men of Ireland. What are they thinking of in asking young girls to take intimate photographs of themselves and send them on to them? What the hell is that about? If they want to see some part of their anatomy, they can go and meet them. They do not need the image to be sent to them online and then have this big stick to hold over their heads for the rest of their lives. I have seen some of this carry-on in schools. Really and truly, this has to stop.
In my first week as president of the Teachers Union of Ireland, I had to travel to the north west where two young girls had taken their own lives because of what was going on online. What sort of country do we have? On the day I arrived, a school principal told me he could not understand what was going on in family homes. We were talking about children aged between 13 and 15 years. He told me these children are sent to bed at night at a particular time, their parents ensure they have washed their teeth, put on their pyjamas and, in some cases, have said their prayers before they go to bed. Then they will leave them with the most lethal instrument in bed with them, namely, their mobile phone. They can either be the bully or the bullied. This is a societal issue and this legislation will go a long way towards changing the society we live in. I am very grateful to Deputy Howlin for bringing forward this Bill. He fought long and hard to bring it to both Houses. It will pass as Coco’s Law and it is not before time that we have had such a law.
We now have to go one stage further. I hope the Minister will engage in a national advertising campaign to ensure nobody is left unaware of exactly what this means. I hope my former colleagues in education will explain to children in schools, particularly in the later years of national school and all of second level, that they do not have to provide images of themselves to anybody. “Oh, if you loved me you would send me the photograph” they are told. They do not have to do that and if they do so, they will leave themselves open to these blackguards and what they will do. I could use much stronger language if I wanted to. There has to be penalties. I am glad that both the Minister of State, the senior Minister, Deputy McEntee, and Deputy Howlin saw that this was a dynamic Bill. This legislation will have to change.
I am in my 60s. I started communications with Morse code, dots and dashes, and it is not that long ago.
I moved from Morse code in high frequency, through to very high frequency and later mobile phones and on to the Internet where we are today. In that short space of time, I have seen how communications have been used as a weapon to pull people into line.
I know this Bill deals with online communication but we must also look at bullying in the workplace and the classroom but particularly the former. I am familiar with this because a former colleague took his own life because he could take no more of it. The bully is the guy one meets in the staff room or corridor who may be the nicest person any of us could possibly meet until he or she gets into a room with one of us alone. These people can be the most heartless creatures. If they are like that one-to-one, what will they be like online? Much of the stuff that we have seen online has come from the school yard and we have to move to stop it.
While this Bill will go a long way in dealing with cyberbullying and the like, we need to look at other laws. I know the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act is a law that can be used to deal with bullying but it is difficult to prove a case. Bullying is usually a one-on-one issue. I remember a schoolteacher telling me one time that if she was called in by a certain person once more, she would close the door as she entered, bang her head as hard as she could off the wall, run out and say this person hit her, because this was the only evidence she would ever have that she was being bullied. I thank the Labour Party for really good work on this and the Government also for accepting the work of Deputy Howlin.
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.
I thank the Minister of State for being here this afternoon. The Oireachtas scheduling means that, though I will speak to the amendments, realistically I cannot push them. I do not want to hold the Bill up and I am the only one who has tabled amendments to it.
When the domestic violence legislation was going through, I took a back seat because of the impact some of the conversations in respect of coercive control could have on me. I got a phone call about the images that were shared online before the story went live. I had to tell them to ring me back because two gardaí were in my sitting room with me as I began to look at taking my own case concerning harassment that has been ongoing for five years.
As this Bill was coming through at speed, I sat down to look at it to see how I and people who have had my experience could be protected by this legislation. That is why I will focus heavily on the harassment part of the amendments. The bar is set so high to prove harassment. In the 21st century, harassment looks very different from how it used to. You cannot display all these phone calls you are getting because there is the ability with technology to block people so they find resourceful ways to continue to harass and abuse you.
On my first ever speech in this Chamber in 2016, I was escorted by an usher. I had to be walked to the bus stop. There are two men in the last five years who have not taken me off their radar. I have had many conversations with gardaí and have been trying to find ways to protect myself. I have a firm belief that I want to see culture change and not imprisonment. I am caught between a rock and a hard place because I want to see culture change and I do not always think that hefty sentences achieve that. It is hard to find a balance between advocating for these changes while realising that a huge level of information and education is needed, as Senator Boylan said, in relation to consent. Early intervention is needed to ensure understanding of what is harmful communication and what is not.
Like others, I commend the Labour Party and Deputy Howlin on bringing this forward. It is important legislation and the difference for me between now and the time the domestic violence legislation went through is that I am no longer willing to not speak out of fear that I would put myself back on someone's radar by speaking. I put in the amendments today because it was important for me to correct my silence throughout the last few years on this issue. It was important for me to feel that, when the time to speak came, I could speak with confidence and without fear of the repercussions of my voice.
The Minister, Deputy McEntee, and the Department have committed to bringing forward consequential miscellaneous provisions in respect of justice legislation. I would like to be able to have input into that and most of my amendments are in the vein of hoping to frame some of the discourse on those future amendments and conversations and on how we redefine harassment. Showing a garda a postcard saying "Keep up the good work" and trying to convince that garda that it constitutes harassment is a funny place to be in. It is subtle and insidious. I have had my kids getting up to lock the doors at night and I still do not reach the bar for harassment. While harassment is included in this legislation, I do not believe it protects women from harassment, given the way in which it is defined. I would love for Members to look at that in the future and to see this as a huge step forward in beginning to name these issues and in bringing the legislation forward into the times we are in, in terms of how people abuse and control people. I hope I can use today's debate as an opportunity to signal what we need to do going forward.
I acknowledge, as everyone has, Jackie Fox, the work she has done and the investment she has made in using her daughter's tragedy as a way to make change. It is unfortunate that sometimes, it is tragedy that makes change, motivates us and drives us forward but that should not be the case. I also wish to recognise Dara Quigley and her family.
Intimate images or offensive images of somebody at the time of his or her death are covered to an extent by "harmful communications". My childhood friend, Paul Griffin, has been as vocal as he can about the death of his sister Jackie on the M50, when her horrific death was shared online within moments. The family were sent images before they even knew it was their daughter dead on the M50. We need to ensure this type of image is captured in legislation like this. I thank the Griffin family for pushing forward on that becoming a law, making it possible to hold people accountable for a gross invasion of someone's privacy and dignity at the time of death.
I welcome the Minister of State. Like others, I pay tribute to our Wexford colleague, Deputy Howlin, for his championing of this legislation, and to Senator Bacik and her Labour Party colleagues. It is a good sign that this has cross-party support. I echo the tributes paid to Nicole Fox Fenlon and her mother, Jackie. Not alone has Jackie Fox striven to ensure we get this legislation in, she has also spoken to schools and other organisations trying to get the message to young people about how important it is for people to behave responsibly on social media.
We saw the case recently around image-based sexual harassment, which was to the fore. It struck me that if one thinks even about ourselves in our teens but particularly about a teen girl or a young girl and the impact it would have on her, conscious of the need for the approval of her peers, to have intimate images shared without consent, it is frightening. The point is clear that this has to be evolving legislation. Senator Craughwell was right. We will be moving quickly into an era of virtual and augmented reality. How will we deal with bullying and harassment in those circumstances? Senator Ruane in her personal and powerful testimony talked about the different forms of harassment we have to deal with, in terms of abuse and control.I also reference parental alienation. The key point about it is that nobody should be afraid to speak out. As legislators, we have to help empower people to be able to do this. I agree with Senator Bacik on the need for civil remedies to be addressed also.
What I want to raise is the question of the responsibility of the social media companies. A number of people here, beginning with Senator Gallagher, spoke about how we have all received abuse online. We can deal with a certain amount of it but the problem is with some of the anonymous accounts that literally spew vile abuse on a regular basis. I was used to it but an anonymous Twitter account in the name of P O'Neill targeted me and others earlier this year. When a local businessman who was the subject of the abuse tried to get information from Twitter to find out who was behind it every possible barrier was put in his way. Facebook and Twitter in particular hide behind a wall of anonymity. If we look at Revolut, which people will know as a financial technology company that is revolutionising digital banking, with almost 1 million people in Ireland using it, anyone who signs up to it has to produce a picture of their passport. It is similar to opening a bank account here and it is because of rules required by the Central Bank. People have to identify who they are.
People may know in recent days that The New York Timeshad a big story about Pornhub and some of what had been uploaded to it. By the way, Pornhub is the ninth most viewed website in Ireland, far more than any news site. To deal with the fact there were anonymous postings on Pornhub of vile and abusive acts, MasterCard and Visa took action and said they would not allow cardholders to pay for anything, and Pornhub had to take action. The result was the Pornhub took down approximately 80% of its content. I do not want to comment on the nature of pornography sites but now if people want to upload content onto Pornhub they must identify who they are. They can no longer be anonymous. Whether it is in banking or pornography, people cannot be anonymous yet Facebook and Twitter have no requirement to prove identity.
One of the concerns I also have, and it has been covered by the media, particularly by The Business Post, is with regard to the content moderators in Facebook. As part of their contract they have to acknowledge they have the risk of post-traumatic shock disorder because of some of the content to which they will be exposed that will be anonymously uploaded.
There are good reasons for anonymity. This is entirely accepted. For particular reasons, people should not necessarily have to identify themselves publicly but where we have a situation where there are defamatory, violent or abusive images we should be able to find out who is responsible for them. The social media companies have to take responsibility in this area. As Senator Bacik said, this is about a public space and we have to have regulation of the public space.
I strongly support the legislation. I know the online safety and media regulation Bill will be coming before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture Sports and the Gaeltacht in the new year for pre-legislative scrutiny and we can look at enhancing a number of the provisions that have been raised. While we as legislators are taking responsibility, and there is a personal responsibility on everyone and we need digital literacy and education, responsibility also has to be placed at the door of the social media companies, in particular Facebook and Twitter. If they do not act we, as legislators, have the responsibility to take action against them.
We are really talking about the ugly reality of human behaviour when we start sharing stories of individual harassment. I know there is probably not a person in the Chamber who has not experienced it. I am really sorry to hear of the length of harassment that Senator Ruane is going through and I really wish her success, if not with the current legislation which is abysmal, but with this new legislation. I hope she can bring it to fruition with a happy outcome for her.
Nobody in the House, our local Government colleagues, our Dáil colleagues or probably anybody in any walk of life has not suffered in some way, shape or form on the medium we call the wonderful world of social media and the great invention that is the Internet. The legislation will go if not the full way then a long way to address many of the concerns we have. There are two aspects to it. One is the sharing of images, and the stark reality of how harmful it can be was probably really highlighted to us all only a couple of weeks ago when we saw the dump of tens of thousands of very personal images that caused great hurt and particularly exercised the young women in Ireland. It did in my household anyway. I really welcome this aspect of the Bill.
I want to talk about the other aspect of the Bill, which is the harmful harassment and bullying aspect. While the legislation is very welcome, and particularly the penalties are very welcome, I do not believe we really fully appreciate the extent of where it will go. When we hear about people being bullied we think they are being bullied by a certain stereotype of person we have in our head. We think the perpetrators are all adults. We think they are all in a box, and that when we do shine a light on them and point the finger at who they are that the two year sentence will be well justified, and that it will be grand and everything will be great.
We spoke this morning about politics being about the personal and I can only speak about the personal experiences I have had with regard to bullying. The bullies are not all adults because we had an incident in my house a couple of years ago, which was greatly helped by schools and the Garda but there was no happy outcome because the bullies were 13 and 14 year old girls. These girls were vicious and relentless. When we looked them in the eye in front of their mammies and daddies butter would not melt in their mouth and they were really sorry but the Snapchat messages we read back to them were relentless.
Senator Craughwell will said earlier it is awful for a parent to let their child go to bed with a mobile phone. In some cases when a child is being bullied it is the only friend they have. That does not make sense but when we are in the throes of it, with a child we love the bones of, and not being able to help them because what we want to do to help them is probably not legal, we are left with absolutely no tools in our kit. Children aged 13 or 14 years do not actually realise the damage and psychological harm they are doing to the child they are bullying. I am not sure the legislation, welcome and all as it is and I really mean that, will actually fix this problem.
I am encouraged by the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, when they say there is a need for educational programmes and a need for awareness. It is not just the 14 year old or 13 year old children who need to be made aware of how harmful the communications they are snapping at 1 a.m. 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. are because they do not go away, and the harmful impacts they have on another 13 year old child's psyche. We end up doing the full circle of why we are all here today. It is because a young woman, and there are plenty more like her but we all know this girl by name today, was not able to cope with the harmful communications she received relentlessly and she took her own life. It is because of the ferociousness of her mother and the unwillingness of her mother to allow those people to get off the hook that we are all here today celebrating a young woman's very short life but a legacy that will live long after the legislation is passed. It is absolutely right and fitting that it is called Coco's Law in her honour.
I am really not sure this will do the trick, which is why I am so glad it is not a stand-alone piece of legislation. It is not something that is to be put in a drawer or on a shelf that we will get back to in a few years time because I absolutely believe when we start to monitor the bullying online, which we will now start to be able to do because of this legislation, we will also be able to start to measure it. The ugly reality of it is that its perpetrators are not some awful men and women who have no feelings. In many cases we are going to discover they are children who just do not realise the harm they are actually doing. This is an even bigger problem we need to address.
I want to add to the cloud that Deputy Brendan Howlin is probably travelling home on today because it is so well deserved. Often, when I had the privilege of being a Minister, one of the first things I used to say during legislation was that no Minister or official in the Department had a monopoly on wisdom and this is a perfect example of how this is true.I thank Deputy Howlin. I thank the Labour Party. I thank everybody else who have co-operated in getting this Bill passed.
This is only the beginning. It will not fix the problem that we are unearthing. I believe that when we properly take the ugly face of the problem that we are talking about, we are all going to be so ashamed of the society, of the communities and of the children that we are rearing. That is not true of all of us but it is definitely true of some.
I am taken by the various speeches I am hearing in the Chamber today. Some of us are very much looking forward to the season of goodwill - the celebration of a time when the entry into the world of an innocent child brought so much hope to humanity - and yet what we are hearing today is about a real loss of innocence in our society and a lost of decent childhood for many children who should not be exposed to some of these particularly modern harms.
The more I have looked at this legislation, the more I favour its essential provisions, but also the more I worry about flaws in the legislation and the more indignant I feel about the fact that this legislation is being put through at all Stages today. Several colleagues have said that this is a Bill that will have to change which is masking the fact that there is no excuse for rushing through a piece of criminal legislation on the week before Christmas at all Stages. I have already spotted at least two issues that gives me concern and this Bill only passed the Dáil yesterday. This is not emergency financial legislation. Nobody will be done an injustice. We do not know when the Bill will commence - at least, I do not know. This could have been concluded in the new year. I was told by a Fine Gael colleague that we all supported this because, apparently, at the group leaders' meeting, everybody agreed. I am also told it was suggested unless one wants to come in next Tuesday and Senators shied away. We are bringing our politics into disrepute every time we do this. The parties in government must take a lead. It is wrong to give people no opportunity to listen to Second Stage speeches before they consider amendments. It is wrong to give Senators no time between Committee Stage and Report Stage. The Government is contributing to the contempt that people have for the Oireachtas and for politics and it needs to stop doing that. I say that to my own group as well. We have to stop rushing through legislation in this way. This is important urgent legislation but, in fact, the Government is dishonouring it by giving it so little scrutiny.
For example, why is the recording of intimate images without consent not being criminalised in section 2? Somebody could record something in order to inflict harm on a person, but not distribute it. Is that a mistake or is there a rationale for it? In section 3, there is a saver for somebody who is involved in prosecuting offences in distributing or passing on images, but has consideration been given to the possibility that someone, for example, a medical person, might send an image to a colleague, perhaps to get his or her opinion, or to educate a student about something, and maybe the person did it without consent? Maybe they should not. Maybe it should be a regulatory or an administrative offence, or maybe a civil offence. Has this even been thought through in this rushed legislation that will pass all Stages today? Maybe there is a very good answer to the concerns that I have raised, but that is not good enough. Seanadóirí need an opportunity to hear what the Minister has to say to make a freer decision then about whether they want to bring forward an amendment. I am not going to dignify this pathetic process today by bringing forward amendments when it is quite clearly on green paper. It is intended that this will be done and dusted. Our views, as Senators, do not matter. This is a joke, and yet it is a joke in the context of some really serious and important legislative change which I welcome. It is a Bill that gathered dust for almost three years and then, suddenly, because there is publicity in the media and controversy, it is all happening at once. This is the wrong way to do it.
There was no mention in the Dáil, for example, that in the United Kingdom 30% of victims of these incidents are men. That is an important point. This is legislation about protecting women and men, and yet there was no talk about the UK experience.
There is also the question of what would happen where a person accesses images that were taken originally with the person's consent and put up on a website, perhaps for the purposes of making money, and then somebody - perhaps an immature young person - right-clicks and shares that information. Is that person to be convicted of a crime under this legislation? I think the answer to that is "Yes", but if it is to be a crime to share, for example, legal pornography that has been accessed, should it also be an offence to put it up in the first place? Should it be an offence to put it up for purchase, because I get the impress, and I am being advised, that one of the reasons this proviso is in here is that some of those most vocal about their images being shared online on the Discord platform had uploaded their own intimate images to a subscription website and their complaint was that they had not been paid? Are we shoring up a section of the pornography industry here by the way we are doing this? I do not like any of this stuff. I support protective laws. I supported the criminalisation of the users and the purchasers of sex, and others followed my on that issue over the past decade and now it is the law, but perhaps it follows from that that we need to criminalise the sale of such images, particularly when we consider its link to prostitution and, indeed, the trafficking industries. There is no possible chance to tease these issues through here today.
I favour laws that will protect people in this area. I would not oppose this legislation but I suspect it is very flawed. I favour education about consent, and the more of that the better, but there is a cultural problem in our society and politicals are trying to address it by creating more and more laws and talking more and more about the need to educate people about consent. That is all good and well, but it is not going to be enough. It will not protect people against harm because there needs to be a conversation about how we treat each other as human beings. It enters into the domain of morals and values, and if we lack the courage to have that conversation none of these laws will protect our society.
I am pleased to be able to talk today on the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 and that it will be known as "Coco's law". As many Senators here have, I commend Ms Jackie Fox for her relentless campaign, not only on getting this law passed but also to tackle the scourge of online bullying. I also think of, and commend, the other parents who have lost their children due to suicide because of online bullying. I can only image their pain and anguish when they tried to get legal recourse by going to the Garda to try and get something done to stop the relentless bullying that their children were experiencing and they could not. I am thinking of the parents who are, possibly right now, watching their children suffer. No doubt this online bullying is continuing to happen and it is having devastating results.
Like Senator Craughwell, I and many other Senators here stood outside the gates of Leinster House and listened to Ms Fox and other parents talk about their children who had been driven to suicide from bullying. I think of those children who are not here with us anymore and hope that when this law goes through there is a better outcome.
There has been reference in here to consent and the need to get explicit consent. I agree that we have to tackle this area before we even ever have to get to the legal stage. I have talked a lot about my time in the student movement and how, by the time people get to third level, it is too late to be talking about consent. Not everyone goes on to third level. We have also got an even bigger divide there around talking about consent. We need education around having positive healthy consensual relationships with other people, how to give consent and how to receive consent. We talk about how we can be very awkward and that we do not like to say it as it is too awkward but sometimes we need to give people the explicit language to say, "I consent to this", "Yes, you can do that", "Yes, I want to do this", "Yes, that is something that I enjoy and I would like to do that again." We need to teach people how to say that. That is a long time coming. It is an awkward conversation, perhaps, for parents to have, but we need to have that. I want people to be able to have healthy sexual relationships with their partners and we need to get to grips with that. It is too late at third level to be talking about that, although, of course, we will keep doing so.
It is not the fault of the person whose photos others have shared. If the person consents to an intimate image to be shared between two consenting adults, the only person who is at fault for sharing that image is the person who has done so without the other's consent. I believe those people when they say that they did not consent to that to be shared widely and I want them to know that there are Senators who believe them. I have spoken about this briefly before, that I am someone who has suffered sexual violence. I do not talk about it too often. It does not define me. When I see online anonymous accounts calling for that to happen to me again, which has happened, it is not pleasant. I thank Senator Gallagher for referencing the interview yesterday where I spoke of my experience of people calling for that to happen to me because I have spoken out against sexual violence and because I have spoken out against image-based sexual assault. That it happened to me in the first place is never acceptable, but it is even more unacceptable for those people to call for it to happen to me again because I have spoken up.
I am very lucky that I have an opportunity to speak out where many others cannot. Senator Doherty said there was probably not one person in here who has not experienced online abuse, and perhaps even concentrated harassment. Sometimes we are told it is just part of the job and that we just have to toughen up. I welcome the collective position that has been taken whereby we are saying we do not have to toughen up, that it is not right, and that people have to stop saying this. It frightens and terrifies me to think of young people having to process some of the most ghastly things online. I can brush it off and deal with it, but for young people it is very difficult.
I reiterate the comments on the need for a societal response to this. I agree with Senator Ruane. I would prefer to see behavioural change rather than legal sanctions, which should be a last resort. It is very important to ask why people behave the way they do. I am not referring just to online abuse. Why do people perpetuate hate? Senator Flynn spoke extremely eloquently last night about her own experiences as a Traveller woman, and I suggest that people should watch that interview. Why do people perpetrate sexual violence, as done to me? Why do people harass and torment, as is done to Senator Ruane? We need to challenge and change these behaviours. The Bill gives an option for legal recourse and penal sanctions and, it is hoped, perhaps some small comfort to those who have been affected. As I have said, however, there is a wider societal issue that we need to tackle.
I am very grateful to Deputy Howlin and my Labour Party colleagues for this legislation. A journalist congratulated me for writing the legislation in 2017 when I was merely in the Union of Students in Ireland, but it was great to be associated with such a thing. I am very grateful to be associated with helping to bring the legislation forward and, I hope, some comfort to those who have been deeply affected by the issues we talk about today.
I commend Senators Hoey and Ruane. I listened to the debate today and last night and the way they spoke on the issues makes me honoured to serve with both of the Senators. I just wanted to say well done. My wife, my family and I have also suffered harassment from a person, and we had to go the full way to court on it because of the effect it was having on our young kids and family. I am delighted to say that it was successful.
I commend the Labour Party, Jackie Fox and her family, and the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, on bringing the legislation to this stage. We have also seen the recent uploading of images of individuals against their will. It is not acceptable. As Senator Ward said in the Chamber some weeks ago, we as men need to stand up and say it is not acceptable. When such images are shared, we as men need to say that it is not good enough and it is not acceptable.
Domestic violence does not just take place behind closed doors. It is now part of our daily lives through our mobile phones, through our laptops and can come in many forms, not just images or verbally. As our lives change with technology, it is important that we legislate for the new forms of communication, which is what the Bill does. I welcome the Bill.
I agree with Senator Doherty when she speaks about educating our children about posting on social media. I strongly believe that we need a programme throughout our schools to educate the younger generation on the effects that social media can have. I firmly believe that Facebook and Twitter should fund this programme. The taxpayer should not fund it. I fully call for the companies to fund the programme on the effects of social media to be delivered throughout our entire school system.
I look forward to working with Members when the online safety and media regulation Bill comes before the Oireachtas joint committee. I look forward to having an input and hearing the input of other Members to make sure that the legislation covers all the aspects needed.
I fully support the Bill before the House today. It is important that no other life is lost due to this. I commend Senators Hoey and Ruane, and I am honoured to serve with them here in the Seanad.
I indicate my complete support for the campaign brought to public attention by Jackie Fox on the part of her daughter, Nicole. I commend Deputy Howlin and his colleagues in the Labour Party on introducing legislation to deal with this matter.
What Senator Rónán Mullen has just said is true. We should not be in a position that we are pushing this through without adequate time to fine-tune it or work out what the small detail actually means. It is a pity that three years after Deputy Howlin introduced this as a Private Member's Bill in Dáil Éireann, we find ourselves, as described here, having to choose between coming back in Christmas week or dealing properly with the amendments to this legislation, which many have submitted. It is not befitting of Seanad Éireann, as a revising Chamber, to be cornered in this way. I fully accept the moral force of getting something done within three years of its introduction and I do not need to be lectured on that by anybody, but I also feel that we should never put ourselves in the position that Dáil Éireann passes something yesterday and it is plonked on our table today, with myriad well-intentioned amendments to it put down. We all know they count for nothing and that any criticism of its text is going to be bulldozed out of the way. Although it is said, to excuse that, that there will be other opportunities to correct, tweak or improve it, we are still left in the position that this Bill should not be considered in such hurried circumstances.
I noted that Senator Mullen had problems with sections 2 and 3. I have a problem with section 4. If one reads it, section 4 makes it an offence to send by any means any grossly offensive communication to another person, with intent to "cause harm". In this context, "harm" includes causing "distress to the other person". This means that sending any letter to any person if, objectively, it is likely to cause that person distress - nothing to do with sex or privacy, just distress - is now to be criminalised. I believe that this is an excessive overreach for what is undoubtedly well-intentioned legislation. The sending of a letter to somebody with grossly offensive material, which I presume is grossly offensive to the person who receives it as such, for example, sending religious comment to a person of the Islamic faith, is an offence if it causes that person distress. This is not something we should just lightly enter into. A judgment was handed down by the Court of Appeal in London recently where the majority said "Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having", which is an interesting quote. I wonder if section 4 of this Bill is too widely cast and I ask the Minister of State to contemplate that point.
Another problem with section 4 is the penalty provided, which is two years' imprisonment. This is in contrast with seven years provided for in section 2. One of the consequences of not thinking this through is that the capacity of the Garda to arrest, search, seize property, and interview people they suspect of having committed an offence under section 4 disappears, because under the Criminal Justice Act 1984 and the categorisation of offences, a serious offence is one that carries a five-year penalty. This is a second point that needs to be brought in.
The last thing I want to say, and I would love to have said a lot more but I do not want to hog time, is about the fundamental moral hypocrisy of the age as described by Dr. Mary Aiken in The Cyber Effect. I launched that book, I read it, and it is a great book.There is a fundamental moral hypocrisy about an entire generation that values privacy so heavily in one way and then demands blanket anonymity in others. Why do people not have to stand over their own opinions? We are not all Wikipedia people. There are occasions where, if someone wants to bring into the public domain his or her views on an individual, a thought, a process or an entire section of society or if he or she wants to be offensive to their beliefs, he or she should at least have to stand up and name himself or herself.
One of the problems goes back to the Pirate Party in Sweden and the idea that youngsters should be encouraged to steal copyrighted music without remunerating the bands or the composers involved. It was considered wrong in some sense to make them accountable. We have a moral vacuum which tries to span an absolute desire for privacy with an absolute desire for anonymity and the two do not work together. I write articles in The Irish Times. It always amuses me that the newspaper publishes letters to the editor in which people profoundly disagree or agree with what it prints and their names appear at the bottom. The same newspaper has online commentary which is done through pseudonyms and I am sorry to say that some of them are Sinn Féin trolls.
If one publishes an article, there is one standard for people standing over their remarks on the letters to the editor page and a completely different standard for people who make abusive, ridiculous and sometimes moronic comments anonymously. That is part of this failure to adequately balance anonymity and moral responsibility.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for coming to the House. The sharing of intimate images without consent is a serious issue, which warrants legislation and severe penalties. We need to call it out as a criminal offence and we need to hold those who offend in this way to account. I am very pleased to join with other Senators and to support Coco's Law today. I am thinking primarily of Jackie Fox, Dara Quigley's family and all the NGOs that have campaigned on this issue, such as the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, the Victims Alliance and the National Women's Council of Ireland. I am glad the Government is supporting this legislation. It is not ideal to be dealing with this issue in this way, and I certainly bow to the greater legal minds in this Chamber, but I am glad we are dealing with it and we need to get on with the business of doing so because it is important.
By passing this legislation, we are not going to stop online abuse or harassment and we are not going to bring every bully to heel. In my life, the bullying and harassment I have experienced has been as much the human face-to-face or behind-your-back type of stuff that goes on in real life as harassment on digital platforms. It is important that the House and the Government legislate on this issue because we need to set a marker and set the bar. The law as proposed will call out such activities, state that they are unacceptable, criminalise them, identify penalties and provide anonymity for victims. It will also set, as standard, the fact that there may have been or was an intimate relationship as an aggravating factor, because that level of betrayal of trust is a real violation. That is an aggravating factor, be the harassment physical, online, or written. In this instance we are dealing with harassment on digital platforms, which is important. This legislation will not be perfect but it is important.
It is also important that we recognise that this legislation will not fix the problem and that we do not create that false impression. There is a real job to be done in education. When we use digital platforms we all have an opportunity to exercise the powers and facilities they give us. We need to report, block and delete anything that is offensive, not just to us but to each other because we all follow each other and see the trolls. We should not subscribe to the platforms and digital outlets that encourage clickbait, harassment, hate speech and abuse. The Internet - and the digital environment - amplifies human behaviour, magnifies and disseminates it in a much broader global way. When we all participate in the Internet, we should do so in the same way we would if we saw that abuse happening beside us in the street. In that case, we would intervene and would say "That is not nice, please do not do that in front of me. Please do not speak to somebody else like that." When we do something like that, we are asserting and championing good values in that space.
I also support the comments of my colleague, Senator Byrne. We should hold to account any platform that does not operate to a decent moral standard, including Facebook, Twitter or The Journal. Common decency is all any of us are looking for or have a right to expect. Further legislation will be introduced in respect of that matter, which we also need to tackle. It is not acceptable that they continue to operate very profitably on the basis of anonymous, abusive and what in many cases will now be criminal contributors.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad. At around 11 o'clock on the morning of 22 December 2012, I got the phone call about the death of Shane McEntee, our Minister for Justice's dad. I remember the amount of online abuse he received coming up to that time, which went on over a period of a few months. I knew the individual who continued to harass Shane McEntee at the time and I rang him asking him to stop. I rang that individual on multiple occasions and told him that what he was doing was not right, not kind and to please stop. He did not stop. On the day of the funeral, Shane McEntee's brother spoke out about that online abuse. That was back in 2012. Each and every one of us here today will have been the subject of harassment, harmful communications and related offences. One can snowball it in any way one likes.
For two years I suffered nuisance phone calls. I received 98 phone calls in one day alone. For two years I was getting calls and we could not get a prosecution because the person who owned the phone was not the person making the calls. That is ridiculous. I have received online abuse and been the subject of threatening behaviour, as have other female politicians.I remember sitting down with Senator Hoey soon after she had been elected to the council. We were talking about the online stuff and private messages one gets, including nude photographs that people would send at all hours of the day and night. People think it is acceptable. It is not; none of it is. We do not sign up for that. My office was firebombed because I spoke out about drug crime in my town. That is not right either. A child had to leave my care because I became a target for these thugs. That is not right. The Garda was watching my home for about three months afterwards. It is not a nice life that any of us politicians live. For all those watching who think we live in ivory towers with our gardens full of roses, it certainly is not like that. We suffer daily. I do not mind doing the work that I do and I believe in free speech but I also believe in being free to represent people and being safe and secure in doing that.
Therefore, I broadly welcome the Bill, the main purpose of which is to address the gaps in the criminal law pertaining to image-based sexual abuse, both online and offline. It creates two new offences to deal with the recording, distribution, and publication of intimate images without consent and provides for the anonymity of victims of those offences. The Bill also provides for an offence including the distribution, publication, and sending of threatening and grossly offensive communications or messages with the intent to cause harm, without the requirement of persistence.
I note that the Bill, sponsored by Deputy Howlin, is largely predicated on the proposals performed by the Law Reform Commission in its 2016 report on harmful communications and digital safety. Given that the report was published four years ago and that this Bill has had a gestation period of some three years, I must voice my dismay at the fact that all five Stages of the Bill are to be heard in a single afternoon in the final sitting of the Seanad before Christmas, when many Members are fatigued. Speaking in particular as a new Member of the Seanad, the practice of compressing all five Stages of a Bill that requires careful consideration, analysis and scrutiny is highly undesirable. I do not believe it is good legislative practice or is necessarily in the best public interest. The people are better served by the allocation of a little more time for deliberation and debate, in order that both Upper and Lower Houses may do the work they are elected and mandated by the Constitution to do. Senators only received a copy of this Bill as late as 9 p.m. last night. Surely, given that the Bill has been in years in the offing, the Upper House should be afforded more time, more than one afternoon, in which to complete the legislative process, debate the ramifications of the Bill, draft amendments and so forth.
While I welcome the Bill, I have concerns like those outlined by Senators McDowell and Mullen.
I again thank Deputy Howlin and the Labour Party for bringing forward this Bill. The Government has consulted with the Labour Party the entire way through the passage of this Bill. It has been a very positive and constructive engagement and I hope to see more of that happening. I met Jackie Fox numerous times, especially as the Opposition spokesperson for mental health. I first met her outside the gates of Leinster House and then met her several times inside, and had the pleasure to meet with her again a couple of months ago. I have had numerous contacts with Jackie and I am very glad that a method has been found to enable this legislation to be referred to as Coco's Law. I know that Jackie is very happy with the resolution to this issue and it pays tribute to Jackie, Nicole and the other victims whose experiences have led to the necessity for this legislation. To this day, there is ongoing bullying and harassment with which parents must deal both as the guardians of children who are being bullied but also as parents of the bullies themselves. They have very important to educate themselves and their children as to the sheer damage that has been done to those victims of bullying.
The Bill establishes a robust legal framework. It does not address every issue of concern around bullying, online harassment and other issues of abuse but it does establish that framework, which is hugely important. There will be other opportunities to address the other issues of concern. As Deputy Howlin said, is not the final word but it will be built on.
The criminal law miscellaneous Bill will be published next year and some other areas that need to be addressed can be addressed within that legislation. To be clear, however, this Bill is not flawed and does not need to be amended. It was established and brought forward by the Labour Party based on the Law Reform Commission recommendations. It is a robust Bill that is strong and well crafted and drafted. A number of amendments were brought into it, in consultation with the Labour Party and other Deputies and Senators, so I am very confident in this Bill. It is important that the message does not go out that this Bill is somewhat flawed. The message that needs to go out is that the sharing of intimate images is a criminal offence.
The issues of education programmes and awareness are of great importance. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, has undertaken, with Jackie Fox, to bring in a plan of awareness in education to highlight the importance of the consequences of what people may be doing in terms of bullying and harassment, as well as the existence of this Bill and its importance and to raise that bar in education and awareness. The Garda is also updating its schools programme to reflect the law in this area.
Senator Boylan referred to Garda resources. Significant funding for the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau was announced this year. It will be established with four divisional hubs dealing with cybercrime. In addition, I refer to the roll-out the divisional protection services units that deal with domestic and sexual crimes. Significant investment is under way that will help to address the issues dealt with within this Bill.
I acknowledge Senator Ruane's very personal strength in coming in here. She is correct that this is about a cultural change and is not simply about passing legislation. We need to address the underlying issues whereby people feel free to carry on in some of the ways they do. It is about information and education on consent and on harmful communications. I acknowledge the Senator's comments in that regard.
On section 4, Senator McDowell suggested the inclusion of "grossly offensive" might be overreach. It is deliberately constructed in order that it does not simply address intimate images or sexual offences and that it does actually address grossly offensive messages in and of themselves. Senator Ruane referred to the incident involving Jackie Griffin on the M50 and mentioned her family. I would hope that such activity would be covered under this section. It is deliberately crafted in that manner and in that sense.
Senator Mullen raised an issue whereby section 2 did not mention recording. That is because the penalty so high and the issue there is one of proportionality. It is in section 3. On medical harm, I note that the sharing of images by a medical professional, if it is within the consent of the patient, will not be an offence. If it is outside of the outside of the consent of the patient, then it will be an offence.
Senator Mullen raised the saver for the Garda Síochána in section 3.That is there because "intention" is not a requirement for that offence, and so will not affect An Garda Síochána in dealing with that issue.
In some ways, these issues should have been addressed long before now. There has been much discussion and consideration given to this. Jackie Fox was determined to address the issues that significantly impacted on her daughter Nicole. I met Jackie several times over the past number of years. I met her in October in the Department of Justice and the senior Minister, Deputy McEntee, met her on a separate occasion. No parent should ever have to bury a child. My parents did and many parents have had to unfortunately, but when one loses a child in the circumstances that Jackie Fox did, this can only compound that grief. When a person loses someone who is very close to him or her, he or she never gets over it but learns to live with that grief. One thing, in particular, that Jackie said to me, and it stuck with me, was that she had not allowed herself to even begin to grieve and that she would not allow herself to do so until this Bill had passed into law. I certainly hope that if this Bill does go through today, Jackie can allow herself to begin to grieve for the loss of Nicole.