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Government officials clashed over roles on regulating children's access to porn after Ana Kriegel trial

Two departments claimed they weren’t responsible for monitoring the issue.

Two 14-year-old boys were found guilty of murdering Ana Kriegel in June
Two 14-year-old boys were found guilty of murdering Ana Kriegel in June

OFFICIALS IN TWO government departments disagreed over who should be responsible for laws to stop children from accessing pornography online, new documents show.

Correspondence seen by TheJournal.ie also reveals how a senior minister sought information about the UK’s proposed introduction of a so-called ‘porn block’ following the verdict in the Ana Kriegel murder trial.

Under recently scrapped plans which were proposed by the British government, adults would have had to prove their age using an official ID to access pornography online.

The same laws proposed that websites which failed to put adequate age-checking tools in place could be blocked by internet service providers, or have their access to payment services withdrawn.

The controls were due to come into effect on 15 July, but were initially delayed after the government failed to notify the European Commission about certain aspects of the crackdown, before being formally shelved by the British government this week.

In June, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil about government plans to look into whether similar laws could work here, and announced that Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan would contact UK officials to ask how laws had worked there after a year.

“It is a matter of concern to all of us that pornography is now so accessible to young people and that many young people learn about sex through pornography, which is not an accurate representation of what is healthy in life,” he said.

However, correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act reveals how Department of Justice officials felt the issue was not within their remit.

Emails also shows how Tánaiste Simon Coveney asked for information about the proposed laws through a special adviser to Flanagan, who specifically mentioned the Ana Kriegel case as part of her inquiries.

Ana Kriegel trial

On 19 June, the same day Varadkar spoke about laws regulating the use of pornography in the Dáil, Flanagan’s special adviser asked officials in his department for information about the proposed UK law, in order to prepare a note for Coveney for Leaders’ Questions. 

An email read:

The Kriegal [sic] case has given rise to some debate on issues including (1) child access to pornography (2) online harassment & harmful communication. The Tánaiste’s office has asked for an LQ note encompassing both for tomorrow.

Ana Kriegel’s name was mentioned in the Dáil the same day by Labour leader Brendan Howlin, who asked the Taoiseach if the government would make inquiries about the UK’s attempts to introduce so-called ‘porn block’ laws.

Days beforehand, two 14-year-old boys, referred to in the media as Boy A and Boy B, were convicted of murdering Ana at an abandoned house last year by unanimous jury verdicts.

During the course of the investigation, gardaí seized a number of electronic devices belonging to Boy A, and the jury was shown a number of screenshots of search engine data showing requests by him to access pornographic content online.

The query from Flanagan’s adviser resulted in a series of emails among Department officials about who would be responsible over regulations governing children’s access to pornography.

One suggested that the government’s Online Safety Action Plan - introduced last year to promote online safety – might be useful, but also suggested the issue was a matter for a different Department.

“Child access to pornography and the UK law, is for DCCAE [the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment],” they wrote.

‘Not a role we want to take on’

Meanwhile, the Justice official sought further clarity from the Department’s Cybercrime division, who also insisted that the issue was a matter for the Department of Communications.

The Cybercrime official reasoned that because pornographic content was “harmful (as opposed to illegal)” and because of the Department Communications, Climate Action and Environment chaired the National Advisory Council for Online Safety, the issue was within their remit.

Later, another official at the Department emailed his colleagues to raise concerns about comments made by Varadkar regarding Flanagan’s role in monitoring the success of pornography laws in the UK.

“[We] have been consistent for the last number of years that policing usage of the internet is note a role that Justice wants to take on. This is very much an issue for DCCAE,” they wrote.

The official also claimed that the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment did not want to take on the role, but did so when the Department of Taoiseach intervened and set up the Online Safety Action Plan.

Another official echoed this, saying that they had “consistently resisted” attempts to assign responsibility for online safety to Justice, saying the Department was only responsible for illegal content.

“It is not clear to me why Minister Flanagan was mentioned in the context of a review of the new UK legislation re age verification for pornography sites,” they added.

“It is the Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports in the UK who has responsibility for this, therefore [it is] not a justice or home affairs matter.”

Communications kickback

However, subsequent responses from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment show how there was a kickback there about who was responsible for regulating online pornography use among under 18s.

Responding to a request from the Department of Justice for information about Coveney’s Leaders’ Questions note, a Communications official wrote:

This Department does not have any role in relation to child access to pornography or the UK law in relation to this matter, and we will therefore not be providing any material on this issue for an LQ note.

However, both departments now appear to be taking steps to address issues aspects of online safety that they consider within their remit.

When asked to clarify the matter, a spokeswoman for the Department of Communications said that the safety of citizens and children was an issue that affected several government departments.

The Department said that the issue of child access to pornography requires a multifaceted response, but also that the issue was sometimes a legal one – an implication that Justice has some responsibility over it.

“A key aspect in relation to child access to pornographic material is age verification,” the Department said in a statement to TheJournal.ie.

“This is a complex issue and proposals to introduce an approach in the UK have been postponed on a number of occasions.

“The Minister for Justice and Equality has committed to meeting his counterparts in the UK in relation to this issue.”

However, the Department also said that its minister, Richard Bruton, had launched a public consultation in relation to online safety legislation, and that this would form the basis for new laws in the form of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.

The minister is expected to bring the heads of the bill to the Government before the end of this year, when he will outline the key measures to be included in the new laws.

Meanwhile, a statement from the Department of Justice said that if online behaviour did not involve criminality, education and awareness-raising could be a more appropriate response to the issue.

A spokesman said that work is being done by various departments and agencies as part of the Online Safety Action Plan, and added that the Department was developing amendments to the Harassment, Harmful Communication and Related Offences Bill to deal with non-consensual recording and distribution of intimate images.

It is not now expected that the government will introduce ‘porn block’ laws here, following the shelving of the proposals in the UK this week.

Comments have been closed as sentencing in the Ana Kriegel trial has yet to take place.

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