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Govt making 'little or no progress' against online abuse and child exploitation, committee told

The Justice Committee is examining issues such as cyberbullying, harassment, stalking and revenge porn.

Dr Mary Aiken speaking before the Justice Committee
Dr Mary Aiken speaking before the Justice Committee
Image: Oireachtas TV via PA Images

THE GOVERNMENT HAS made “little or no progress” in tackling online abuse, child sexual exploitation, harassment and intimidation despite numerous investigations, an Oireachtas committee has been told.

Cyberpsychologist Dr Mary Aiken said that Ireland should be at the forefront of cyber leadership because it is an important hub for technology companies.

The justice committee is examining the nature and extent of cyberbullying, harassment, stalking, revenge porn and as well as other harmful communications.

Dr Aiken, a professor at the Department of Law and Criminology, University of East London, said that the influence of the internet and social media is “not an abstract concept”.

“Its impact is not virtual, it impacts real lives in the real world,” she added.

She told the committee that there is a relationship between cyberbullying, self-esteem, and self-harm, as well as between sexted images, harassment, online coercion and extortion.

There are no countries in the world that have established a framework which tackles the connected range of online harms, she added.

She said that exposing Irish children to a range of online harms is a fundamental breach of their constitutional rights.

She continued: “Our challenge as policymakers is not to engage in determined myopia and deliberate fragmentation strategies, or to allow commercial stakeholders to perpetuate skilful deflection and obfuscation strategies, but to urgently develop a new system of accountability, legislative and statutory instruments and oversight, that will replace the current failed model of self-regulation.

A new Irish regulatory framework regarding online harm is urgently required, one that will make clear the technology industry’s responsibility to protect Irish users, particularly our children, online.

Garda resources

TJ McIntyre, chair of Digital Rights Ireland, accused the government failing to properly resource An Garda Síochana to deal with online harassment, as well as failure to reform the law on access to internet data.

He raised concerns over how gardai handle complaints about online harassment saying that there is an unwillingness to investigate cases of online harassment.

Victims who complain to the gardaí are being told that the conduct is not a crime or that there is nothing that can be done, the committee heard.

He added: “As long as the level of under-resourcing continues it is hard to see how any significant number of cases of online harassment can be pursued, creating the risk that any expansion of the criminal law in this area will go unenforced.

It is disappointing that the government has failed to implement any of the recommendations made by the Internet Content Advisory Group or the Law Reform Commission.

In 2014, the Internet Content Advisory Group recommended the establishment of a National Council for Child Internet Safety while in 2016 the Law Reform Commission recommended that harmful communications online be regulated by law.

Hate speech

Barrister Ronan Lupton told the committee that there are six piece of legislation that need to be examined.

Lupton, who has served on the Department of Justice Internet Advisory Board, said one of these is the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989.

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“It is a difficult act to decipher let alone prosecute.

“It deals with actions, broadcast and materials likely to incite hatred and the levels of prosecution are minute,” he added.

“That’s the only area of hate speech legislation I can find and it is well out of date and it’s not fit for purpose when you look at the internet and pervasive access to individuals online.”

He described the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act as “stale” and “out of date”.

“The wording in is wrong. It needs a full overhaul,” he added.

“Another issue arising is the lack of a Good Samaritan clause of good actors, or certain groups, permitted to hold content blocking lists without fear of prosecution for doing so.

“Updating this legislation might also provide a logical legislative home for revenge porn offences.”

He also said that up-skirting offences have been buried in the Criminal Law Act, and called for a serious and urgent review of the legislation.

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