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The Tánaiste said the court case coverage over the last few days has been a reminder that action is needed.
Child Protection

Tánaiste says stricter online safety rules are needed: 'The days of self-regulation are over'

Calls for an online safety Oireachtas committee were heard in the Dáil today.

THE DAYS OF self-regulation online “are over”, according to Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who admitted today more action is needed to ensure children are safe online.

There were calls for a cross-party Oireachtas committee on online safety to be established and for the office of the Digital Safety Commissioner to be set up as a priority. 

During Leaders’ Questions, Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty said the coverage of the Ana Kriegel trial has highlighted the serious issue of children accessing adult pornographic content online.

Yesterday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Irish government will consult with the UK about its new “porn block” law and how it is working, with a view to perhaps rolling out an age verification system for Ireland.

Coveney said he wanted to be very clear that the government’s view is that “the days of self-regulation online are over”. He added that States need to get involved to protect vulnerable people and children, but acknowledged that the legislation in this area can be difficult to get right.

The Tánaiste said the court case coverage over the last few days has been a reminder that action is needed.

The dangers of children using mobile phones

He added that parents in the chamber and around the country know “all too well the dangers” of even allowing a young child use a mobile phone these days.

Bullying online and the viewing of pornographic content online is a “significant” concern, he said, stating that the government wants to work with all parties to make the necessary legislative changes.

Doherty said he welcomed the Tánaiste’s comments, but said Sinn Féin’s Digital Safety Commissioner Bill, which was supported in the Dáil, has been stuck in committee stage and has not been allowed to progress for over a year now.

He called on the government to work with Sinn Féin to strengthen the Bill so that laws can be introduced as soon as possible. 

A call to action is needed now, said Doherty, stating the Dáil has a responsibility to do something.

“The Dáil needs to take control of this situation,” he said. 

Doherty said every party and politician in the House has ideas that might work, adding that it shouldn’t be about what party introduces the laws.

Digital Safety Commissioner

He told Coveney that Sinn Féin is willing to work with government to “strengthen” the Bill and to get it over the line as soon as possible. 

The Sinn Féin Bill seeks to establish an Office of a Digital Safety Commissioner, setting out its powers to ensure timely and efficient procedure for removing harmful digital communications, as well as power to order take down notices to digital service providers.

The Commissioner would also advise the government in relation to policies which may be implementable to ensure all users of digital platforms are protected in a way that keeps up to speed with the ever-changing nature of digital technology.

The commissioner would also work with the Ombudsman for Children in publishing guidance material, including guidance material for schools, relevant to digital safety of children and to harmful digital communications, such as online bullying.

However, the government has said it is working on its own Bill for a Digital Safety Commissioner. 

Fianna Fáil’s Dara Calleary told the Tánaiste “we want to work with you”, but said urgent action is needed on the issue.

Timeline for action

He called for the Dáil not to break for the summer recess without a timeline being set by government as to when legislation will be enacted. 

Calleary read out a quote from the former Communications Minister Denis Naughten from 2017, in which similar commitments were made. He said two years have passed and not much has changed. 

Coveney said Naughten made a “significant contribution” in this area, stating that he produced an action plan for online safety with 25 short to medium term action points. 

“The truth is we know now it is not enough,” admitted Coveney. 

The Tánaiste said Communication Minister Richard Bruton has set up a consultation process to hear from NGOs, stakeholders and experts, stating that the legislation is a priority, “but we need to get it right”, he added. 

Passing the online safety legislation before the summer recess is not possible, in Coveney’s view, but he added: “I think it is possible to get this done by the end of the year.”