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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 6°C
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Dr Mary Aiken As Ireland is a hub for tech companies, we should be leading the way on online safety

Ireland is falling way behind our neighbours in the UK when it comes to child internet safety

IRELAND IS AN important hub for technology companies. With that in mind, we should be demonstrating cyber leadership regarding online safety and should be focused on the digital well-being of our children.

In my work at the coalface of the Deep and Dark Web, I collaborate with global agencies from Europol’s Cybercrime Centre to INTERPOL.

This means that unlike most Irish parents, I have frontline knowledge of the unregulated, dangerous domains our children can access with ease, all from the apparent safety of their bedroom.

This is the reason I constantly campaign for child safety online. The Internet was designed on the premise that all users are equal – this is not true, some users are more vulnerable than others, and children are particularly vulnerable.  

So, I knew an election was imminent when last Friday the government reached into a bottom drawer and pulled out “The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill”, trumpeting the establishment of an Online Safety Commissioner.

But, we have been here before.   

BRUTON 184 Sam Boal Richard Bruton speaking to first years in Donahies Community School, North Dublin as he published the draft scheme of new online safety law on Jan 10. Photo: Sam Boal/ Sam Boal

In 2013, I was part of the Internet Content Governance Advisory Group and we highlighted the problem of legal, but age inappropriate harmful content online and advised the establishment of a National Council for Child Internet Safety.

Three years later, the Law Reform Commission published its ‘Report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety.’ That recommended that harmful communications online be regulated by law and that the Office of a Digital Safety Commissioner of Ireland be established. 

The then Minister for Communications Denis Naughten wanted to establish a Digital Safety Commissioner with statutory powers to protect children online, an office that could oversee social technology companies such as Twitter and Facebook.

However, later that year Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suddenly declared that “appointing a commissioner was not the right path forward.”

This was followed by an apparent policy flip-flop in 2018 when Minister Naughten yet again announced that he would appoint a Digital Safety Commissioner, and that this child protection role would be informed by similar successful models in Australia and New Zealand.

However, in July 2018, when the Government launched its new ‘Action Plan for Online Safety,’ they seemed unable or unwilling to commit to a timeline for the appointment.

At the time, Naughten stated that there were “jurisdictional and other legal issues” that required further discussion – a pause in the safety commissioner spin cycle.

Cut to September 2018, when the government founded the ‘National Advisory Council for Online Safety’ and then invited Facebook and Google to sit on this council – apparently oblivious to the glaring conflict of interest here.

Our government is clearly missing a sensitivity chip on this one.

It’s clear that social media and social technology companies need to be part of any solutions process, but rather than sit in a position of influence, they should be called in front of any advisory group and held accountable regarding their duty of care to users.

Way off on digital age of consent

Of course, the government found that when it came to setting the digital age of consent, it wouldn’t have the final say.

It proposed “The Data Protection Bill 2018,” which attempted to establish an Irish digital age of consent of 13, notably the lowest age of consent allowed under the GDPR.

POLICY DEBATE 055 Sam Boal Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Communications Denis Naughten Sam Boal

On launching the bill, Charlie Flanagan Minister for Justice and Equality said: “the Government considers that a ‘digital age of consent’ of 13 years represents an appropriate balancing of children’s rights, namely a child’s right to participation in the online environment and a child’s right to safety and protection, rights that are enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Provision is made for that in section 29.” 

More spin.

You’ll find that Article 29 does not in fact mention “a child’s right to participation in the online environment.”The UN Convention was ratified in 1989, and came into effect in 1990, effectively pre-dating the Internet, online services, and social media.

Complacency not an option

At the time, Professor Barry O Sullivan and I strongly believed that there were considerable risks associated with enabling children to use social media services that could process their personal data for marketing, targeting and commercial gain.

We were convinced that it was critical to protect children from complex algorithmic profiling that they did not understand and which most adults don’t understand either.

For this reason, we campaigned to keep parents involved in the lives of young people online.

Our efforts united the opposition parties and the digital age of consent in Ireland was set at 16, after the government’s proposal for 13 was defeated in the Dail.

We are behind UK on online safety

As part of my work, I advise the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the role of technology in online harm, and significant progress is being made.

The UK approach does not focus exclusively on fragmented aspects of harm, rather they are considering a broad range of harms simultaneously. 

That includes online anonymous abuse, child sexual exploitation and abuse, harassment and intimidation directed at those in public life, child safety and protection, cyberbullying, violence online, designed addiction, underage sharing of sexual imagery, self-harm and suicide.

Also, importantly, in terms of the electoral processes in the UK in relation to mis and disinformation – they are also investigating a broad range of safety technology solutions.

90407689 /Photocall Ireland Two pupils from St Vincent’s Girls National School, North William St, Dublin 1 at an online training session in 2016. /Photocall Ireland

The point here is connectivity – there is a relationship between cyberbullying, self-esteem, and self-harm, there is also a relationship between ‘sexted’ images, harassment, online coercion and extortion.

Many countries are in the process of developing new regulatory approaches to tackling online harms, however, none has as yet established a regulatory framework that tackles the connected range of online harms.

An election is coming

So now we have yet another online safety legislative announcement, and once again some form of online safety commissioner is being proposed – rushed out to appease concerned citizens – just in time for polling day.

But in the middle of cycles of spin it is important to remember that what is new is not always good, and technology will only mean progress when we can mitigate its harmful effects.

As a society, we will only be able to do this when we have political leadership that acts effectively rather than cynically.

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.

Let’s hope our next government makes this a priority.

Dr Mary Aiken is Associate Professor at the Department of Law & Criminology, University of East London


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