Wednesday 21 February 2018
Check Against Delivery
I would like to thank the Chairman and the members of the Committee for inviting me to address this morning's meeting.
I would also like to thank the Committee for the work it has carried out since last September in relation to Online Safety.
Since my appointment as Minister for Communications I have impressed upon my officials that online safety, particularly for children, is a personal policy priority for me. It is also a priority for me as a father of four young children.
We all know that the internet is a tool that brings enormous benefits, but there are risks and dangers that combine anonymity and distance too easily.
The types of risks vary enormously - from the most serious criminal content, such as child sexual abuse material at one end of the spectrum, to legal but abusive, hurtful or defamatory comments at the other. The perpetrators similarly vary from criminals to ordinary users, some of whom are young people themselves.
Given the range of different material, no one single action is going to "fix the internet".
There is a lot of work being done across a range of Government Departments in this area but we need to communicate and coordinate our work better. We need to demonstrate a much more joined-up Government approach to online safety to every single citizen. We can never be complacent in this area.
The report of the Internet Content Governance Advisory Group
In relation to the implementation of the Report of the Internet Content Governance Advisory Group published in 2014, progress, as we know has been slow. Even though it was published in May 2014 I believe that the overall thrust of its recommendations is still valid today.
A key goal of the Report's recommendations was to have effective structures in place in order to ensure a joined up approach across Government and engagement with parents, industry, voluntary groups and other agencies.
This is exactly why I am holding the Open Policy Debate Forum on March 8th in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham - to bring together the main players in this area in order to move in the one direction.
This Committee has highlighted and given a voice to the many organisations, groups and individuals that are all working day in day out to ensure our children, and all users, are safe and protected when online.
We need to tap into that commitment and expertise on an ongoing basis.
Audiovisual Media Services Directive [AVMS]
My own Department has direct responsibility for implementing the revisions to the Audiovisual Media Services Directive. While a final text is yet to be agreed at European level, this Directive will ensure that Video Sharing Platform Services, such as YouTube, have measures in place to protect users, especially minors, from harmful video content.
We expect the revised Directive to be agreed in the coming months, and we will then begin a public consultation on how best to implement its provisions in Ireland. It is vital we get it right. I recently met with Google's Vice President for Public Policy Nicklas Lundblad and he told me that 500 hours of video content is being uploaded to YouTube every single minute. This is a staggering fact.
The Office of a Digital Safety Commissioner
My position on the need to establish an Office of a Digital Safety Commissioner is one that has been widely reported and acknowledged.
Many parents, agencies and NGOs share my position. For the role to be effective and responsive to modern day needs in the constant fast paced world of the internet, we need to move together, as an Oireachtas on this specific issue. As you know, the Government will respond tomorrow to the Private Member's Bill on the Digital Safety Commissioner put down by Sinn Féin. The Government is not opposing the Motion.
There are aspects of the Bill as presented however that will need closer examination and scrutiny in order for the role to be defined as we need it to be defined, with effective powers and responsibilities. I look forward to this Debate.
Online safety is complex, but some of the solutions are clear. We need to do more, but we also need to make sure that there is greater awareness of all the resources and supports that are available right now.
We want to make sure that our children are not only tech savvy, but safety conscious; that our parents know where they can turn to for help; that there's a joined-up approach to everything we do. These are measures that can be strengthened in the shorter term, without waiting for legislative change.
An Garda Síochána
It also needs to be recognised in any debate in relation to a Digital Safety Commissioner that An Garda Síochána will always be the authority responsible for illegal content in Ireland.
They have been extremely effective in ensuring that such content is removed and they must be commended for their recent successful operations.
I know that my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, is working on legislation in the area of harmful communications which will further strengthen their hand in this area. I also want to commend the joint approach by An Garda Síochána, Webwise and the Professional Development Service for Teachers to mark Safer Internet Day.
As we all know the internet doesn't respect borders, and for that reason a joined up approach at a European or even global level, is key. The European Commission published its Communication in relation to Illegal content on Online Platforms last September, and it is due to bring forward proposals on next steps by May this year. This is significant as the European Commission is taking action to ensure a strict system of 'notice and take down' is in place for illegal content. We are in a far stronger position when we work in tandem with our European partners. Action at European level – whether it relates to criminal or harmful content - will bring about far more effective and joined-up results than a purely national approach, and I should say not least in respect of internet providers that are not based in Ireland.
Where should our focus be?
As I have outlined, a number of Government Departments and agencies are already involved in delivering many services which are aimed at safeguarding citizens online.
Rather than being overly prescriptive in this area, I am keen to work on practical steps we can take in the short term. This means working with parents, young people, NGOs and tech companies to take actions that will make a real difference.
I convened a meeting between my colleagues the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, last November on this issue. We agreed that the most appropriate way to move online safety forward would be to hold an Open Policy Debate, to help us identify gaps and the practical steps needed to fill them.
As I have mentioned this Open Policy Debate will be held on the 8 March, and six Government Departments led by my own, are involved in organizing it.
The overall aim of the event is to raise awareness among all participants of the activities which are being undertaken by the Irish Government, by the European Commission, by industry and NGO's. The ideas and feedback generated on the day will also feed into a Government Action Plan that will underpin future actions and policies.
You have all been invited to attend on the day, and I hope that you do.
I would be happy to answer any of your questions.