Opening Statement by Minister for Communications
Denis Naughten TD
Sinn Féin Private Members Business –
Digital Safety Commissioner Bill 2017
Thursday 22 February 2018, 5:45pm
I would like to thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire and his party for introducing this Private Members Bill. I would also like to thank the Law Reform Commission for their work in preparing their report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety, which was published in September 2016. As we all know, that report's recommendations were effectively split in two parts: the first concerning the reform of Criminal Law, and the second concerning the establishment of a Digital Safety Commissioner.
As you are aware, Deputy Brendan Howlin introduced the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017, which addresses those parts of the LRC report which relate to the reform of Criminal Law and harmful communications. I know that Deputy Ó Laoghaire's party brought forward a similar bill. Deputy Howlin's Bill was discussed at second stage here on 31 January and as on that occasion, the Government will not be opposing the passage of the Digital Safety Commissioner Bill 2017.
I strongly welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation, because as the father of four young children, I believe Online Safety is one of the greatest challenges which we face today. But it's important that our response to the risks is measured, that we acknowledge the benefits as well as the threats that are out there. The online/offline world are one and the same in the lives of today's teenagers'. We need to work with them, and listen to them so that our solutions are credible in their eyes.
My three colleagues, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Children and Youth Affairs and Education and Skills and myself, addressed the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs yesterday. I thank that committee for the work which they are doing on this subject, and I look forward to receiving their report and recommendations shortly.
I believe the fact that four cabinet Ministers appeared before a committee together, something which I believe is unprecedented, is a testament to this Government's commitment to working together to make the internet a safer place for all users, but especially our children. In addition to the Ministers who appeared yesterday, the Minister for Health and the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation also have roles to play, and their Departments are involved in the organisation of the Open Policy Debate on Online Safety – a subject which I will return to later.
A Minister for the Internet
An interesting aspect of yesterday's discussion was that the Committee members wanted to know where overall responsibility should rest for Online Safety. Some Committee members proposed that we would have a Minister for the Internet.
It is tempting when speaking about any issue which cuts across many Government Departments to gravitate towards this type of solution. The reality is that no single Department or Minister can be responsible for solving all of the issues relating to Online Safety. There are at least six Government Departments involved in this area, and I believe our goal should be to find a way to work together better and in a more seamless way from the citizen's point of view.
My own role as Minister for Communications
As Minister for Communications, Online Safety has been a personal policy priority for me.
We were all deeply disturbed by the reports of recent cases of horrific online behaviour perpetrated in Ireland. As a society we must respond, but we must also realise that the solution which is appropriate in relation to these cases, is not the solution for all types of online behaviour and content.
At the other end of the spectrum entirely, we are talking about hurtful comments or cyberbullying, where the perpetrators can be young people themselves.
I have said many times that no one single action is going to "fix the internet". I was struck by Professor Brian O'Neill's contribution to the Joint Oireachtas Committee last year, where he explained that all research over the past 20 years was showing that a multi-stakeholder approach to Online Safety is required.
We need to find 21st century solutions to these problems - legislation may form part of those solutions, but it isn't a panacea. It should be seen as only one part of a wide range of actions that we should consider.
I would also like to recognise the work which is already underway across a range of Government Departments and this was strongly acknowledge at yesterday's meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on children.
The proposed legislation
My position on the need to establish an Office of a Digital Safety Commissioner is one that has been widely reported and acknowledged.
The specific roles envisaged for the Digital Safety Commissioner set out in this Bill include, to promote Digital Safety for all persons and support and encouraged the implementation of measures to improve digital safety.
Recognising the proactive role which the Ombudsman for Children has played in this area, the proposed Commissioner would support the preparation and publication by the Ombudsman for Children of guidance material for schools.
Other functions refer to education and awareness measures including, collecting, analysing and disseminating information relating to digital safety; supporting, encouraging, conducting and evaluating research about digital safety; publishing reports and papers relating to Digital Safety, and promoting positive use of the internet and active online citizenship.
The proposed Commissioner would also have a role in coordinating the activities of Government Departments and other public bodies in this area. These aspects are ones which I believe all stakeholders would agree on.
It is important to note that some of these functions are already being carried out, at least to some extent, across a range of Government Departments. We can and should identify practical steps that can be taken in the short term without necessarily waiting for the establishment of a statutory office and work is currently underway to identify those steps.
What are the issues with the Bill?
In the interest of clarity, I must emphasize that there are aspects of the Bill which raise jurisdictional and other legal issues, which require far greater examination and post-second stage scrutiny.
Specific legal difficulties in the Bill include the following:
- Firstly: There are significant issues with definition in the Bill. For example the Bill does not define what is meant by "harmful communications" other than those which will be addressed through criminal law.
- Secondly: The Bill provides for a role for the Courts here where an entity is established outside the State in respect of a harmful communication. It is not clear how this would work in practice.
- Thirdly: The Bill imposes a number of obligations on digital service undertakings established in the State, and
- Fourthly: The overlap with other State organisations with statutory and non-statutory roles in this area is not clear.
I flag these issues in order to be helpful and not as a hindrance to the passage of legislation.
The European Context.
The Bill also fails to take into account the impact that such a measure would have in a European context. 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.
In fact, next week the Global Internet and Jurisdiction Conference will be held in Ottawa, Canada and it provides an ideal opportunity to have such issues progressed.
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 an effective system of 'notice and take down' is observed by online platforms for illegal content.
Other Member States have brought in measures which seek to impose stricter measures on internet companies. There are examples of legislative and even constitutional restrictions on certain content across the European Union, but results have been mixed so we need to learn from this.
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 coherent results than a purely national approach, and I should say not least in respect of internet providers that are not based in Ireland.
Given the action which the Commission is taking, I believe it could be premature to take unilateral action in respect of a statutory code of conduct at this time. However, this is something that I believe should be kept under close review.
An Garda Síochána
We must also recognise in this debate the role which is being played by An Garda Síochána. They will always be the authority responsible for illegal content in Ireland. I commend them on their recent successful operations, including operation Ketch. We must recognise that they have been extremely effective in ensuring that illegal content is removed.
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.
Audiovisual Media Services Directive [AVMS]
Another example of the activity taking place which I am familiar with is my 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. 500 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute.
We will also be required to formalise the regulation of non-linear or on-demand services (for example Netflix or the RTÉ player), which is another positive step in making the internet a safer place for all users, but especially children.
It is likely that the revised Directive will be agreed in the coming months, and my Department will begin a public consultation on how best to implement its provisions.
A joined up approach to online safety.
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 today, without waiting for legislative change.
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 now. This means working with parents, young people, NGOs and tech companies to take actions that will make a real and practical difference.
What has this Government done?
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 are all welcome to attend on the day, please contact my office if are interested in attending. I sincerely hope that you do.
The output of the Open Policy Debate will allow Government
- to set out an integrated set of measures to continue to tackle the issues arising in respect of on-line safety and
- to strengthen communication and information for the general public in respect of supporting children and young people to stay safe on-line.
Once again I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for bringing forward this Bill, which the Government will not oppose. As I have previously highlighted, there are significant legal and jurisdictional issues which must be overcome before the Bill could be enacted – but it is important that we debate these points and come forward with practical, implementable solutions.
I value the contributions which all Deputies, on all sides will make to this debate tonight, to the work of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs and to the Open Policy Debate in March. It is only by working together that we can begin to make the internet a safer place for all citizens, but especially our children.