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Speech by Minister for Communications Denis Naughten TD at EMEA Summit

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April 27th 2017

Thank you for your invitation to be here this morning and Cead Mile Failte to the many overseas visitors that have travelled for today's Summit.

I also want to welcome the NGOs here this morning that work tirelessly every day for the protection of our children.

There's not one of us in this room that doesn't recognise the extraordinary value of the internet for all of us, young and old, for businesses - urban and rural, for educators and students yet there are traps for the unwary. The digital world combines anonymity and distance too easily so it is vital for parents and professionals who work with children to educate themselves on the potential dangers of the internet and, in particular, on how children and young people can use it safely. 

As we know internet users of all ages and backgrounds lie about their age online. Paedophiles lurk around chat rooms restricted to children, looking for those feeling isolated and dejected. They show understanding and support by offering to be their special friend. A recent high profile case concerning a Canadian man who has been jailed for grooming an Irish teenager online for sex is an example of the real dangers that exist. It's not like a stranger pulling up in a car offering a lift - this was the main concern of our parents growing up - that we would be snatched by a stranger. Now strangers are snatching our children by their fingertips in the virtual world of computers, not cars.

We are familiar with the description of Cyberspace by many academics and law enforcement agencies as a 'giant city with no police force'.

The speed and pace at which the internet has evolved has become an issue for all of us as parents, as legislators, you as service providers and all of us as users. I recognise that Google and Facebook continue to introduce new ways of trying to protect children and all users online and I commend them for their work in this regard as there is no place for complacency or maintaining the status quo when it comes to the protection of children.  

Ireland has learned from many difficult lessons in our past. The appointment of a senior Government Minister with responsibility for Children & Youth Affairs in 2011, along with the establishment of that Department represented an important step in our development as a society.  My colleague the Minister for Children Katherine Zappone is equally as concerned as I am about the safety of children online and I am working with her closely on this issue.

A recent survey of parents published for Safer Internet Day last February shows that parents remain concerned about bullying, exposure to pornography and exploitation but now they are also concerned about managing the time children spend online. ISPCC research shows that children who spend more time online and without parental supervision are at greater risk of cyber bullying and those who volunteer personal information online are also at greater risk. The ISPCC also reports that children and parents often feel helpless in how to respond to cyber bullying and children are reluctant to report it for fear their devices will be taken off them.

As a father of four young children of course I worry for my children as they embrace the digital world, which inevitably they must but I am also excited at the wonderful opportunities for learning that await them which many of us were denied growing up without computers.  

We are here today because child safety online is a concern and a priority for us all and at Government level this is very much the case as well. Some of the work on internet safety that is currently being carried out by Government is shared across the Department of Justice & Equality; the Department of Children and Youth Affairs; the Department of Education and Skills, and my own Department of Communications.

My Department has primary responsibility for online content, for example communications policy and cybersecurity. Our work in this area is primarily focused on two key issues which you will be familiar with. The first area concerns the negotiation of the revision of the Audio-visual Media Services Directive, which includes a levelling up of protection for minors in on-demand broadcasts and Video Sharing Platforms. The European Commission$B!G(Bs stated intention is that the revised Directive will protect children better in a world where media convergence is progressing at a very high rate. I have no doubt that the revised directive will make the world safer for children, whether that is by increasing the child protection requirements currently in place for linear broadcasters to on-demand players– or by the limited inclusion of a small but significant number of Video Sharing Platforms within the regulation.

The second area of work is the implementation of the HSE's Connecting for Life plan, which aims to reduce suicide in Ireland. The objective is for us to engage with online platforms to develop best practice in the reporting of suicide online.  The Press Council and the BAI have agreed protocols and guidelines in place with traditional media on the reporting of suicide. A similar protocol is being developed for online platforms and an agreed code of best practice will be in place before the end of this year.

Widespread concern over cyberbullying and so called revenge porn led the Law Reform Commission to research the topic and to publish a report on 'Harmful Communications and Digital Safety' in September last year. This report made 30 recommendations that provide a road-map for how the Government should address online policy concerns. One of the recommendations included the establishment of a Digital Safety Commissioner.  As many of you will be aware I am looking at the feasibility of establishing this office in Ireland and I am in the process of getting input from my Government colleagues and the views from online service providers.

I am very open to hearing from all stakeholders in this field and I will listen to concerns and suggestions. The premise behind the Office of a Digital Safety Commissioner would provide legal power to compel social media platforms to take down abusive or offensive material in a 'timely' manner.  

This will require drafting of additional legislation and in the meantime it is being referred to the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy and Public Service Reform for discussion.

I am currently reviewing the Internet Content Governance Advisory Group Report which was published three years ago. It contained recommendations on actions to be carried out by my department in relation to internet content governance. I will be reporting to Government in the coming months on the current status of each recommendation. 

The Office for Internet Safety was established in 2008 in the Department of Justice and Equality and its remit focuses primarily on combatting child pornography. Transferring and expanding part of the work of the Office for Internet Safety within the Department of Children is currently being examined by Government.

 In relation to legislative updates the recent enactment of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 significantly strengthens existing criminal law on combating child exploitation and, in particular, addresses the use of modern communication technologies as a tool which may lead to child sexual exploitation.

The recently enacted Children First Act 2015, places an obligation on Government Departments and Public Bodies, but also on Private Businesses to ensure that they protect children from harm.

The Labour Party's Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 is not being opposed by Government which means a new offence will be created of non-consensual distribution of intimate images with/without intent to cause harm or distress - referred to as so called revenge pornography' This will also be a sexual offence for the purpose of the Sex Offenders Act 2001, if an individual convicted is sentenced to a term of imprisonment.

Conclusion

Have we achieved the goal of keeping children safe online? No we have not. Problems exist that will need to be overcome with technological, societal and legislative solutions. I have outlined briefly what the Government is doing but none of us can effect change without each other.

The protection of children and their mental and physical well-being is paramount and I as Minister for Communications will do whatever it takes to ensure their safety online.

I know that you have a number of eminent speakers coming before you today and I am sorry that I cannot stay to hear some of the discussion. It only remains for me to wish you well with your work at today's Summit.


ENDS

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