I propose to take Questions Nos. 192 to 194, inclusive, together.
Protection of children from the inappropriate use of multimedia activities is a very broad and encompassing term, but I take it that the Deputy is referring particularly to the internet, video games and mobile phones. I have no function in the regulation of broadcast media or phones but I can inform him as to the child protection arrangements in place in respect of a number of other media formats. As the Deputy will be aware by its very nature, the internet lends itself to being used for a wide range of criminal activities. This can include illegal pornography, racist or hate materials, financial fraud, intimidation or any other criminal activity carried out via the internet. Combatting such illegal, harmful and predatory use of the internet requires a response at national, EU and wider international levels.
The internet is an international and world-wide phenomenon with no borders and no single organisation controlling it. Measures to combat illegal materials and activities on the internet are, therefore, hampered by a multiplicity of jurisdictions, differing legal systems, and differing societal norms. Furthermore, new developments in communications technologies allowing for internet access by new means are a regular occurrence. These are largely positive developments but also bring particular challenges for those charged with protecting against the downsides of the internet. A combination of responses, and the co-operation of all the stakeholders, at both national and international level — legislators, law enforcement, schools, child protection practitioners, parents and guardians — are essential.
In terms of legislation, in the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act, 1998, Ireland has one of the most robust pieces of legislation anywhere. Under the Act, the possession, distribution, importation and exportation or sale of all forms of child pornography — films, video or material in written or auditory form including material produced or transmitted via the internet — are offences with penalties of up to 14 years' imprisonment. Mere possession of child pornography can be punishable by imprisonment for up to 5 years. Using a child or allowing a child to be used for the production of child pornography is also punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment.
The EU Council adopted a Framework Decision on Combating the Sexual Exploitation of Children and Child Pornography on 22 December 2003. While the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998 is a particularly robust legislative measure, this Framework Decision requires some relatively minor amendments to our legislation and these are contained in the Criminal Law (Trafficking in Persons and Sexual Offences) Bill which is at present being drafted in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. Among the provisions of the Bill is one that prohibits the sale of children, including through a computer system, for the purpose of the sexual or labour exploitation of a child.
In addition, a new offence of meeting a child following sexual grooming, on the internet or otherwise, was included in the recently enacted Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Act 2007. I am informed by the Garda Authorities that they monitor child pornography on the internet and where evidence is available action is taken in accordance with legislation. Other incidents of child pornography coming to the attention of An Garda Síochána are fully investigated and where there is evidence to support a prosecution criminal proceedings are commenced, as directed by the Law Officers.
I am also informed by the Garda Authorities that staff from the Computer Crime Investigation Unit (CCIU) in the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation participate in numerous fora where crime prevention advice is given to companies and members of the public on the safe use of the internet. The Unit provides support to the many operations by other national and local units in targeting paedophiles and others suspected of downloading child pornography in Ireland. Members of An Garda Síochána attached to the National Bureau of Investigation augment these units as the volume of work requires. Computer forensics are carried out by the members attached to the Domestic and Sexual Assault Unit and also by members attached to the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation utilising up-to-date forensic software. I understand that An Garda Síochána, in conjunction with its EU colleagues, is currently examining new methods of preventing the production and distribution of child pornography on the internet.
On the structural side, the Government established a working Group in 1997 to examine and report on the whole question of the illegal and harmful use of the internet with particular reference to child pornography. The Report of the Working Group on the Illegal and Harmful Use of the Internet was published in July 1998. The main recommendation of the Report was for a system of self-regulation by the Internet Service Provider industry and the components of such a system were to include: an Internet Advisory Board (IAB) — established Feb 2000 — to promote awareness of Internet downside issues, co-ordinate efforts to combat child pornography on the Internet and monitor the progress of self regulation by the Internet Service Provider industry; a Public Hotline for reporting child pornography (established 1999 and funded by the industry); an industry Code of Practice and Ethics setting out the duties and responsibilities of each Internet Service Provider (agreed February 2002 and reviewed in 2004)
The Internet Advisory Board (IAB) as well as overseeing a self-regulatory regime for the Irish Internet Service Providers, encourages best practice procedures, provides advice and facilitates research in Internet-related issues including child safety. My Department provides secretarial and other supports for the Board's work. The IAB in its role of encouraging best practice, procedures and formulating advice on Internet downside issues is currently evaluating electronic technology which can be used to block access to websites on the internet and is preparing a report on the matter.
The Hotline (www.hotline.ie), is funded by the Internet Service Providers' Association of Ireland with support from the EU Safer Internet Action Plan. It accepts and investigates reports from the public in relation to child pornography and other illegal material on the internet and attempts to identify the source. If the material is hosted in Ireland, it will request the relevant Internet Service Provider (ISP) to remove it, in accordance with their Code of Practise and Ethics. Special protocols operate between the Gardaí and the Hotline that maximise co-operation on law enforcement issues so that offences in the area of child pornography can be detected and prosecuted. The Hotline works closely with, and is a founding member of, the international INHOPE Association (www.inhope.org), a network of European hotlines which is expanding to all parts of the world. The INHOPE Association develops procedures and shares information on the best practices for the tracing and tracking of illegal child pornography. International co-operation is a vital part of the fight against pornography on the internet, and Ireland is fully committed to playing its part. The Deputy may be aware that the European Union has taken a strong line on combating child pornography and other illegal and harmful uses of the internet. Since 1999, under the Safer Internet Action Plan, the EU has provided financial and other supports for measures in the member states to combat illegal and harmful uses of the internet, with particular emphasis on protecting children. A new EU action plan — Safer Internet Plus — covering the period 2005 to 2008, and with a budget of €45m, was agreed under the Irish presidency in June 2004 and is now in operation. My Department is represented on the management committee for the programme. In September 2001, the Council of Europe approved the first international Convention on Cybercrime. Ireland signed up to the Convention in June 2002. The main objective of the Convention is to foster international co-operation in protecting society against cybercrime. The Convention deals specifically with the distribution of child pornography on the internet, infringements of copyright, computer related fraud and violations of network security. On 15 September 2006, I announced that Government approval had been obtained for the drafting of the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. This Bill is being used to give effect to a number of international instruments including the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime 2001.
With regard to video games, the position is that Ireland is a member of the Pan European Games Information (PEGI) system. Video games are classified by age appropriateness at the following levels; 3+: 7+ 12+; 15+ and 18+. The categorisation is then indicated on product packaging. Under these arrangements, video games are categorised according to a robust and consistent system and subject to independent non-industry verification.
A key component of video game arrangements is that the classification systems are designed to provide useful information as to the content of the product. In particular, the intention is to assist parents in making informed choices concerning the media they acquire for their children or which they permit their children to use.
In so far as films and videos/DVDs are concerned, the position is that these must be classified by the Irish Film Censor for sale, exhibition or rental. The age appropriateness of each work is then displayed in cinema and all video/DVD works must carry the age classification on the packaging and video/DVD. My Department is fully committed to co-operating with and promoting measures both nationally, at EU level and in the wider international fora with regard to child protection.