Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to consolidate and reform the criminal law concerning harassment and harmful communications, to repeal certain provisions of the Post Office (Amendment) Act 1951 and the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997, and to provide for related matters.

I will set out briefly what the Bill aims to do, but first I will reject the criticism that we are trying to police the Internet which it is stated should be an area free from any State intervention. I simply do not agree with that. The Internet is a public space and, like any other public space, should be free and safe. People, particularly young and vulnerable persons, are entitled to the protection of the State when in it. Free speech should remain just that, but harassment, stalking and aggravated bullying online are not expressions of freedom but rather attacks on it.

There is a history to the Bill. In 2013 former Deputy Pat Rabbitte, as Minister with responsibility for communications, set out an independent expert Internet content governance advisory council which reported on a range of issues related to online content following growth in public concern about cyberbullying and related matters. The report made a series of structural, legislative and administrative recommendations. For example, it suggested the existing offence of sending messages that were grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing should be updated to include new forms of electronic communications. As the law stands, amazingly, the offence covers only phone and text messages. That the law in this area has not changed since the invention of the text message is surely enough reason for the House to re-engage with this important area.

Last year the Law Reform Commission published its report on harmful communications and a digital strategy. It confirmed that the criminal law applied to some harmful communications but that there were gaps, particularly relating to newer forms of communication. It proposed that the existing law, together with new measures to tackle new forms of harmful communications, should be consolidated in a new single piece of legislation. That is the core purpose of the Bill being presented today in my name and that of the other Labour Party Deputies. It is about consolidating and reforming the criminal law on harmful communications. This involves replacing certain provisions of the Post Office (Amendment) Act 1951 relating to electronic communications and the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 relating to harassment.

We produced a draft of the Bill some months ago and it was circulated to key stakeholders. I am grateful to the numerous non-governmental organisations and experts who provided comments and suggestions for us to perfect the draft of the Bill. The Bill sets out an updated offence of harassment, allowing for stalking to count as an aggravating factor in sentencing. It makes special provision in cases where the defendant and the victim were in an intimate relationship and the defendant has made use of personal information on or electronic surveillance or recording devices to monitor the victim. The Bill also creates a new offence of distributing an intimate image without consent, which is now commonly referred to as "revenge porn". It deals with threatening, false, indecent or obscene messages. The Bill makes it clear that it is not to be interpreted as altering the law so as to prohibit or unduly restrict the exercise of the rights of peaceable assembly or picketing or any constitutional right.

The Law Reform Commission had two parts in its report, the second of which proposed a system of oversight and regulation under one new regulator, to be called the digital safety commissioner. However, creating a new statutory agency, as the Ceann Comhairle knows, is outside the remit of a Private Members' Bill. The Bill implements the thrust of the commission's proposals for criminal law. Last weekend we heard that the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality also proposd to act, which I, of course, support, but it concerns me that the account given in The Irish Times of what she proposes in her Bill is confined entirely to the Law Reform Commission's criminal law reform agenda and discounts the second part of the commission's report dealing with civil online regulation. It may be that the newspaper reports had an abridged version of the proposals and I certainly hope that is the case. I also hope the Tánaiste will act on the totality of the report, including the establishment of a digital safety commissioner, but I will await her full proposals. In the meantime it is urgent that we advance the proposals before the Dáil.

There was an interesting article in the Sunday Independent about this issue.

That goes to my point. It would only be half a Bill.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

As this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.