I propose that we conduct housekeeping and other business in private session after our engagement with our visitors. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Cyber Security: Discussion (Resumed)
Most of us will need to leave at 10 a.m to attend the presentation on the report of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee on children's mental health. I do not want to be rude and walk out in the middle of the delegates' contribution.
It was unwise for that event to be scheduled to take place during a meeting of this committee.
I do not wish to appear rude, but I will be leaving to attend the presentation on the report.
The Senator might point to the conflict in scheduling for whoever organised the presentation.
Doing something for child advocacy in the middle of a committee is probably not the best idea.
I thank our guests for attending the committee this morning. We will hear from Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, special rapporteur on child protection, and Professor Brian O'Neill, director of research, enterprise and innovation at Dublin City University. Later we will be joined by representatives of the Law Reform Commission on the topic of cybersecurity with regard to children and young adults.
The first session will consist of the presentations by Dr. Shannon and Professor O'Neill. I welcome both of them and thank them for their attendance at the committee.
Before we proceed I would like to read a notice on privilege. In accordance with procedures, I am required to draw the witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009 they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such way as to make him or her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I remind Members to please turn off their mobile phones. There is no service in this room and their mobiles will struggle to find a service. The interference will be particularly acute if they are left on, so I would suggest simply switching them off. Mobile phones interfere with the sound systems and makes it difficult for parliamentary reporters to report the meeting. Television coverage and web streaming is adversely affected also.
I also wish to advise witnesses that any submissions or opening statements they have made to the committee will be published on the website after this committee meeting.
I understand the witnesses will make a short presentation, which will be followed by questions from the members of the committee. We will begin with Dr. Shannon and then move on to Professor O'Neill.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon
I would like to thank the committee for the invitation to address it on cybersecurity for children and young adults. As an ever greater proportion of children live more of their lives online, their time there inevitably becomes a target location for predatory adults. As such, children engaging and socialising online on forums that are difficult for parents and carers to monitor and supervise, are acutely vulnerable. The technical complexity underlying this kind of online offending offers a very different regulatory challenge to child abuse not perpetrated or facilitated through an information and communications technology medium, and therefore necessitates targeted ongoing legislative and other interventions.
The Internet is the new child protection frontier and is clearly a tool that can be used to the detriment of children by those so minded. It warrants a particular concern in relation to child pornography and the grooming of children for sexual exploitation. As the Internet is accessible worldwide, robust regulation is required so as to ensure that a uniform and coherent system of protection is engaged in to the benefit of children.
The introduction of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 last February demonstrates Ireland’s commitment to better protecting its children from online predators and it specifically recognises the dangers that come with technological advances by creating a wide range of new criminal offences dealing with child pornography and grooming, with a particular emphasis on the use of information and communication technology in such offences.
A concern associated with children’s Internet usage is the prevalence of cyberbullying or harassment. In order to ensure that children are protected from cyberbullying in their online activities, regard should be had to the recommendation of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that states should "develop effective safeguards for children against abuse without unduly restricting the full enjoyment of their rights". Online bullying is a challenge posed by the prevalence of cyberharassment and is being considered by the Government in the harmful communications and digital safety Bill 2017. Such harassment can arise in a number of situations and can affect children and young people in different ways. In particular, there is a need for broader harassment legislation in this jurisdiction and greater clarity on the remedy of “takedown procedures”.
In Ireland, the law in force at present only deals with harassment to a limited extent and has yet to be updated to take into account the potential for online abuse. Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 creates the offence of harassment in criminal law. While section 10 already criminalises online or digital harassment as it refers to harassment “by any means”, online and digital harassment is under-reported and under-prosecuted in Ireland. This suggests that section 10 of the 1997 Act in its current form is not sufficient to deal with these types of behaviour. For example, the existing reference in section 10 to the use of the telephone alone in outlining the offence of harassment, without any reference to the Internet, makes the current offence appear archaic and outdated.
The definition of harassment should be broadened. Any new definition should criminalise what is known as “indirect harassment”. Currently, the offender must persistently follow, watch, pester, beset or communicate with the victim. The offence does not include communications to third parties about the victim, such as posting content on public websites or sending emails to persons connected with the victim, but not directly to him or her. I recommend therefore that not only should section 10 be amended to encompass online and digital communications, the definition should be further developed to allow prosecutions for indirect harassment to fall within same. Having an overall broader offence of harassment on the Irish criminal Statute Book would be preferable, thereby encompassing new forms of behaviour that have arisen through the development of digital technology and which merit criminalisation.
While the criminal law seeks to prohibit certain behaviour and punish those who do not adhere to its provisions, a criminal prosecution is usually not the first priority for victims of cyber or digital harassment. This point is particularly relevant in the context of children. Quite often, the real remedy sought by persons so affected is what is termed a “take down”. It is an issue that I have consistently argued should be blended into our legislation and I am urging that this matter be given priority by the committee in its deliberations. It is the immediate removal of the offending publication or image from the website it has been posted on.
Historically, it has been a major problem to persuade Internet service providers to take down material due to arguments that free speech rights are being curtailed. At present, social media companies have their own self-regulated non-statutory reporting and take down processes. Each social media company has a different policy in relation to harmful content such as hate speech, content that promotes sexual violence or exploitation, threats, fake profiles and other similar content. Pursuant to same, individuals can report any harmful content that violates its policies to that particular social media company and request its removal. The ad hoc nature of existing take down processes, which are dependent on each company’s specific policies, means that individuals are at the mercy of each company, its regime and approach as to whether it will take the impugned material down and how quickly it will do so.
I endorse the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission in its 2016 Report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety concerning “take down procedures”. All the other recommendations are an integral part of having a safe online environment for children. The proposed Office of the Digital Safety Commissioner of Ireland should oversee an effective and efficient take down procedure in a timely manner, regulating for a system of take down orders in respect of harmful cybercommunications made in respect of both adults and children. I would also add that in the terms of the role of the Digital Safety Commissioner and take down procedures there should be a requirement on the Digital Safety Commissioner to take down material within a specified period of time. It is an issue that is not expressly referenced in the report of the Law Reform Commission, but it is one that I believe should be adopted.
Take down procedures are also to be considered in the context of the right to be forgotten provided for in the EU general data protection regulation, GDPR. As a regulation, the GDPR will take effect in this jurisdiction automatically from 25 May 2018 and does not require transposition. In my ninth rapporteur report, I discussed the right to be forgotten and its importance from the perspective of a child. The right to be forgotten was held to exist in the seminal case of Google v. Spain. In that decision, the European Court of Justice held that an EU citizen has the right to request that commercial search firms, such as Google, remove links to their personal information when requested, provided that the information is no longer relevant, emphasising an individual’s right to privacy which overrides the public interest in access to information in certain circumstances. Article 17 of the GDPR concerns the “right to erasure”, known as the right to be forgotten. The right to be forgotten is not just an important right which may be exercised by adults.
It is even more relevant and important for children. This is particularly so as children are less likely than adults to be aware that information they post online may be available long term and they may not consider the consequences of posting something online which may last long beyond their childhood. They may post material online that may have significant consequences for employment opportunities in the future. For this reason, I am passionate about the need to give a commitment to the right to erasure or to be forgotten. While not stated in Article 17 of the general data protection regulation, Ireland should take the opportunity to include specific provisions on this issue in the Data Protection Bill 2017. I am conscious that the Bill is not currently before the joint committee but given its particular relevance for children, I urge the committee to liaise with the Committee on Justice and Equality to ensure the right to be forgotten at least receives attention. The relevance of this right should be acknowledged, children should be educated about the matter and it should be understood that the age at which an individual posts information online should be considered a very important factor in decisions about whether to remove an individual's personal information from sites.
In light of the loopholes in existing criminal legislation to which I referred, action has been proposed by the Minister for Justice and Equality. At the final Cabinet meeting of December 2016, the then Minister received the approval of the Cabinet to draft the non-fatal offences (amendment) Bill, now named the harmful communications and digital safety Bill 2017. I note that no further progress has been made in respect of the publication of this legislation and I suggest that it receive priority. The Bill will legislate to put stalking, including cyberstalking and revenge pornography, on the criminal Statute Book and provide for the creation of new criminal offences, including criminalising the act of intentionally posting intimate images of a person online without his or her consent. Furthermore, the Bill will extend existing offences such as the offence of harassment to ensure it includes activity online and on social media, as well as the offence of sending threatening or indecent messages to include digital forms of communication. The announcement of an intention to legislate in this area is undoubtedly a positive development and it is anticipated that this Bill will endeavour to plug prominent gaps in existing legislation.
Our response to child victims of sexual abuse at times re-victimises the child. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, in recognition of children as vulnerable victims, provides for special measures, including that the child cannot in certain cases be cross-examined by the accused, which is set out in section 36, and includes rules governing the disclosure of third party records such as the child’s counselling records, which are set out in section 39. These provisions are to be welcomed. However, despite Ireland's obligations, our laws have yet to transpose the EU victims' directive which, among other matters, provides that victims should have access to confidential support services before, during and after criminal proceedings. The Criminal Law (Victims of Crime) Bill 2016, which is expected to transpose the directive into Irish law, is making its way through the legislative process and I understand it will be discussed in the Houses this week. Ireland must, in primary legislation, reflect the spirit and terms of the directive and this legislation should be a priority. The directive is part of domestic law and it is a matter of concern that it has not yet been transposed as this has consequences for victims. Sexual abuse has a devastating impact on children. It is imperative that the law requires joint interviewing by the Garda and Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, and the provision of victim support services.
Ireland is a signatory to the Budapest and Lanzarote conventions, both of which are international instruments emanating from the Council of Europe. The former relates to cybercrime, while the latter relates to sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. We have not yet ratified either convention. Child protection should be proactive. Having regard to those who use the Internet to the detriment of children, this is a prime area where legislation needs to keep one step ahead of the issues as they develop. All the relevant conventions and directives should, therefore, be implemented immediately and without reservation.
This is not only a matter of law. The law must be used to protect children as part of a much broader package. In addition to legislative changes, I recommend the development of a strategy on cyber or online safety. This should take the form of an overarching strategy on children's digital rights, a topic on which, I am pleased to note, the joint committee is engaging. The report the committee eventually publishes may very well form the basis for such an online safety strategy. Such a strategy should examine not merely the issues I have discussed but also wider issues around education and preparing children and young people to empower them to protect themselves from risks online. A wider strategy on all aspects of the lives of children online could address access to the Internet for children in rural areas with less than optimal access to broadband or children with disabilities, data protection and privacy, the right to be forgotten, access to appropriate information, the right to participate, freedom to assemble online, the right to play online, etc.
I emphasise that many parents, carers and teachers are ill-equipped to advise and protect their children from risks online. Education and awareness raising around the risks and opportunities and rights of children engaging online should begin very early in primary school and well before the age of digital consent in order that children are prepared and parents and teachers are in a position to advise and support them. This should be part of the primary school curriculum. I urge the joint committee to look beyond the legal framework and consider education as a key tool to equip parents and children.
Before making any decisions, policy makers should consider consulting children and young people on the issues they face and their real experiences. Last week, the UK Government published a green paper on an Internet safety strategy, which can be found at www.gov.uk/government/consultations/internet-safety-strategy-green-paper. I urge the joint committee to consider this interesting report which reflects many of the issues I have addressed.
I am in no doubt that people in Ireland are unequivocal in their belief that children must be protected from online abuse, in particular, against heinous acts of online sexual abuse and exploitation. The law must, therefore, keep pace with technology in protecting vulnerable young children and must exist as an accessible recourse for those who are victims of abuses such as cyberbullying.
I thank members for taking the time to listen to me and I will be happy to answer any questions they may have.
I thank Dr. Shannon and invite Professor Brian O'Neill to make his opening statement.
Professor Brian O'Neill
I thank the chairperson and members of the joint committee for the invitation to speak on this topic. Like Dr. Shannon, I welcome the opportunity afforded by this discussion and the attention the joint committee is giving to the matter.
I have submitted a copy of my opening statement and in the interests of time, I will paraphrase some of its key points by way of contributing to the discussion. My perspective extends somewhat wider than the legal domain and addresses policy and governance issues, as well as evidence from the research field on children's use of technologies. My background is as a researcher and an academic in the field, with an interest in media and communications policy and related research and specifically in terms of my participation in a large and internationally renowned research project, EU Kids Online. The European Commission has supported this project for several years as part of its support for an evidence based approach towards developing European and international policy in this field. Ireland participates in EU Kids Online with 33 other countries in a network of more than 150 members.
The output from the research is available to inform our discussions on this issue. We have been developing research since 2010 and these data continue to inform our discussion. We have to keep pace with trends and developments.
In terms of some of the insights colleagues in this research effort have sought to contribute to the discussion around its policy implications, I will refer to five key points. First, children are active agents in their Internet use and we should not assume that they are always passive. They actively engage in online use for good reasons. Many benefit very significantly from their online interactions. Part of the challenge is that in many cases the environment within which they engage is not specifically designed for children. There is always a question of either retrofitting or thinking about safety implications after the fact, where that has not been given due attention in advance.
Second, much of the research has focused on the risk agenda and risks that children encounter online. It is as important in the policy domain in terms of promoting opportunities and the positive benefits that go with it. Risk and opportunities are linked and that is an insight we have focused on in the research. There is no way to separate them. Increased opportunities bring risks as part of the experience. It is a question of building resilience, dealing with potential harm and ensuring that remedies are in place to deal with more challenging situations. The integral link between risks and opportunities is an important issue.
Third, risk itself is not the inevitability of harm - it is a possibility or probability. It does not necessarily lead to harm. Risk experience is a developmental feature for children and young people who sometimes seek out risky opportunities as part of their ongoing developmental task. It is something that we need to bear in mind in the Internet domain.
Across all the empirical data we have collected about young people's Internet use, there are many different factors and it is about recognising the distinctiveness of every child's own experience. Age is a significant overriding factor that now weighs heavily in terms of how we think about providing for and supporting young people. They are very different issues. As my colleague noted earlier, the need to think about ever-younger children beyond any legal definition of ability to consent is now paramount in the context of an ever-present technology based environment. There are many other factors, but this is one which stands out predominantly. There is parental mediation and, equally, the availability of digital skills is vitally important in re-enforcing young people's ability to make the most of online opportunities.
The final point in the evidence base developed from the EU Kids Online project is to support a consistent European emphasis on the multi-stakeholder approach towards developing good policy and good governance in the online space. It goes back over 20 years of legislation and policy development in this area that there is no single solution, nor any one agent or party, that can take overall control and manage the online experience as it will play out for young people. It is very much a multi-stakeholder environment. It is a question and a challenge of finding the appropriate arrangements to ensure that all interested and relevant stakeholders have an opportunity to contribute to that space.
Through a succession of reports which I am happy to make available to the committee, both from the EU Kids Online project, the subsequent Net Children Go Mobile and Global Kids Online projects, there is a global evidence base around the various different parameters around children's and young people's experience, including experiences of harms and responses to how they deal with that, in order to guide and inform the response to this area. We have specific studies relating to Ireland's experience and comparisons with EU and international norms. We have also provided some specific data which is important in engaging with different stakeholders, such as the young people's experience themselves. Young people have to articulate their own experiences of what they find positive, what they find negative and what has affected them adversely. We must learn what responses work and whether a focus on technical solutions, such as filters or parental controls, is see to be effective. We know that their take up is not hugely or universally endorsed.
There is an issue of so-called underage use and the need to provide independent quantitative data on the numbers of children under 13 years of age using services not designed for that age group, regardless of the merits of it and information about parents' own responses and whether a restriction or more active engagement is likely to be effective.
I have noted that research in this area is ongoing and has to deal with new and emerging threats. It has to deal with changing technologies and the different opportunities that will afford. It is certainly the case that young people are often to the fore in adopting new technologies and will be the first to experiment and find out all the ways in which potential challenges arise.
On the area of policy response and governance, through EU Kids Online researchers have contributed to European measures such as co-regulatory initiatives, working with industry and other partners in developing good practice in supporting young people's safety and empowerment online. The Alliance to Better Protect Minors Online, a network of leading Internet companies, is a current initiative supported by the European Commission. Prior to that the CEO Coalition also focused on a number of enhancements in terms of industry contribution. Part of this is also responding to the communication on the strategy for a better Internet for children. The Commission enjoined member states to step up their efforts in developing and supporting digital skills education in schools and requested industry to enhance measures around new areas of content such as user generated content and guidance to parents to support them in their role. That work is ongoing.
I am currently leading a study which is a bench marking or comparative assessment of how individual member states have implemented this against the communication which was in 2012. It informs European thinking in supporting better Internet experiences for young people while strengthening or enhancing protection measures to ensure there is sufficient good quality content, and better support available to young people to emphasise their positive dimensions.
In an Irish context, I also chaired the Internet content governance advisory group in 2014 which addressed many of these matters and drew on available evidence to assess the adequacy of Ireland's governance arrangements on online content and Internet safety and in advising how they could be further developed. Our recommendations coincided with the Law Reform Commission's work which was then under way.
We made limited comment on the legislative framework in deference to the work of the Law Reform Commission which was under way. We focused largely on the suitability or adequacy of our current support arrangements for Internet safety. Those recommendations reflected detailed work and consultation with stakeholders and with children at the time and had representation on the group from all relevant aspects. The recommendations were presented to Cabinet and are available. They are awaiting a more definitive response on how the Office for Internet Safety, for example, could be further empowered and defined in terms of developing a role.
We also recommended an architecture for any suitable support for promoting better awareness of protection and education for Internet safety, and supports to ensure more effective communication between stakeholders, principally with industry and relevant Government agencies. This principally recommended the formation of a council for child Internet safety, which is of particular relevance to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs but would also look to strong interdepartmental co-operation between Departments with responsibility for education and children, all of which are actively involved in a number of initiatives.
The recommendations have been submitted to Government for consideration and I believe they were positively received but we await further implementation. I believe it is a resource which complements the work of the Law Reform Commission and its recommendation for the establishment of a digital safety commissioner. The two in fact are quite complementary and stand as an important statement awaiting further Government response. I thank the committee and I am happy to answer any questions.
I thank the witnesses for attending. I believe a few things are happening this morning, hence the low attendance. That is a real pity because the presentations were very helpful. However, everyone will have been circulated with the presentations by the Chairman.
Reference was made to stakeholders by both witnesses but in particular by Professor O'Neill. Does he get the impression that there is buy-in from the digital companies such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and the various fora in terms of how they view this area? I do not know about all the companies because I am not a child and I do not know the detail of what is available to them or what they are interested in. How do the companies view this area when it comes to their bottom line? Obviously, parents, the Government and the Department of Education and Skills are interested in doing as much as they can, but at the end of the day we are talking about businesses. Is there proper, meaningful buy-in from them? I have a few other questions.
Professor Brian O'Neill
I am happy to respond to that question. First, on a European level there has been a lot of investment in ensuring an ongoing dialogue with the key Internet industries. It was not the first initiative but the Vice-President in the previous Commission, Neelie Kroes, made a very specific point of establishing what was called the CEO coalition. It was a formal invitation to the CEOs of leading Internet companies to take Internet safety seriously on a European Union-wide basis and to support a series of initiatives where it was agreed that progress needed to be made. That process continues under different headings and different labels. Other stakeholders were involved as observers to the process. It was a demonstration that companies do take questions of safety and children's well-being as an important topic and that they are prepared to collaborate and co-operate. There are corporate social responsibility issues. There is a recognition in terms of the absolute centrality of technologies in day-to-day life and that the responsibility now weighs on all parties and providers in the process.
While many different issues arose from that, it has been judged to have been a very productive discussion. Similarly, in an Irish context, as part of the Internet content governance group we consulted very directly with industry. We held a series of bilateral meetings. The work of that group followed previous hearings by the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications in 2013, which similarly heard from industry on an ongoing basis about the priorities they were according to this and what they were prepared to contribute. All in all, I think there is very much a willingness to discuss. Ultimately, businesses are private concerns and how they develop and shape policies will be informed by the wider environment. They do, of course, have a responsibility to run a business, but I have found no lack of willingness to engage and to get good insights as well in terms of their particular perspective.
Do we need to get children involved in this process? It strikes me that it is one area where children are ahead of adults, not least in their exposure because they are interested in things adults have moved on from. Do we need to get them involved in informing companies and policymakers of what is on their radar and what is important to them?
Professor Brian O'Neill
Yes, very much so. I agree absolutely. One of the central values most interested stakeholders will put forward is that the Internet is an opportunity and a platform for children to exercise their rights to develop as young people and to find many positive opportunities to avail of.
Again, the policy approach at a European level must ensure that children have a voice and are represented. Part of the commitment under what was originally the safer Internet programme and which is now the better Internet programme is that there is a youth panel specifically on Internet issues in all cases. That is represented in Ireland under the safer Internet Ireland programme. They are one part of the engagement but they speak for young people and they ensure that the education awareness raising initiatives speak from the experience of young people and that research itself informs on the basis of both surveys and qualitative work which articulate young people's experiences and their concerns.
I have two more questions. They are not too long. I thank Professor O'Neill for his responses. It is easy to say that we need to educate parents. Parents are concerned but they are busy. In many families both parents are working, and with the best will in the world, they may not be able to allocate time to it or it may be something that is difficult for them to educate themselves on. How do we educate them in a practical way? Will they come to education programmes if they are held in the evening when they are not working?
My experience some years ago of arranging a public meeting to discuss issues relating to nutrition was that even though parents are very interested in such matters and, in the majority of cases, want the best for their children, they might not, for various reasons, attend such a meeting.
Professor Brian O'Neill
Parental engagement is vital. Indeed, research has shown that parents are the most important sources of guidance for children in terms of their online experience.
We do not need studies to know that.
Professor Brian O'Neill
They will most often turn to their parents for support when they have an upsetting experience or when something goes wrong. We must empower parents by ensuring they are in a position to give reliable, trusted and authoritative advice, and that type of parental guidance should be widely available. The National Parents Council - Primary, a partner in the safer Internet Ireland project, offers resources and training to parents and would, I am sure, benefit from greater support for the work it does. There is a strong recognition that the parental mediation role is absolutely central. An important point to note is the new research showing the particular challenges facing younger parents and parents of younger children in this area. There must be a greater effort to develop guidance for even the youngest children, including infants, in order that parents can assess the risks of exposure to the many different types of digital devices that are so widely available. Children acquire a digital footprint almost from the day they are born.
We have all heard about children attempting to swipe or click books. Another issue I wish to raise is childhood obesity, an area in which I do a lot of work. We spoke about the importance of getting stakeholders on board when it comes to Internet safety, and the same applies here. Food companies must buy into the process if we are to succeed in reducing the sugar content of foods, reformulating recipes and so on. The reality is that Internet companies and marketing providers in the food industry target junk food advertising at children. This might seem like a frivolous issue when compared with sexual abuse and issues like that, but it is, in fact, a very important area. Targeting children in this way amounts, in my view, to a violation of their rights. Instead of targeting them, advertisers and marketers should be using the software and technology that is available to prevent such advertising being accessed by children. Do the delegates have any comments on the legality of potential solutions to this problem? We do not want to become too much of a nanny state but children are very vulnerable and impressionable and they are being marketed to in very clever ways.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon
This links into the Senator's earlier question about the need for engagement with industry stakeholders. My view is slightly different from Professor O'Neill's in this regard. The service providers certainly seem to be very well disposed to engaging on these matters, but there are question marks around the effectiveness of voluntary codes and self-regulation. The State has a positive duty to ensure children are protected. This issue, which was addressed to a certain extent in the Law Reform Commission report, requires a statutory framework. I share the Senator's view on the problem of childhood obesity. In fact, I dealt with that issue comprehensively in one of my previous rapporteur reports where I described it as a child protection issue. If we look at the emerging situation in Ireland, there is huge potential for a situation where we will see far-ranging consequences for children. Companies exploit children by advertising in a way that is especially attractive to young people, and that can have devastating consequences. I welcome the sugar tax initiative in the budget and was disappointed to hear criticism from some commentators of the measure. This is an important child protection issue and the sugar tax represents the first step in an attempt to regulate a situation in which children may be deeply affected.
On the importance of listening to the voice of the child, I have consistently raised that issue, including in my opening statement today. It is of enormous importance that we hear directly from those who are affected by technology. The Irish people voted to insert Article 42A in the Constitution guaranteeing children a say in decisions likely to affect them. That constitutional provision should permeate all our legislative frameworks. The reality, of course, is that children are often very much more aware of and informed about technology than are their parents. As well as emphasising the role of parents in providing guidance, we must also look to schools, because children spend a large portion of their time there. I am passionately of the view that if we place this issue on the curriculum, where it becomes a core part of what we teach our children, we will bring both parents and children with us. The Senator asked how we might achieve this. We can achieve it by blending it into the school curriculum for children from the youngest possible age. Parents are already alive to some of these issues. It is a challenging question and probably the most important issue raised this morning, that is, how we can educate society about the benefits and downsides of technology. Much of the research in which Professor O'Neill has been involved points to the advantages of the Internet. Article 5 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear about evolving capacities, and we know children can derive significant benefits from the Internet, whether in terms of accessing mental health websites or otherwise. The solution then is not to restrict access but to focus more on education.
I have already apologised to my colleague for asking so many questions but we are the only two here at the moment. What is the delegates' view on the prospect of including a life skills class in the school curriculum, including for the very youngest pupils, which would encompass everything outside of the ordinary curriculum? This would be in addition to the need to have PE as a curriculum subject, which is something I strongly advocate. I did not study home economics at school but I recall there seemed to be a lot of bun making and production of other sugary dishes, as well as some practical stuff. A life skills programme would see children learning about Internet safety, how to mind themselves physically and that food is fuel. Parents should be brought into the process by, for example, inviting them to attend a session on one day per month, so it would be a collaborative process.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon
That is a very interesting suggestion. We must accept the reality of new and rapidly changing technologies and modes of communication. If we had an opportunity to discuss them in formal settings, such as what the Senator described, it would greatly enhance our ability to manage some of the risks. I accept Professor O'Neill's point that there are advantages for children in engaging with technology. It is a question of how we manage the associated risks in a way that is not damaging to children. The Senator's proposal could be of significant assistance in this regard.
Professor Brian O'Neill
There already is some good representation of Internet safety issues in the school curriculum. Part of the difficulty, however, is the ability or otherwise of schools to address the issue comprehensively and consistently. The social, personal and health education programme offers many opportunities and curriculum points for discussing children's use of technology. We must acknowledge that digital interaction is part and parcel of how children communicate, learn and access entertainment. It is important that teachers have sufficient resources and training available to them to make the best use of technology in the context of a world that is rapidly evolving. Children's usage of new technologies will proceed apace. Having opportunities within the curriculum to emphasise consistently across all subject areas the importance of effective and responsible use of online or connected technologies is crucial. That issue is getting a good deal of attention, both within education and in the wider policy discussions.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon
I have had the opportunity of addressing some of the teacher conferences on this issue. Many teachers would say that they are not equipped to communicate this important information. There are clear and powerful messages concerning teacher training in this area. I accept what Professor O'Neill says. The information may very well be on the curriculum but it is a question of making sure it is translated to the coalface.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon
Exactly. When we see what is happening, we can also see that while this is probably dealt with at secondary school, it needs to be dealt with much earlier.
Professor Brian O'Neill
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon
Yes. We need to be looking at it very early. The children are very literate at a quite young age relative to adults. That needs to be reflected in the core curriculum.
I thank the gentlemen very much for their presentations this morning. It is amazing what is going on in the audiovisual room at the moment in respect of the Mental Health Commission. I believe some online activities can also lead to mental health difficulties. The reason many of our colleagues have stepped out at this moment is to be in the audiovisual room. One of the ladies involved, Senator Joan Freeman, is presenting her report. Much of the negativity over the Internet recognises a stepping stone that can lead to mental health issues.
I am going to jump over, as it were, one or two little points. We might have a conversation as we proceed. I will follow the theme of education. I am a mother of three children. When they were in national school, we struggled to find a speaker to talk to parents about good, safe digital activity, the various sites one should visit, the various links, and the three-letter acronyms. It was a question of understanding children's conversation. They can have a conversation very different from what I am used to. They are far ahead of us.
This brings me back to the matter of buy-in from parents, the Government, the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Health. Teachers need the support but they have to get the buy-in from the Department of Education and Skills. They need the tools to be able to deliver, either through the curriculum or through teacher training college. The relevant information needs to be nearly as important as Irish, English, mathematics and religion. It comprises one of their skills for life.
We need to educate children in preschool, for the simple reason that one can do so with a little puppet. One can teach children about healthy eating and healthy activities. One can teach children that Peppa Pig dancing in the muddy puddle is actually bad behaviour because her mother has told her not to do it. My point is on that form of education. What do both delegates believe we should be doing to support the Departments? If they had the opportunity to guide us and ask the Departments how they should equip themselves to engage with the parents and pupils, what would they advise us to do from a policy perspective?
Professor Brian O'Neill
I fully support the Deputy in raising that issue. There is a need to focus on the availability of high-profile, well-resourced and trusted guidance and content. It is a confusing issue for many parents. It is also confusing for young people if there is not a familiar resource available.
In a report for the Internet content governance advisory group and in some of the other policy discussions, we focused on what exists currently and how it needs to be strengthened. That is in particular reference to safer Internet centres. The entire safer Internet programme at European level has delivered over the past 15 years. A concept evolved in the early 2000s that there should be a network across Europe of helplines and hotlines in addition to an effective reporting mechanism for legal content and, importantly, support for educational and awareness-raising content. The awareness centre, or the awareness node, has become a crucial part in this regard.
In Ireland, the Professional Development Service for Teachers, PDST, acts as the key educational partner and has a particular role in respect of schools and supporting teachers in terms of providing educational materials, developing campaigns, training teachers through in-service programs and so on. We felt, however, that this model should be much better known and more widely available. It has the National Parents Council as a partner. Likewise, its services to parents, whether through training programmes or good, effective resources and guides, ought to be better known and more widely available. This experience is borne out across Europe. I refer to the questions of whether a well-regarded and visible source of guidance would be beneficial, whether the digital safety commissioner, for example, is a very public and visible concept that would give effect to that in terms of offering something to the public through a one-stop shop as a point of contact and place where a person could ask what he or she needs to know as a parent or what that person would do if he or she came across an issue about which he or she was unsure or a problem that person could not deal with.
Safe Internet centres comprise a really important concept in this regard. We need to emphasise it and continue to determine how those concerned can be assisted to do their job even better.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon
I have two points. I agree with the point on crèches, and it is a very important one. The point I have been trying to articulate in terms of inculcating good practice is, the younger, the better. It is not just an education issue but also a profound child protection issue. One of the issues I have consistently articulated is that online grooming is a real vulnerability. If children are gaining access to material online, there is the potential for them to be exploited. The earlier we educate children on the vulnerabilities, in addition to the opportunities, associated with the Internet, the more successful we will be in preventing cyberbullying and cyberharassment. There are all interlinked.
With regard to the digital safety commissioner, I strongly endorse the recommendation of the Law Reform Commission on this issue. My vision for the future is that the digital safety commissioner will take the lead. We need somebody to take the lead on this issue. There is a real opportunity associated with establishing an office designated to deal with this issue. It would be a society-wide approach rather than a sectoral approach. My vision is that the digital safety commissioner will liaise with the Data Protection Commissioner and all the other bodies.
At a previous meeting of this committee, I talked about inter-agency co-operation. We need one lead agency rolling out the vision. That should be supplemented by a strategy on cyber safety or online safety that would be relevant for the education sector. We need a comprehensive and cohesive response. That needs to be led by the Department of Education and Skills and it needs to identify an appropriate curriculum for each level of education, from crèches onwards. We have seen a very significant expansion in State funding for crèches. The other side is that there is now an opportunity for the State to insist this issue be addressed at crèche level and then at primary and secondary levels. Then we would have a whole-of-education response to this issue.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon referred to the right to be forgotten. At what age is it being recommended that a person should have the right to be forgotten? There are different levels of maturity. A 12 year old, a 14 year old and a 17 year old might do different things.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon
Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child talks about the age and maturity of the child as being the yardsticks by which we determine what to do in this context.
If one is looking for a framework within which to make decisions, it has to be dependent on the age and maturity of the child. The point I articulated in my opening statement was that Article 17 of the general data protection regulation provided a further framework for dealing with this issue. I am suggesting we have an express statutory provision, modelled on Article 12, in order that this right would be reflected in our domestic legislation. Who has not posted material which they regretted afterwards? This is particularly important in the context of children. We know that teenagers will post material online in haste and may very well regret it. Where I see it as being particularly poignant is in the context of a young adult applying for a job as such posts might be found if a potential employer were to make a search on Google. I am saying that at that practical level there needs to be an awareness that children-----
One does not need to be a child for it to matter; one hears many such stories about adults.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon
It is particularly important in the case of children because, at least in the case of an adult, it is presumed that some thought is given to such posts. Many may not give their posts thought, but we can presume that they do. A child does not have the same capacity. It depends on his or her capacity. I am suggesting we need to treat children differently and show much more sensitivity and flexibility, given the consequences which may very well follow a child into adulthood.
I thank Dr. Shannon.
I have one further question. This also came up in Dr. Shannon's submission and I would like Professor O'Neill to answer the same question, if he does not mind. It is about the Budapest and Lanzarote Conventions. Do either of the delegates know what barriers have held up Ireland in enforcing or enacting these conventions?
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon
The Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill 2016, once enacted, will enable Ireland to ratify these key international instruments. It is not just a question of signing the international instruments but also of being held accountable in respect of them. One convention deals with cybercrime, while the other deals with sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. It is of paramount importance that we send a clear message that this country has signed up to and ratified all of the key international instruments which protect children. It is my understanding that once the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill is fully commenced, we will be in a position to ratify both instruments. Another roadblock was the Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. It has now been commenced. There is no remaining roadblock to Ireland ratifying the instruments. In fairness, it is my understanding the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill is at a very advanced stage. I suggest the Minister commence it without delay.
Professor Brian O'Neill
It is vital that we ratify the conventions. There should be no ambiguity about Ireland's position. We should reinforce the message that we support Internet safety. We should be able to stand in the international community as having ratified all relevant directives.
Let me ask one last question which is probably somewhat trivial. How is the panel in which young people participate advertised? How can children become involved? As Senator Catherine Noone said - I think we all agree - children's involvement in this area will help to shine a light and that they will bring more people with them. How is it promoted? How are children encouraged? How can we get more of them involved? Should it be done through secondary or primary schools? How can we bring everybody into this conversation?
Professor Brian O'Neill
Schools certainly are central to this initiative. Many of the current activities are focused on the school. As schools reach all children, they are vital central points. There is an advisory youth panel attached to the Safer Internet Centre which is co-ordinated by Professional Development Services for Teachers, PDST. It is, therefore, an agency of the Department of Education and Skills. The panel is a central part of the annual safer Internet day programme. Many of the educational materials have arisen from initial discussions with the youth panel which is a relatively small group. It is operated via schools and activities. There is an opportunity for schools to replicate that process within each school community. Peer-led education has certainly proved most effective in communicating with young people. Many of the initiatives under the action plan on bullying, for example, showed this. The big focus on good, effective supports within schools has shown the importance of peer-led education.
The Chairman may have some questions, but I would like to ask one more if we have time.
I do, but the Senator can proceed. I will wrap up.
Another interesting aspect, on which I did some work a few months ago, is that it is more positive on Snapchat, Instagram and sometimes Facebook than we may think. Twitter is rarely positive. There was a study carried out of young people in the United Kingdom. To follow on from a point made by Deputy Anne Rabbitte made about mental health, it is not a crime for someone to only post photos in which he or she looks his or her best. There are many people who seem to be living lives like those seen in the movies and children are looking at such posts all the time. There was a study which showed that four out of five of these sites were having a harmful effect of young people's mental health which was leading to feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Body-shaming issues and worries about body image also arise. It is clearly not a crime, but are there interesting developments in this area? Surely, some of the stakeholders should be encouraged or somehow incentivised to invest a portion of their significant marketing budgets in positive mental health promotion initiatives. Is there any discussion taking place on that issue?
Professor Brian O'Neill
It should, of course, be a key element. There is a very diverse environment and young people seek out all kinds of content which guides them in terms of their aspirations and provides key sources for identity development. All companies have a great responsibility in what they make available in the public domain. Dealing with these issues also comes down to educating young people about their media literacy in order that they can understand images and how to approach them with real critical discrimination in order to determine their messages and the messages which circulate among peers. That has been ongoing emphasis of the education effort.
On the mental health domain more generally, there is a lot of expertise among children's charities in addressing this issue and particularly in reaching vulnerable children. For many, this may not be an issue, but for vulnerable children, in particular, we must ensure there is provision and support, that teachers and parents are alert to potential problems which may arise and that companies and providers are sensitised in how they respond when potential issues of disclosure arise.
Parental education obviously comes into it. I remember that when my parents were younger, I would say such a one had bought a bottle of whatever. This may have even continued when I was in college. I remember that my mother would say she hoped I would not be too impressed by it. Simple things like children feeling they can communicate with their parents probably also extend to the provision of parental education.
I would like to put a couple of questions to the delegates. Their opening statements were clear and concise. I appreciate their taking the time to come and give the committee a broad overview and a good grasp of some of the issues involved. I have a couple of observations to make on the points made by Dr. Shannon about terms of service and self-regulation, particularly in social media companies. While the experience of some social media outlets is positive, with the exception of the knock-on effect, to which Senator Catherine Noone referred and which is a difficult issue to grasp, if one looks at some of the other sites, it is very clear that the terms of service are not applied uniformly. I have experienced it personally.
I have experienced it through constituents, colleagues in both Houses of the Oireachtas and while socialising. People have been subjected to horrendous tirades of abuse. This applies to adults as well as to children. The cases that have been brought to my attention have mostly involved adults. I will not name any particular provider, but I am sure everyone present can guess. There is no uniform application of the terms of usage. Dr. Shannon referenced this issue and asked whether it was necessary to introduce a single entity with control or oversight of the whole sector. Perhaps not uniquely in this jurisdiction we have multiple Departments with multiple oars involved and no single entity is running the show. From my reading of the documentation and the general air since I became Chairman in July, it is troubling that despite all of the very positive work done by the last Dáil and Seanad on the issue of child protection, including the Children First Act 2015 and the children's rights referendum, there is still no singular entity in place.
Dr. Shannon referenced the establishment of an office of the cyber or online safety commissioner. Such a commissioner would be afforded the opportunity to have overarching responsibility for the various Departments in dealing with the issues of cyberbullying and child protection.
The delegates may have comments to make on my observations.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon
I very much agree with the observations of the Chairman. I was before the committee recently to discuss the section 12 audit. One of the key issues to emerge was the absence of robust inter-agency co-operation. We will never be successful in protecting children unless we actually have cohesion and agencies working seamlessly together. There is a real danger that multiple bodies will be established which may lead to some issues falling between the cracks, meaning that children will remain unprotected. The establishment of the digital safety commissioner which I reference on page 3 of my opening statement will bring about the leadership and cohesion required. Having one office with the responsibility for dealing with digital safety and liaising with other agencies will ensure we will achieve the objectives we are discussing.
Does either of the delegates have a view on the application of terms of usage of any of the larger social media providers in terms of the implications involved when a person actually reports abuse? There was reference to figures which suggested around 7% of those affected reported abuse. It is such a low number. Many children will report it to a parent or a teacher, but such small numbers are reporting to the service providers. My own observational experience has been that the service providers' terms of reference are just there for show. There does not seem to be uniformity in how they are applied. Do the delegates have a view?
Professor Brian O'Neill
On the point concerning how this is overseen and by whom, the office of the digital safety commissioner would be an obvious point where it could be co-ordinated or organised. That is the basis on which it is operated in Australia. The Australian eSafety Commissioner has developed a code of conduct to which companies subscribe and which is subject to a transparency audit. These are some of the mechanisms and ways in which we seek to make progress.
What do the delegates consider to be a shining example of best practice within the European Union? Is this a matter for the Union? Should it be trying to implement a blanket rule for child protection measures online?
Professor Brian O'Neill
There are many common European elements. Best practice at European level is something we have tried to document in some of the reports. The online content governance also references good European practice. There is a common theme throughout, involving the development of safer Internet centres and support services. There is a further layer at individual country level. Different countries have responded differently. It concerns good, effective co-ordinating strategies to support the inter-agency co-operation about which we have spoken and to bring forward effective measures.
There are different responses. As was noted at the outset of the meeting, the United Kingdom has put forward a Green Paper on a national strategy for Internet safety. It has experience of working with a council - the UK Council for Internet Safety - which interestingly also referenced Ireland's Office for Internet Safety when it was set up. It is a particular type of model and one effect it has had is ensuring there is a forum within which the stakeholders involved can play a part. There has to be an opportunity for industry representatives both to come in and be held to account. There must be a platform on which issues, risks and trends can be articulated and aired. Whatever title it is given, the platform is required and there must be visibility and oversight by a single agency.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon
My view is that it would be a mistake to identify one model. I commend the Australian and UK models. The paper I reference in my opening statement which was issued last week is very interesting and outlines some of the approaches we should follow. I also reference the Law Reform Commission's report. The data for other models given in that report are very interesting too. We need to create a home-grown model, recognising the particular issues facing Irish children. There is often a tendency to adopt models slavishly from other jurisdictions without looking at the context. The context is important in any model we might develop. Regardless of the office that has responsibility for this matter, it is important that these issues be dealt with without delay. If we are to establish an office of the digital safety commissioner, it is important that we establish time limits. In the context where material is posted online, that office must be required to deal with issues within a specific period of time because this is time sensitive. If material is posted online, it is of the utmost importance that there be an adjudication of whether it should be removed within a short timespan.
We are host to many of these large providers. From a personal perspective, I am not ignoring either of your suggestions. However, it occurs to me that, as one of the largest hosts in the world of many of these social media entities, we should take the lead with regard to how these providers are governed. In fact, I think it is our duty to do so. We have seen benefits from the Data Protection Commissioner having to make decisions on certain aspects of how social media firms import and export data from Ireland. It shows we have an opportunity to flex our muscles in accordance with our law. Therefore, there is an opportunity for us to do the same with regard to child protection.
Thank you, Dr. Shannon and Professor O'Neill, for coming in and giving of your time to the members. I found the opening statements that you both submitted to be fascinating. As a new member to this committee and as the new Chairman, I found them to be very helpful and I appreciate that. Thank you both for being so forthright in your responses to committee members.
I wish to convey my apologies to the witnesses. I have seen the presentations and we have had interaction before. The meeting clashed with another meeting for me. I will be able to review this and watch the meeting. If I have any questions I can put them to you, Chairman. I wish to acknowledge the presence of the witnesses. My absence was not to belittle what they are trying to do; in fact, I am a firm believer in it. It is simply that the meeting clashed with another appointment, unfortunately.
This is our second session. We will hear a presentation from representatives of the Law Reform Commission. I welcome Mr. Justice John Quirke, president of the Law Reform Commission, Mr. Ray Byrne, commissioner, Professor Donncha O'Connell, commissioner, and Professor Ciarán Burke, director of research. I thank them for joining us this morning.
Before we continue, in accordance with procedure, I am required to draw the witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I would like to advise the witnesses that their submission, or the opening statement made to the committee, will be published on the committee website after this meeting. The witnesses will make a short presentation followed by questions from the members of the committee. I ask Mr. Justice Quirke to make his opening submission.
Mr. Justice John Quirke
On behalf of the commission, I thank the committee for inviting us to discuss the recommendations made in our report on harmful communications and digital safety, which was published last year.
As committee members may know, there are five commissioners in the Law Reform Commission. They include Mr. Raymond Byrne, who is the full-time commissioner, and Professor Donncha O'Connell, professor of law at NUI Galway and head of the law school there. Ms Justice Carmel Stewart, who is a judge of the High Court, and Mr. Tom O’Malley, senior lecturer in law at NUI Galway, are also commissioners. As you indicated, Chairman, Mr. Ciarán Burke is our director of research.
The harmful communications and digital safety project was one of 11 projects within our fourth programme of law reform. It was the sixth project. All our commissioners participate fully in and contribute to all the projects. Our methodology includes the appointment of what we call a co-ordinating commissioner for each project.
That means that each of the commissioners is a co-ordinating commissioner in respect of two of the projects, and takes a particular interest in and certain responsibility for that with the full-time commissioner, the director of research and appointed and nominated researchers.
The co-ordinating commissioner in respect of this report has been Professor Donncha O'Connell. With the permission of the committee, I ask him to make his opening statement.
Professor Donncha O'Connell
I thank the Chairman. It is a great privilege for the Law Reform Commission to speak to the committee and we are very grateful for the invitation to do so. I should acknowledge the obvious at the beginning, namely, that we are all men. That is not to convey any sense that the report was prepared only by men. In fact, the lead commissioner before I took over as co-ordinating commissioner was the full-time commissioner, Ms Finola Flanagan, and the lead researcher on the project was Ms Fiona Regan. Both have since left the commission to work elsewhere. I do not want to give the wrong impression; this is the manifestation we have today.
The report on harmful communications and digital safety was published in September 2016. We also published a draft Bill which we intend to be a helpful guide to those who are directly concerned with the legislative process. It is by no means the last word or definitive guide. Rather, it is merely intended to be helpful. With all of its reports the commission publishes draft legislation as an aid to the Legislature.
Our consultative process for this report, as the president has outlined, was part of the fourth programme of law reform whose end is now imminent. We are, in fact, embarking on a consultative process for the fifth programme of law reform. One of the innovations in regard to the adoption of the fourth problem was that the Government referred the draft for the programme to the justice committee at the time in order to receive its views. On behalf of the commission, I would like to acknowledge that was extremely helpful in finalising the fourth programme of law reform because it indicated to us the political priority which attached to certain projects over and above others. We had 11 projects, none of which were in any sense more important than another, but it was very helpful to us to see what the political system valued or saw as urgent. I hope in the conclusion of the fifth programme we will have a similar consultation with the Oireachtas. It was immensely beneficial and added significantly to the legitimacy of the fourth programme.
We engaged in a very extensive consultation process in respect of this project in the fourth programme. Many submissions to the fourth programme mentioned cyberbullying and online harassment of young people and adults. That was one of the reasons the report was settled upon. We published an issues paper in November 2014, which is a consultative pre-report paper. This is the normal practice for the commission. We received a lot of feedback on that from various stakeholders. We had a seminar in April 2015 which was attended by over 100 participants, including some of the social media companies mentioned in the previous session.
With reference to Senator Noone's comment in the earlier session, we held consultative workshops with young people. Over 70 people were facilitated by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The full report on the consultation is contained in appendix B to the report. The president attended the consultation and can give direct evidence as to the benefits of engaging with young people aged from 13 to 17 years. The view at the time was that was hugely beneficial and added enormously to the insight that we, as older people, would not have had.
As with all Law Reform Commission reports, the report is heavily influenced by comparative analysis. We always look to other jurisdictions. In the previous session Dr. Shannon referenced Australia quite a number of times. We were quite strongly influenced by developments in criminal law in jurisdictions in Great Britain. We were also heavily influenced regarding the digital safety commissioner by developments in Australia.
We are very happy that our work has been included in the deliberations of the committee. We are also aware that the Departments of Justice and Equality and Communications, Climate Action and Environment are reviewing the report with a view to bringing forward proposals. We are aware of Private Members' initiatives in this area over the past year.
Regarding the core subject matter of the report, it would be wrong not to acknowledge that there are positive and negative aspects to the digital revolution. We have all become accustomed to smart phones as a way of staying in touch with family and friends anywhere in the world. We plan and book holidays using these devices. We can participate in civic society, regardless of national boundaries, and in public discourse. As people who are intimately engaged in the processes of public discourse, committee members would be more aware of this than most. We have to see this as a major boost to freedom of expression. It magnifies voices and multiplies information.
There are, of course, negative aspects. As we all know, there can be a tendency for some online and digital users to engage in communications which cause significant harm to others by, for example, posting intimate images without consent or gross breaches of the right to privacy. In this regard, we conceive of privacy as embodying concepts like personal safety, the right to a good reputation and the right to human dignity. We are not in any sense denying that these are real hazards, with the indisputable benefits to freedom of expression which come from the digital revolution.
We identified different types of harmful communications, which formed the core focus of our work. Victim shaming, or what is more loosely referred to as revenge porn, that is, posting intimate material without consent which is intended to cause harm and violate privacy, was one form of harmful communication we identified. We also looked at posting intimidating and threatening online messages directed at private persons and public figures, voyeurism, or what is loosely referred to as upskirting and downblousing, and intimate images taken without consent and posted online. We focused on online and digital harassment and stalking, mirroring, to some extent, pre-digital versions of these harmful behaviours dealt with in legislation from 1997.
That is why we propose that the pre-digital laws be consolidated into a single piece of legislation covering digital and non-digital harmful communications. I will explain in more detail what we did in respect of those offences later. Other, arguably less harmful but still hurtful types of bullying behaviour, such as sending unpleasant messages, unfriending, freezing out from groups, etc. were also considered and these would bear largely upon the civil, not necessarily judicial, remedies we considered.
The guiding principles we used in addressing harmful communications were to focus on the wider context in which these issues occurred. We were very mindful of the importance of education, as was stressed by Dr. Shannon in the earlier session. We were very influenced by that. We make no exaggerated claims for the value of law in this area because, clearly, there are significant issues which are, in a sense, beyond the reach of law and require perhaps more preventative approaches.
We were also very mindful of the need for balance and proportionality in the approach we take. That comes from a profound respect for freedom of expression, but also for the other rights which can be violated by the abuse of freedom of expression which I set out earlier. Thus, we have stressed education, emphasising user empowerment and safe and positive digital citizenship as being of primary importance.
We have considered and proposed a system of statutory oversight in the form of a digital safety commissioner, with a range of remedies open to that office and a strong focus on the need for a statutory code of practice.
When it comes to criminal law, we have made proposals for certain offences but only with regard to the most serious and harmful communications. It is critically important to stress that we are not starting from the perspective that criminal law is the major weapon against or solution to the harm addressed in this report. It is decidedly not the first port of call. It is in fact the third port of call having already looked at the other mechanisms available to deal with these issues.
On the topic of education and oversight, we propose the establishment of an office of digital safety commissioner, like those already in existence in Australia and New Zealand. If legislated for, this office will promote digital safety and will also have an important educational role in promoting positive digital citizenship among children and young people. We state very explicitly in the report that the digital safety commissioner should work with the Office of the Ombudsman for Children and liaise with all education partners to develop guidance material for young people in schools, including guidance on encouraging mediation and restorative processes, especially for issues for which the criminal law is not suitable. I will return to this point shortly.
On the issue of a code of practice on take-down procedure, what we have proposed in the draft Bill and in our report is that the digital safety commissioner should publish a statutory code of practice on digital safety, setting out nationally agreed standards on the details of an efficient take-down procedure. In the previous session Dr. Shannon emphasised timelines and time limits for this. We have not presumed to prescribe what the absolute limit on timelines might be, but this would certainly form part of the task of the digital safety commissioner in developing a code of practice. We need to bear in mind that this code of practice would not be some kind of voluntary code but that it would have a statutory underpinning. The type of procedure that we envisage for a take-down is that individuals who feel aggrieved by a harmful communication would initially apply directly to social media sites themselves. This would encourage social media hosts to have robust mechanisms for taking down harmful communications to avoid engagement with the more formal process. If the site did not comply with such a request, and in so doing did not comply with the code of practice, the individual could appeal to the digital safety commissioner who could then direct that site to comply. The digital safety commissioner would be empowered statutorily to enforce the code. If the site did not comply with such a direction from the digital safety commissioner, the latter could then apply to the Circuit Court for a court order.
This proposal, then, is not without teeth. It is an example of nudge theory, something that has been receiving quite a bit of publicity since Mr. Richard H. Thaler was awarded the Nobel Prize last week. It is designed to encourage better behaviour on the part of those who use social media but also on the part of those responsible for providing social media services. It is, in a sense, the suggestion of a regulatory framework just like the many regulatory frameworks already in existence for these kinds of large companies, which are well accustomed to operating in a regulated environment and are engaged with sophisticated understandings of corporate social responsibility.
Returning to criminal law, and this again is something that I deliberately de-emphasised in the opening statement, the serious harmful communications that we feel should be subject to criminal sanction are decidedly serious and harmful communications. We talk about two new criminal offences here, one being intentional victim shaming or what is colloquially referred to as "revenge porn", which I can explain in greater detail if it would be any assistance, and two, the voyeuristic offence of what is colloquially referred to as "upskirting" and "down-blousing". When it comes to existing harassment offences, we have made it explicit that these cover online activity such as posting fake social media profiles. We have proposed a separate offence of stalking, which we have defined as an aggravated form of harassment. We also propose to reform the existing offence of sending threatening and intimidating messages so as to capture the most serious types of online intimidation. These are essentially amendments to post office legislation that is now quite dated. The thinking behind our proposals on criminal offences is to deter this kind of behaviour but also to name these explicitly as offences. This is on the basis of evidence from other jurisdictions that naming these offences can increase the reporting. It is also important to the victims of these offences that the offences be named for what they are. We are essentially proposing the re-enactment of harassment legislation from 1997 with additional elements and two new additional offences. It is more complicated than that, of course, so Commissioner Byrne, our other colleagues from the Law Reform Commission and I are very happy to answer any questions that the committee may have.
I have a number of comments. Several years ago, I think it must have been shortly after the publication of the Law Reform Commission's report in 2016, I did a release myself in the area of revenge porn. The Garda does not seem to be very well protected in this area, though protected is probably the wrong word, and it does not have the tools it needs to prosecute people. This is a very serious crime and one that is not very easy to discuss in this kind of environment. I welcome and support the findings of the Law Reform Commission's report in this area.
It is great that the code of practice mentioned by Professor O'Connell is not a voluntary one. Professor Shannon referred to voluntary codes in the earlier session. They are obviously similar to self-regulation and real difficulties arise from this. What do people do in these circumstances under the current law? I would like to be clear on that. Finally, has the Commission had any interaction with the Minister for Justice and Equality or with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on the proposal for an office of digital safety commissioner? This is an absolute no-brainer to me and I would like to think that very positive signals would come from both of those Departments in this regard.
Professor Donncha O'Connell
The Senator is correct is commenting that this is a difficult area for the Garda. It is also a very difficult area for an individual to report because of the nature of the offence and the fact the perpetrator focuses on shaming someone. This creates a difficulty. We propose in section 4 what we define as actual or threatened distribution or publication which intentionally or recklessly seriously interferes with the peace and privacy and causes alarm, distress or harm, and would be viewed as such by a reasonable person. There is a threshold to be crossed then. We do say, however, that this can be a once-off offence and does not have to be persistent, as would be the norm with harassment-type offences, while acknowledging that it can be more than a once-off. When it comes to punishment, we propose a class A fine, 12 months' imprisonment on summary prosecution or both, or an unlimited fine, up to seven years' imprisonment for a prosecution on indictment or both. That provision of the Bill includes quite a strong legislative underpinning for anyone investigating such an allegation and thinking of bringing a prosecution. This is not in any way to underestimate or understate the contextual difficulties around a crime of that nature. It is, however, very important that we name it as a crime. This is what we propose here and this has been publicly welcomed by some victims of that offence who have themselves gone public.
On the code and what people do now, people have civil remedies available to them. In a sense, what we are proposing would supplement what is there already. If somebody is defamed in social media, he or she is not prevented from suing for that. We have engaged with the companies, and they spoke at the April 2015 event we had. The Chairman made the point in the previous session about the presence of these companies in significant terms in this jurisdiction, possibly providing an advantage to greater engagement with them. As regards the interaction with the Minister, the previous Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, was quite keen on this and the Departments of the Ministers, Deputies Denis Naughten and Charlie Flanagan, are working on this as we speak. I do not know whether there has been formal contact.
Mr. Justice John Quirke
Our position is we publish a report, and 70% of our recommendations so far have been implemented in all spheres. We hope the recommendations are implemented, and we would be delighted and pleased if they were. We will not pursue them unless an interest is shown by the particular agency or Department, but we are very keen to co-operate immediately. I do not know whether there has been a formal discussion with us as yet, but if the Government and the Oireachtas decide to proceed, there is no doubt we will be delighted to co-operate of course.
Mr. Raymond Byrne
It is so important that, as Professor O'Connell has said, those offences are named. One of the real difficulties for the Garda at the moment is that it operates under the 1997 Act, which is fine in so far as direct harassment is concerned, but social media indirect victim shaming is not covered by the legislation, so this gap filling is extremely important. Without this it is not possible to pursue this particular form of online harassment. This is where the commission identified a very serious gap in the legislation, which is completely understandable when we consider the 1997 legislation was far-reaching in its time but it is now 20 years on. That is one aspect of the gap filling required. The other aspect is what people do now. Yes, there are civil remedies but we know it is far beyond most people's reach to go to the High Court and get any kind of remedy. This is why it is so important to have codes of practice that are statutorily underpinned.
I apologise for missing the initial presentation. We were launching a children's mental health document, and after a lot of online abuse, children will be in need of it. An observation is we were very innocent when we started off with mobile phones and then Bebo came along. Does anyone remember Bebo? Then there was an explosion of communication possibilities. I give out about it because people have ways to get us do stuff for them. For our children perhaps it is part of their day, but for me it is a bit overwhelming at times because every and each way we turn, social media has us and we are sucked into it and we have to do it.
The digital safety commission is a must do and we must deal with all of these different ways of communication and potential harm for our children. I want to ask about harmful material, stalking and grooming. If the perpetrator is a child according to law, and this varies in different Departments, will the full wrath of the law come down on that child? Will that record follow him or her in perpetuity and affect his or her job and career possibilities? Will it have a long-term impact or will children have the sealed records that are de rigueur in other areas?
We spoke about the statutory system in place in Australia. Does the child need his or her adult guardian to follow this through? This is a big stumbling block because many children will not report it if they must tell their parents or guardian what they have been doing online, although they are feeling guilty about it and know inside somehow it is really wrong. The stumbling block is whether they want to own up to their parents that something is going on. They will be thinking about how much trouble they will get into and that their pocket money will be gone. There are also other serious measures, such as being told they must stay at home and not go out. This is important to children. It might not be important to us because we have the ability to come and go. Must an adult start the process which the witnesses envisage might be useful here?
Upskirting was mentioned and there was a recent case in England. What law did it come under? A woman successfully prosecuted and got a mobile phone taken off a man. These were young 20 year old adults and it happened at a festival in England. She was on the radio about two months ago discussing it. I cannot remember what aspects of that law were involved. Do we have such a law here? Perhaps the witnesses do not know but I ask them to think about it.
Gambling is a big issue and children are targeted online. Is this considered in the report? It is probably a bit off the mark, but through games children's brains are being fed with the thrill of the chase and the gamble.
Professor Donncha O'Connell
I will refer some of the questions to Mr. Brown because he will have a better sense of the answers. With regard to child offenders, we recommend the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, is obtained for anyone under the age of 17 before a prosecution can be taken. We have not classified these offences as sexual offences, so the normal implications of conviction for sexual offence would not apply, such as being on the register of sex offenders. This is not uncontroversial, but we took the view as a commission that it was the more appropriate and proportionate thing to do regarding what we are dealing with here.
We have distinguished the issue of sexting, which is a colloquial term used to describe some of the mobile phone interactions or Instagram interactions of younger people, from the voyeuristic offence of upskirting, which is a non-consensual offence. We see it as more appropriate for the guidance material to be developed by the digital safety commission in consultation with the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. We are looking at these issues in a way that is less brutal than the criminal law-driven way that might be suggested for other types of situations. I am not aware of the case the Senator mentioned, but Mr. Byrne might be aware of it.
I will pass the issues of child reporting, the Australian example and gambling to Mr. Byrne.
Mr. Raymond Byrne
The UK has legislated for voyeurism for quite a long time, and that is the basis on which the offence mentioned was dealt with. In our proposals we certainly thought an upskirting offence should be legislated for here, but not as a sexual offence, as Professor O'Connell mentioned. We certainly think there is a gap in the law here and this needs to be clarified.
In terms of reporting generally, the ordinary rules about people under age making a report on the criminal law side are that they must be accompanied by somebody to the station, but in general terms education is very important, and this came out of all the consultations we had with a number of groups, including the young children to whom we reported. Reform of the criminal law is important and significant, but so is educating parents interacting with teenagers on having to take a responsible attitude, but without stating a child is grounded from social media, which can be worse than being grounded.
Another part of the report we really want to emphasise is the idea of taking away the mobile phone and how we, as parents, need to educate ourselves about our responsible attitude.
Our focus on gambling was on a particular group of harmful communications but I am aware that the gambling control Bill which has been around as a draft Bill for a number of years deals with the question of vulnerable adults and children. The enactment of that legislation would be very welcome.
Professor Donncha O'Connell
We are proposing a strict liability offence for upskirting. The intention element is not there as would exist for the revenge porn offence. The way in which the offence is drafted is a serious matter.
I thank the witnesses for attending. I assume when we speak about the law that there would be different penalties for different levels of offence. Some offences will be dire, and others will be less dire in nature, depending on involvement of children, peer pressure and the age groups concerned. What happens in the school yard is taken online at different ages. That is not belittling some of the more extreme offences but I am talking about general harassment. I am trying to find the right word for it. When peer pressure is involved with kids in the school yard and that is talked about online, we have to tease out to what degree that is acted on. We are behind the curve in education. This is very fluid and is happening quickly. I am online, reading internetsafety.ie, about sextortion and all the latest things that are happening. Once existing things are combatted, something new will appear, so we really have to provide education.
It is probably the role of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills to decide which bodies should provide education, when and where is best to provide it and what age group is best to target for this education. I see some alarming statistics on it here. Education is key. If underage people or even adults see something coming in, such as a scam, they should be educated enough to be able to see the wood from the trees and determine that it does not add up, as opposed to falling into the trap. Many of these things would be bait for people. We should have an educational side along with the legal element. If one can educate children when they are young and teach them how to behave as they would in the school yard, that might go a long way too.
Professor Donncha O'Connell
That reflects what the commission has stated in the report and it was also reflected this morning by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon. He was talking about education at creche level with regard to digital safety, which I thought was very valuable. On the penalties for offences that we have set out, we have recommended that the normal diversion programmes available to children in the criminal process would be available to those under 17 accused of offences that are specified in our report. The penalties we have suggested for each of the offences on summary or on prosecution following indictment are maximum penalties. The option of a fine also exists. I could go through them individually but it will not add hugely to this. There can be class A fines or up to 12 months imprisonment on summary indictment and unlimited fines or up to seven years when there is a trial on indictment. There is judicial discretion in the giving of a sentence. On the offence of stalking, which we would define as an aggravated form of harassment, if it is accepted as a matter of evidence that such an offence has taken place, that will be relevant to the sentencing in that case. It is not merely harassment but an aggravated form of harassment using cyber methods or such and that would be reflected in the exercise of judicial discretion in the giving of a sentence in that area. With regard to children, we support, as we would with regard to all criminal matters, the use of diversion programmes that exist and other restorative practices where they can be effective.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. Professor O'Connell spoke about judicial discretion on sentencing. I am concerned about the area of upskirting, downblousing and revenge porn, and the degree to which a victim's history may be taken into account when it comes to sentencing. We all know the challenges and difficulties related to rape and sentencing and the often very traumatic process that a victim is subjected to with regard to his or her sexual history. Has Professor O'Connell examined when, for example, an intimate image is posted online with or without consent, whether revenge porn or downblousing, the degree to which a person's Instagram or Facebook page and photographs that the person has posted could be used against an individual? It might be said that the person did not suffer that much harm and is used to putting up photos of that nature. Has Professor O'Connell explored how we deal with this? Do we need to put a provision in the law to protect victims and allow them to feel safe coming forward to report these crimes and follow through on prosecution? The sentencing for rape is not at a sufficient level and the degree to which the victim is further humiliated and shamed through the courts process is a matter which leaves much to be desired. I fear that unless we address this legislatively to deal with that, we will end up in a similar scenario with these crimes, and we will require guidance from the witnesses about that.
Professor Donncha O'Connell
That is a very good point. We have made provision for protecting the identity of victims who initiate processes. On the matter of their digital histories, I cannot remember if we have anything.
Mr. Raymond Byrne
There is not anything in particular. A reason why we did not examine that is that we decided not to describe these as sexual offences as such. They are no doubt abuse of power offences and, in that respect, we were very conscious that clear comparisons could be made but the issue of the provision that is still in the rape legislation for cross-examination of history does not relate to these particular offences. They are based on the harassment and stalking offences that are already in place. We have specifically said that that does not arise in the context of these prosecutions because the offence relates to whether it has actually impinged on and interfered with a person's privacy.
Mr. Justice John Quirke
I do not think that it impacts on sentencing per se. In a sexual offence case, if there is a question in the evidence of previous history, that may be admitted with regard to the crime itself but once the crime has been committed and there has been a conviction, I do not think that the history of the victim would be admissible or relevant to sentencing. The same should apply to this type of offence, once the offence has been proven and there is a conviction. The Deputy makes a point that there might be a history of one person publishing intimate photographs of himself or herself on the Internet. That might be relevant in relation to whether the offence had been committed, but once the offence has been committed, the sentencing process is based on the harm that has been done.
Professor Donncha O'Connell
The offence is publishing an intimate image without consent, for example. What would be the relevance of the fact that the person had published photographs that could be described as intimate? How would that be a defence for a person?
It is not that it is a defence. When there is a degree of discretion in terms of sentencing and all the evidence is before the courts, and where the history of the victim is discussed openly in court, one cannot "unhear" what-----
Mr. Justice John Quirke
I am sorry to interrupt.
Go ahead. My apologies.
Mr. Justice John Quirke
As I understand it the history of the victim may be relevant and admissible with respect to the offence itself, or whether the offence was committed. Once there is a conviction, I cannot see the relevance of the victim's previous sexual history in the sentencing of an accused person being convicted of rape or sexual assault. I do not know of any judges who would admit that. I have certainly heard a number of rape cases and other cases of that kind but I would not dream of listening to sexual history as a relevant factor in sentencing.
I agree wholeheartedly and hope that is the case across the board. I am not suggesting for one moment that the witness would ever engage in such conduct and I do not for a moment believe he did. The point I am trying to make is we have seen it happen in separate events. The history and conduct of an individual has been taken into account in rape cases. I am merely making the suggestion that we could have a similar position here. For example, we know it is predominantly women who are the subject of this particular crime. If a woman has images on her Instagram where she is wearing a low-cut top and she is then "down-shirted" or "down-bloused" - whatever term one wants to use - the suggestion could be made that no harm has come to that person because she has posted similar images online. My question is whether it is an absolute crime. Is it enough to prove that a photograph was taken without consent and posted, where it is considered an intimate photograph? Who decides whether the photograph is intimate? Does it continue to be intimate if the victim posts similar photographs? Does one have to justify or explain previous actions?
I appreciate that once a crime is committed, it is committed, but there are major variances in sentencing because of the discretion that exists. The public will ask these questions and I am posing them as a devil's advocate. What informs the sentencing if there is a level of discretion? I could hear what I would consider an attack on a victim in terms of previous history and judges are people too. We are all influenced by what we see and hear and the suggestion is that all of this, all of the time, can be left at the door and separated. If one is subjected to hearing that information one cannot but in some ways be influenced, no matter how hard one tries not to be.
Professor Donncha O'Connell
It does not go to the issue of consent that the person might have some photographs that he or she published. That does not mean consent can be questioned and it is more about whether it seriously interferes with privacy, peace, alarm or distress, etc. It is a very interesting point. I do not think it arises in the sentencing matter but the Deputy's point relates to that type of evidence, if it arose, having an influence.
Mr. Justice John Quirke
We are getting into evidence and I agree with Professor O'Connell completely. It is difficult to know what is admissible in those circumstances and in asking whether the offence has really interfered with a person's privacy. It will take a number of cases to decide on that. It is a very well-made point.
I am interrupting a very interesting discussion but the salient point is that it will not affect sentencing. It would apply to the evidentiary process in achieving a conviction as opposed to sentencing, which is what Mr. Justice Quirke said at the outset.
We have different views on the influence.
It is very technical.
I take the point made.
I know Professor O'Connell was here earlier and he heard some of the questions. I asked earlier about the Budapest and Lanzarote conventions. We have signed up to them but we have not brought them through the Oireachtas. Has that influenced this morning's presentation or what is the take of the witnesses on that? I asked the previous two speakers the same question.
Professor Donncha O'Connell
They explained what was required by way of two items of criminal law that must be completed in order to allow ratification of those instruments. I will draw attention to another project in the fourth programme of law reform, now that the Deputy has asked the question. It is project No. 10, which is on the domestic implementation of international law more generally. In the next year we are going to publish a discussion paper on that, which is quite a new prospect for the commission. It has a definitive inventory of all our international obligations, which is really useful. It will look at models for the effective implementation of different types of international instruments. This is a topic close to my and Mr. Burke's heart. When the discussion document is out there, it would be wonderful if people engaged directly in the legislative process. We are aware it will be large document considering exactly the different ways in which one can give effect to international instruments.
As the committee knows from Dr. Shannon's reply this morning, ratification of these instruments is dependent on us completing the coming into effect of two items of criminal legislation that are imminent. He is confident that will take place. We always look to the State's ratified international obligations when we are doing our reports. Perhaps more importantly, we look at the domestic law of other comparable jurisdictions to draw on their experiences to inform what we do. We always take an international or comparative approach, mindful of the need for adjustment to the peculiarities of this jurisdiction, with which we are more familiar.
Mr. Justice Quirke was part of the process when 70 children engaged with it. It was referred to earlier. Will he tell us a little about that or how the engagement went? I gather it was over two days. They are the key main stakeholders. How did Mr. Justice Quirke find the process of listening to young people?
Mr. Justice John Quirke
It was exactly as the Deputy describes. I was very impressed. I know about technology now but they knew more at that stage about the technology involved. Their level of responsibility was remarkable. They varied in age from approximately 11 or 12 to 17 years. I was taught much, not just about technology but also about the nature of abuse. Their solutions seemed to be by far the most sensible we came across. They were extremely careful about the use of technology. It was a very helpful and interesting experience for me and everybody who attended.
I was on the side of this and I was not able to participate. I was learning new terms like "catfishing", which is apparently the stealing of another person's identity. I am sure the committee knows that but I did not. I learned other things as well. I also learn from my grandchildren, I am afraid, who tell me how to use the technology. The children explained how it is being abused by children and adults in the interaction with children. That experience made us understand that criminal law was not necessarily the only route. It was very helpful with the idea of the digital safety commissioner and all the powers needed for that commissioner. I do not know if that is very helpful. I am not going into any detail but I would have shortly afterwards recalled instances where they were able to explain issues I would never have thought about that could happen. The stealing of an identity is one example. They explained how one school group might be able to interact with another and cause damage of a kind that we had not come across before.
Mr. Byrne may be able to give better detail in relation to some of the activities that they explained. I cannot immediately recall them. All I can say is that I was very impressed by them, mainly by how responsible they all were. They wanted to draw our attention to the potential abuse of their contemporaries that they did not want to happen.
Mr. Raymond Byrne
On behalf of the commission, this gives me an opportunity to put on the record our thanks to Anne O'Donnell in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs who facilitated the two workshops we held. That was incredibly important for a number of reasons. The structure of the workshops was very well facilitated for us. The experience of the Department in that regard was most helpful.
It also allows me to say that Comhairle na nÓg played a huge part in the selection process so we had that great strength in the way in which we approached those two sessions. The group was representative from the entire State. They all came to the Ashling Hotel in Dublin and they were facilitated very strongly. The backing we had from the Department was incredibly important in that regard. The Department was also very helpful around the child protection issues that would have been necessary to look at. A child psychologist was available on both of the days to ensure, if any issue arose that required assistance and intervention, that help was available. The assistance we got from the Department was invaluable.
The process itself was very well done through having people around the table. As Mr. Justice Quirke has said we were really onlookers. We went around observing the discussions at the different tables and the Post-it notes that were going up on screen. As Professor O'Connell has said, out of that we had a great report written by Sandra Roe on the two day sessions. This report indicated, especially from the point of view of young people, that they were extremely concerned to ensure there was an effective take-down process in place. That was one of the reasons we emphasised the need for a statutory arrangement in which take-down procedures could be done in a very effective and efficient way without going to court. This aspect came out very strongly from the sessions we had on the two days.
There is something to be learnt from that going forward from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The report is done but maybe we should look at doing it on an annual basis. Technology and digitisation is changing so quickly that this information needs to be out there, for young people, for their parents and for educators. I thank the witnesses.
Senator Devine has one follow-up question.
I want to expand on Deputy Chambers's point about social media as it relates to ongoing trials. I know the issue is a hot potato and it was flagged by cases such as the Jobstown trial. Would this matter be considered by the digital safety commissioner? The information might not necessarily be posted by the defendant but the influence on the trial may be considered positive or negative.
I thank the Senator. I understand that one of those cases is still before the Courts so I would urge caution.
I will ask the witnesses if an answer is possible.
Professor Donncha O'Connell
If the communications come within the definition of harmful communication, as set out in the report, it could come within the ambit of the digital safety commissioner. We are also working on the contempt of court, which is a related issue, following up on a report we did in 1994. This report is in the current programme and is nearing completion.
Mr. Justice John Quirke
It is near completion. We hope to have it completed by the end of the first quarter of next year, but as far as we are concerned it is urgent for reasons of that kind. We have had round table discussions with the Judiciary, with the professions and with the media especially. The media were very helpful again and were very responsive as to their view of the harm it can cause, and to the fact that it does interfere with the administration of justice. It is capable of doing so-----
It is a big battle you have to-----
Mr. Justice John Quirke
It is my perspective.
Mr. Justice John Quirke
Perhaps. We have had a considerable amount of discussion and I believe there may be measures that can be taken and have been taken in other jurisdictions.
I thank all the witnesses for their contributions, responses and their presence here this morning. I thank them formally for answering our questions in such a comprehensive manner.
I propose that the committee now moves in to private session to deal with some housekeeping matters.