I thank the Chair and members of the committee for the invitation. On behalf of the Internet Content Governance Advisory Group, I am accompanied by members as introduced, Professor Joe Carthy, Mr. Ronan Lupton and Ms Áine Lynch. We had apologies due to prior commitments from Dr. Mary Aiken and Ms Kate O'Sullivan, members of our group who were unable to attend today.
Our group was convened on the invitation of former Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte, to advise on matters of Internet content governance and to respond to issues of Internet safety arising from harmful communications. We were invited today to discuss the pertinence and relevance of our report, which is dated 2014. Our work was time-limited and the group formally ceased its function on delivery but we feel that there is ongoing relevance in the recommendations based on our assessment of the needs for Internet safety provision, strengthening, enhancement and reinforcement. We were an expert group, comprising members from academia, legal professions, children's charities and industry, and consulted across all of those sectors in the work that we undertook. Our work was guided by specific terms of reference and key principles.
In the interests of time, I will paraphrase some key issues contained in my opening statement. I emphasise that our work focuses on issues relating to content governance as opposed to regulation. We detail in our work the multiplicity of strategies that need to be in place to ensure and strengthen children's online safety. We address other matters too but that governance dimension underpins the recommendations that we made. Our approach was holistic. We attempted to be comprehensive in the recommendations being made because it is difficult to isolate specific instances of vulnerability for children online without addressing the holistic environment within which that happens. In that context, as informed by best international practice, we sought to balance the various competing rights and responsibilities of different actors and the varying dimensions of freedom of expression and the importance of protection as well as provision for children online. Those are the underlying principles which informed our work as we attempted to put forward recommendations relating to the arena of State investment and support for children's online engagement. We also detail the variety of different stakeholders and actors who have a role and responsibility to play. If our recommendations were focused towards specific Government Departments, where we believed that they should take a leadership role, this also entailed actions on the part of other stakeholders, notably industry, civil society, parents and indeed children and young people themselves. They are active agents and citizens in their own right, participating in the online environment, and they have responsibilities.
I will outline our recommendations with regard to the fundamentals of what we believe to be the hallmarks of best international practice. There are three key layers. I describe it diagrammatically in the report. We should be able to identify these in how any modern state provides for and attends to the needs of young people. One is that governance layer, having a tangible point of direct responsibility. Who takes the lead in the management and co-ordination of children's online safety? That is a fundamental question which needs to be answered and which we addressed in our report. We described that as a fundamental layer. We put a name on it. We argued for the creation of a national council for children's online safety. This closely approximates the UK Council for Child Internet Safety which has also looked at arrangements in Ireland over the course of the years with regard to how this has developed. It is vitally important in that layer that the space is created for all those partners and stakeholders to participate. There has to be a forum where they are accountable and make a contribution to supporting children's safety.
The second dimension relates to policy development. This is a fast-moving area. Technologies change. We look at potential risks and challenges of which we are still unaware. One has to have the ability to respond. It is not easy to come up with a single solution at a point in time that will be sufficiently robust to still be relevant a year afterwards. That is the policy development layer.
We are conscious that in the succeeding session three Ministers will appear, each representing Departments that have a primary role in contributing to a holistic approach towards policy development. We comment on that in our report.
The third aspect is a public-facing body. This is important for all citizens, including children, young people, parents, carers and teachers. Such a body would address important questions. Where is my go-to place? Where do I find trusted definitive advice and support for online safety for children? We address this area in the report. We looked to the enhancement of the Irish Safer Internet Centre, which is a long-standing project. We believe it has not been well-resourced. Such organisations play significant roles in all European member states. These centres operate on the basis of partnership with the European Commission and member states in providing education, awareness, support and contact with stakeholders, including those from the industry. They provide a hotline and a helpline. Ensuring the visibility and accessibility of these services to citizens is vital.
In a nutshell, that is the content of the recommendations. They are set out clearly in three levels. We need policy. We need a public-facing stakeholder forum where there is accountability and transparency and where the key actors are around the table to make appropriate decisions. We need public support and service delivery in terms of reinforcing the safety of children.
We delivered our recommendations in good faith. We had a short timeframe to develop matters of public concern in 2014. These matters do not go away - the concerns remain. We took the view that our recommendations could add value and provide much-needed visibility for public provision.
We know the matters before the committee are of ongoing concern. There is eagerness to find ready solutions. We have portrayed our solutions in that holistic sense. The debate will continue.
We held discussions in preparation for the discussion today. It was not an issue for us in 2014, but the digital age of consent is a feature of the general data protection regulation. It is not in itself an instrument for children's online safety. It is fundamentally a matter of data protection. However, we support affirming the decision to set the age at 13 years. We believe increasing the age to 16 years does nothing for children's Internet safety. It is not a matter of safety of itself. In fact, it could cause unintended consequences and further exposure to risks for children who are not otherwise covered by appropriate privacy protection and who are not availing of or the subject of specific Internet safety protection as active social media users. It is important to bring this up to a contemporary point in the sense of where we are currently. These debates will be ongoing but a fundamental contribution is needed. It must be flexible, robust and respond to current and future challenges.