I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Canney.
Children's Digital Protection Bill 2018: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The purpose of the Bill I am introducing is to safeguard children from exposure to harmful and age inappropriate content online by placing responsibility for the distribution of such information on Internet service providers. I am speaking about content that contains encouragement of and incitement to suicide and self-harm and encouragement of prolonged nutritional deprivation that could put a child's health at risk. I will give an example of what I am talking about. This afternoon I spent 30 seconds on the Internet. I typed in the word "suicide". The first thing that came up was a HSE website advising people to let someone know if they had concerns in that regard. The second thing that came up was the website of a charity that is well known for suicide intervention. The third website that came up encouraged and instructed people on how to take their own lives. That was the third hit. This grave matter is affecting children. We need to acknowledge that suicide rates among young teenage females have increased so dramatically that Ireland now has the highest rate of suicide in Europe among young female teenagers. Again, this is related to the Internet. In the past young girls who attempted suicide would have chosen non-fatal methods, but now they are using more lethal methods because they are being instructed on the Internet.
I saw a website today that went into lengthy and horrifying detail in providing answers for those seeking information on how to take their own lives. It is upsetting enough that adults can access this information, but we must bear in mind that children can do so too. According to Ofsted, 39% of children between the ages of eight and 11 years and 83% of those between the ages of 12 and 15 have their own smartphones. We know that vulnerable children and young people spend more time online than their peers. A recent NHS report revealed that one in three young people with a mental disorder was on social media for at least four hours on a typical schoolday and for significantly longer on Saturdays and Sundays. In 2011 the EU Kids Online study which was led by the London School of Economics found that one quarter of Irish young people between the ages of 11 and 16 years had come across harmful online content, 11% had seen anorexic and bulimic websites, 9% had seen self-harm websites and 4% had seen websites on which suicide was discussed. Given that this study was published almost eight years ago, we can be absolutely sure that the numbers in question are significantly higher today.
The "thinspiration" generation has unlimited access to all forms of websites which actively promote a culture of starvation among people who are already vulnerable. In Ireland there are 200,000 people with eating disorders. According to the HSE, the number of hospitalisations of teenage girls for anorexia and bulimia has almost doubled in the past ten years. There is a clear relationship between high levels of obsession with body image and the development of eating disorders. By definition, body image dysmorphia is one criterion in the diagnosis of both bulimia and anorexia nervosa. The websites about which I am talking are extremely damaging for people with eating disorders. There is no legislation regulating the distribution of such websites which can include online chatrooms in which starvation and eating solutions - how to starve oneself - are encouraged. Irish figures for self-harm and eating disorders have soared in the past decade. Ireland has the highest rate for girls who take their own lives. The reasons for these figures are complex, which means that we need a complex multi-factoral model to understand them. I believe that if we ignore the role played by dangerous online content, it will be at our peril. We need to study addictive-type behaviour in the use of smartphones and social media. Rates of anxiety and depression are increasing. There is extreme pressure on young people online, especially on image-based social technology websites.
This legislation will strengthen the regulation of access to unsafe online material. There is no unique approach to the regulation of online material. The existing practice is that a complaint can be made to an Internet service provider which responds if it chooses to do so. It is up to each provider to act of its own accord in a form of self-regulation. There are 33 Internet service providers registered with the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland and they have no uniform complaints procedure. No uniform actions are taken in response to complaints about harmful material. This legislation responds to a deep concern that self-governance in this area is not effective and potentially life-threatening. Its intention is to require Internet service providers in Ireland to remove or block harmful material which is not illegal but which nonetheless is age inappropriate.
Other countries have introduced legislation in response to the abuse of online information. For example, Australia has passed the Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Act 2005. Take-down orders, as they are known under EU law, appear to be the most effective way to police this type of content because there are no standards in primary legislation for the distribution of harmful online content.
The legislation I am proposing, which no doubt will need certain revisions, seeks to place responsibility on the Commission for Communications Regulation to issue enforcement notices against Internet service providers and other entities where content is legal but age-inappropriate. Generally, illegal content is governed by the separate hotline service in Ireland, which deals exclusively with child pornography. This legislation is not concerned with child pornography.
The harmful content covered by the Bill comes under four categories in section 3(2). The first is encouragement or incitement to suicide. The second is encouragement of any self-harm practices. The third is encouragement of prolonged nutritional deprivation that would have the effect of exposing a child to risk of death. The fourth is the encouragement of any unsafe practices that would endanger the health and well-being of the child. A person can make a complaint regarding any content falling under these categories.
I pay tribute to Dr. Mary Aiken. I am delighted the legislation has received academic support from Dr. Aiken, who is the adjunct associate professor of the UCD Geary Institute for Public Policy. She is willing to chair a debate on the regulation of inappropriate Internet content. She has rallied tirelessly on the importance of this issue at academic and political levels. I am grateful for her oversight and work on this proposal. I thank the Minister of State for being here.
I strongly support and congratulate my colleague, Senator Freeman, on bringing forward this Bill. The Minister of State is more than welcome. It is great to see a fellow Galway man here. There are a few of us.
I think there are four Members here from Galway.
There are, including Senator Alice-Mary Higgins.
We would expect nothing less.
There should be a quota.
We have a good west of Ireland lady in the Chair.
I think those of us from Mayo might trump the Senators.
We will not go there. We are dependent on Corofin to help us through this year.
To get back to the Bill, I wish to make a couple of important points. I am delighted this Bill has been brought forward to Second Stage and hope the Minister of State and all parties will support it. Following Second Stage, Members who are interested parties may table amendments and make suggestions. I suggest that rather than water down this Bill, we should strengthen it because young people under 16 years who are the people defined in the Bill are very vulnerable at that age. We, as legislators, have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable in our society. As we know, social media and the Internet are extremely invasive in terms of very vulnerable people, particularly in the area of suicide.
I listened carefully to Senator Freeman when she said she spent a few seconds on a website, as I did this afternoon. On the third search, one can see how to commit suicide. It actually explains how to tie the knot. It is disgusting. That is freely available to all. I will not go into any more gruesome detail on it but that is what we are talking about. This Bill is fundamental to addressing that issue and I will passionately support it.
As self-regulation is not working, we need leadership from the Minister of State and the Government to ensure there is a duty of care in terms of this issue. Parents, schools and we, as legislators, have a duty of care but, importantly, Internet providers have a duty of care also. Self-regulation is not working. That is the reason we need Senator Freeman's Bill. I seek to strengthen it because right now this problem is like a virus affecting vulnerable people and we must protect those vulnerable people.
I am comfortable with ComReg as a regulator in this area. I have a question about the penalties proposed, which I would strengthen. The Bill provides for a fine or a term of imprisonment not exceeding 12 months on conviction of a summary offence and imprisonment not exceeding seven years on conviction of an indictable offence. A fine for a summary offence will not compensate for the damage that can be done to one person.
I like the jurisdiction proposed in the Bill, which relates to acts committed both within and outside the State but which can affect people in the State. As the Senator said, Australia enacted legislation in 2006. I understand Germany has legislation in this area also. Regardless of what other countries have done, as parliamentarians, Senators have a duty of care to push this Bill to Committee Stage as quickly as possible and to invite contributions on it. Senator Freeman has done a lot of homework on this Bill and engaged with many people in its drafting but there is room for more support in terms of amending and strengthening it. I hope the Minister of State, the Government and all parties will support the Bill proceeding through Committee Stage.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I may be wrong but I believe it is the first time he has been in the Chamber since his reappointment. Not only is he being welcomed as a Galway man but also in his current position.
The Bill is very welcome. It is a significant statement by this House and a problem we need to acknowledge. There has been much talk in this space in the past six to ten months. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment which spent hundreds of hours in the past two years dealing with pre-legislative scrutiny of several Bills, including the Digital Safety Commissioner Bill. The space we are in on this issue is frightening. The self-regulation model has failed us. The space has moved so fast we have not regulated for it. The issues have become apparent in all the hearings we have held in recent months. Major multinationals have control over data, the content put on the Internet, who takes it down, the process of taking it down and the speed at which they will act. That has become another issue that needs to be addressed. It needs to be changed and regulation is required, not only nationally but internationally also. There are many aspects that we need to tie together.
Something that happens in Australia can be viewed by me on my phone 30 seconds later. We have seen that. It is a problem for us. I will not mention the providers because it would be unfair but we have had several hearings with some of the key stakeholders. We are talking about exceptionally large multinational companies. A major meeting was held in the House of Commons on this issue which was attended by chairpersons of communications committees from Europe, Canada, the United States and even Brazil. The chief executive of one of the largest organisations, Facebook, refused to turn up at the meeting. He would not engage, even by way of a video link. It is an indication of the power of that machine when the chairpersons of 13 or 14 communications committees from across the world come together but the chief executive of one of the largest companies in this area refuses to deal with us. That is the power with which we are dealing and it is frightening.
We need legislation in this area and debates such as this one because as the Minister, Deputy Bruton, said recently, the self-regulation model needs to change. This space has changed, and we need to move into it. In many ways, we are behind the curve on this issue because the space has moved so quickly. As a parent, I am very aware of that. I have a seven year old daughter who could almost tell me how to run the Internet. It is frightening. Even in terms of basic content on YouTube on TV, we see the advertisements. When there are parents in the room the children come up to us and tell us exactly what they want for Christmas in July. We wonder where they get all the information. It is being sold to them because they can work through these mediums and, as parents, we need to educate ourselves about it.
The Bill is a positive measure. The Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment would gladly take a Bill such as this one, go through it and work with the Senator.
I am referring to the kind of information and debate we need as a society so we can make this space safer for everyone.
I commend Senator Freeman on introducing this Bill in the House. I thank the Minister of State for attending to listen to this debate. Undoubtedly, the Bill deals with an important area on which we need to catch up very quickly. As others have mentioned, it is a very fast-moving space. It is scary for a parent to realise the dangers that exist. When one closes one's own door, one believes one is protecting one's children from predators but the predators are coming into one's home and can contact and communicate with very young children. It requires a lot of vigilance and education on the part of parents but it also requires us to act in these Houses. Therefore, I commend Senator Freeman on introducing this Bill. It is good to have this debate. Fianna Fáil will be supporting this Bill in principle but will be introducing in the coming weeks its own Bill on the establishment of an office of a digital safety commissioner. It is very good that we are having this debate tonight. I hope it is the start of a genuine, combined and concerted effort to tackle the dangers posed by online activity.
I am sharing my time with Senator Devine.
Like other colleagues, I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad. I commend Senator Freeman on introducing this Bill in order that we can deal on Second Stage with the important subject matter it seeks to address. Sinn Féin certainly welcomes the policy behind the Bill and its attempt to put some regulatory form on the online environment and protect those who are most vulnerable and open to exploitation.
The Bill contains many of the objectives of the Sinn Féin Bill that was introduced in the Dáil and is currently on Committee Stage. It remains under a money message. We hope progress can be made on it. Our Bill, like this Bill, seeks to have regulatory protections in our online world. It is a relatively new area that is ever-growing and it cannot be left to self-regulation or, worse, no regulation at all, nor can it be left to corporate entities to define the regulatory environment. This is a job for us as legislators. Legislation must establish the balance between respecting freedom of speech and the need to protect those who are most vulnerable. Social media and the online world will no doubt develop their own body of law on protection as ever-emerging technology increasingly invades everyday life. This body of law will need oversight.
Our Bill, like this Bill, seeks to establish an office of a digital safety commissioner. This office would be a permanent statutory body rather than an office internal to the Department. The former communications Minister supported the intention of our Bill but the Fine Gael Government thus far has failed to legislate. As it is a new emerging area of law, it will require much work from a legislative perspective. We are debating various aspects of the Bill at meetings of the communications committee, such as how we would define harmful material and how we would address the trans-boundary nature of online communications. Simply because it is a new area does not mean we should sit back and not act. The office under the Sinn Féin Bill would have responsibility for promoting digital safety, online reviewing and regulating harmful digital communications on the Internet as well as other digital platforms with the intention of establishing safer and healthier attitudes for all users of digital platforms. The concept of a digital safety commissioner is supported by the ISPCC, the Ombudsman for Children and CyberSafeIreland. The former Minister also spoke positively about it.
It is time to legislate in this area and put proper protections in place. That is why I again commend Senator Freeman on introducing this Bill. We shall support it as it progresses. I apologise to Senator Freeman because I will not be present for the rest of the debate as I am hosting an event in the audiovisual room.
I wonder whether any of us remembers Bebo. I remember asking when my children were growing up what it was all about and what was happening. It was a very innocent time. Providers eventually looked around and said they could make progress on the concept and make a profit from it. This is achieved by our allowing our children to be subjected to extremely unacceptable images and whatever else is put up on the Internet that cause them much angst and despair and at times send them into very dark places. The children are subjected to these before they have had a chance to grow up inquisitive, funny, smart, crying, bold and so on. There is a dark side that Internet providers have tapped into in our children's heads. We need to protect them. I lament the innocent days of Bebo and the question of how it was to be saved. This Bill intends to achieve what is required in that regard.
I believe Senators Freeman and Noone were with me at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs attended by representatives of Facebook. The providers sat there and had the audacity to say how wonderful they were, how glossy they were, how caring they were and how wonderful their approach was to the protection of children in the circumstances in question. It belied the fact that all the company is interested in is profit. The company left up for days on end a video of an online suicide. It left up for days a video of an assault on a child and found nothing in it that was in breach of its terms. It was a vicious assault on a child by an adult, not by other children.
I am delighted to see a provision for the Minister to re-evaluate, reassess and amend this Bill. I would like to believe the Bill will be able to cover more high-risk areas, including gambling. I refer to the targeting of our children by online games that get them to trade something for something else. Eventually the money creeps in and one can buy extra teddy bears for €2, for example. This activity is occurring and the games are aimed at children of three years and upwards. That is quite concerning. Gambling is normalised as a game from childhood.
I thank Senator Freeman and commend her on introducing the Bill. I trust her. I thank her for her ongoing commitment to children and their childhoods, happiness and safety.
I join others in welcoming the Bill. Having the advantage of speaking at the end, I welcome the strong consensus on all sides of the House in recognising self-regulation is not adequate in this area. It is encouraging that we are hearing various proposals from all the parties and groupings. I am hopeful that we will find ways to work together and combine the best legislative proposals. While I recognise this Bill works under ComReg, I believe the case for a digital safety commissioner has been strongly made. If a proposal were made for the establishment of such a role, perhaps the Bill could work with it. The Bill refers to sole responsibility but additional responsibilities might need to be catered for if we succeed in establishing a digital safety commissioner. That is important.
Senators have said things are moving fast. For quite a long time, online service providers have managed to create a sense that this is an impossible area to regulate and that it cannot be done. This is similar to the intimidating dynamic we used to hear about regarding financial regulation. We are told the system is global, that it is everywhere and nowhere, and that it is impossible to regulate. As with financial regulation, we have realised this is an area that can be regulated because the companies do land and have headquarters, bases, clients and customers. They have commercial practices. Anywhere there is money changing hands, regulation is possible.
What we are seeing now is a stepping-up by legislators. I am happy to see it across this House but I have also met legislators in the United States and in other parts of Europe who have realised that this is an area where many of our citizens spend time and where we have a duty to see if we can take action. Ireland has a particular duty because this is where many of these companies are headquartered.
Some specific points are really positive in this Bill and represent useful additions to the debate in online safety. The expression "distributes or otherwise makes available" is used. This is important because it is not always the case that something is simply published. Some material may be published online but "distributes or otherwise makes available" covers something wider. It covers personal messages that people may get. Such messages might come directly to people and may not be subject to any of the normal safeguards or screens that we have in the public sphere.
The issue of harmful practice and how platforms respond to it arises. There is also the issue of incitement to hatred, which is another matter that needs to be looked at. I am keen to strengthen the Bill in that regard.
Another important point complements the last point in terms of the issue of direct messaging. This is a major area where people are being reached. It is not as visible as Facebook or what might be happening on Twitter. I am referring to direct personal messages and WhatsApp. We know WhatsApp is an area where people receive messages. It is an encrypted site. It is difficult to know what content is there and how to access it.
The framing of the expression "a means of communication" is interesting in terms of the jurisdiction. It applies even if the person is outside the State but the means of communication is located in the State. WhatsApp and other direct messaging formats rely on telephone numbers sourced in Ireland. We know about the area of incitement to hatred and we have seen the use of WhatsApp in the Brazilian elections and elsewhere. The number attached to a person's messages in WhatsApp needs to be accessed in a given country. I can send a number from a UK telephone number. However, if I have a telephone number with a 087, 086 or 085 prefix, the number is sourced. Ireland has strict rules around the regulation of unsolicited text messaging and so on as well as in the area of direct marketing through text. There is scope for us to target the area of WhatsApp, which is a concern.
I am coming to the area of micro-targeting. The sentiments that have been expressed on content that is harmful are strong and clear in the House. That is one half of the picture. The other half of the picture is the targeting. There is the question of content as well. This measure goes a long way to regulating it, but there is also the matter of targeting and how people are reached. I am keen to note two areas in particular. The Bill sets the age of a child at 16 years. I would prefer if the age was 18 years because in most areas a child is construed as being 18 years or under, with the exception of the sub-clause in the general data protection regulation. We could go with what section 29 of the general data protection regulation, which refers to a child of 18 years.
We already have a law on the Statute Book. Senator Lynn Ruane and I won this amendment in the debate on the general data protection regulation. It specifically states that it shall be an offence under the Act for any company or corporate body to process the personal data of a child for the purposes of direct marketing, profiling or micro-targeting. Such an offence shall be punishable by administrative fine. That is already the law, but the problem is that it has not been commenced by the Government and no date has been set.
The Senator has one minute left.
This is my key point. Let us work together on this legislation. Let us start by commencing the legislation already on the Statute Book to counter situations like gambling. There are situations involving companies advertising what are supposedly health products that are extremely dangerous to young people. We know that marketing lists are used all the time for profiling. A child may have indicated a vulnerability. Perhaps the child has been looking at a site around her personal appearance and so forth. That can become part of a profile that allows a company to target such a child with messages.
We have legislation on the Statute Book. If commenced, that legislation would mean that at least such activities, where there is commercial intent in the targeting of vulnerable young persons, would be diminished significantly. It would mean we would not have a situation whereby a company can have a profile of a vulnerable young person that can be shared and used by others. A company may have knowledge of persons who have indicated vulnerability in one space. That information may be shared with others who may use it to target those persons. Often this occurs with unsolicited messages that can push people further along routes of self-harm or self-endangerment.
I realise this is a matter for the Minister for Justice and Equality. I appeal to the Minister of State to pass on my appeal as a first step and set a date for commencement. I look forward to taking the other aspect relating to harmful content further in future. I commend the Senator.
I warmly welcome the Minister of State. It is great to see him back as a Minister of State. I thank my colleague and fellow Independent Senator, Senator Joan Freeman, and my other Independent colleagues who have co-signed the Bill. When Senator Freeman contacted me I did not have to think twice because she is known for her record in safeguarding and protecting children. Other Senators have alluded to this also. She has a strong record in this area and in the area of mental health. She touched on self-harm, suicide, self-esteem and vulnerability. These are all important issues that affect young people and older people.
It is strange when people talk about younger people because we are all vulnerable. We all have our moments. No one likes to be criticised and certainly no one wants to be humiliated through a medium outside his or her control on the Internet or through all the technologies that go with it. Politicians are all aware of that. There is not one politician who, at some point, has not had an experience relating to Facebook or some form of social media. This is a risk.
Senator Lombard referred to an international dimension. There are local, national and international dimensions in all of this. We should consider this in the context of the European Union and how we can address these issues at that level. We all know that if we go outside the European Union then we have roaming charges. People know where we travel because of our use of technology. There are mechanisms. People do not fail to send the bill to customers. Therefore, we can track people down. As I said before, the iPhone is a powerful tool. If abused or misused it can do extraordinary damage to people's heads, old and young. That is an important point.
I wish to recap to be sure and clear what we are talking about in what this Bill is attempting to do. The Bill aims to regulate legal but age-inappropriate content by way of take-down enforcement procedures. This procedure will operate where material falls within the definition of harmful material set out in the Bill. I recommend that everyone should read the explanatory memorandum that comes with the Bill. It clearly sets out the matter. We do not want any ambiguity. It is clearly set down in the explanatory memorandum and it is important that we should say as much.
Earlier, Senator Freeman talked about the 33 Internet service providers in Ireland registered with the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland. None has uniform consistent complaints procedures or uniform actions to respond to complaints. That is a concerning fact. These are the difficulties that must be addressed and taken on board. There was talk about the model in Australia. We do not have to go that far. There is a European dimension to this.
Senator Freeman has put this matter on the table. She has put the heads of this Bill up for discussion. Clearly we are in the early stages of it, but I encourage all groups, parties and people involved, whether in the House or outside the House, to come and make contact with Senator Freeman or anyone else in Leinster House with their ideas and suggestions.
Senator Freeman referred to Professor Mary Aiken coming in to make a presentation. Perhaps it should be somewhere more formal than the audio-visual room because it requires more analysis that simply ten minutes of an AV presentation. The suggestion is a good one and I would like if Senator Freeman proceeded with it. I know that the Senator has worked well with her contacts to progress this matter.
The point raised by Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee is a good one.
I am glad Fianna Fáil will introduce legislation proposing the appointment of a digital safety commissioner. No one has a monopoly on this issue and that proposal should be implemented. The Taoiseach talked about this, changed his mind and then said he was not sure. We all recognise there is a problem that needs to be addressed. We are all concerned about people's health and well-being and the impact of information technology. We should, therefore, pursue the idea of having a digital safety commissioner. We should use this Bill as the basis for powerful legislation that attempts to regulate and address the serious shortcomings in this area. I thank Senator Freeman for her work and wish this legislation well as it goes through the various Stages.
I should allow the Leader to speak now but Senator Craughwell has been waiting to speak since the debate commenced.
I thank the Leader for giving way.
I was referring to the order of the House. Senator Craughwell did not ask that it be changed.
It is always good to oblige a willing colleague.
The Minister of State, Deputy Canney, is a good Galwegian and a great Minister of State. I welcome him back to the House and to a ministerial role. He will serve that role well while serving his constituency well also. I am delighted to see him back in the job. In my previous life, I managed 300 personal computers, an open Internet connection and an e-learning platform for a college of further education. Throughout my entire time doing that, from 1995 until I became the president of the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, I fought for uncensored, free access to all platforms for my students. I hold the right to free speech and free engagement as a dear and cherished thing to which we should all have access. In saying that, the Bill brought forward by my colleague, Senator Freeman, is essential because there is an age at which free access is fine but only to a certain degree.
In my first week as president of the Teachers Union of Ireland I had to visit a school where two 12-year-old girls had committed suicide. Shortly afterwards, I had a meeting with the principal of the school. He made a point that is worth putting repeating because there are people who will claim this is nanny state legislation that seeks to control things. The principal told me that while children come to school at 9 a.m. and go home at 4 p.m., somehow or other he is responsible for them 24/7 between 1 September and 30 June. He told me that when the children go home their parents, acting as responsible parents do, ensure they are fed nourishing food, do their homework exercises and whatever chores have to be done around the house and insist they wash, clean their teeth, say their prayers, if religious, and get into bed. The one thing the parents do not do, however, is take digital devices off their children. Instead, they allow them to go to bed with a mobile phone and access to the Internet, texting, WhatsApp and the various other platforms.
In the couple of years I travelled around second level schools, I saw some of the things that are done via social media, not only student to student but, in some cases, student to teacher. We suddenly realise that while social media, on which the Minister of State and I are both active, is a wonderful tool, by God, we pay a high price for it in terms of some of the things said on some of the platforms wee use. I recall looking at my Twitter account one weekend. It came to the stage where I had to step away from it because it would have had a serious impact on my mental health. Some of the statements made on these social platforms are outrageous. People can say and do as they want.
During my time in the education and e-learning environment, we were given a lecture by a representative of one of the Internet search engine providers. The individual in question spoke at length about how his company's search engine would revolutionise education because it would provide free access to accurate information. One man at the lecture put up his hand and asked if it was true that the company provided only limited access to information in China. The response was that it did so because the Chinese Government would not allow full access. In that case, the questioner stated, the search engine company was not giving full access to factual information everywhere. He continued by asking if this meant it was possible to control access to information and content. The response was that this was possible. This cuts straight to Senator Freeman's Bill as it shows that Internet service and search engine providers can control and manage what is out there in the ether. Senator Higgins spoke about applications such as WhatsApp messaging, as well as plain, straightforward text messaging. While the Bill goes a long way towards controlling information, we need to make provision for liability for unsolicited person-to-person messages or messages with dangerous content.
I will support the Bill. I hope to be able to add to it some of the measures in my Bill on digital equipment in schools. I also hope other measures will be added to the Bill over time.
We must keep front and centre that we are talking about children who are the most vulnerable in our society. Children have access to content which is age inappropriate. As Senator Ó Céidigh said, they have access to instructions on how to commit suicide and diets that are supposed to make people slim and good-looking but which are probably killing them or doing serious harm. As a society, we have to take responsibility for that. Unfortunately, the Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Environment, Deputy Bruton, will carry the can for it.
We have to expedite this legislation and pass it quickly. It needs to be beefed up and I know Senator Freeman will be open to including additional provisions. I commend the Senator and thank her for bringing forward the Bill. It is important that it is in the public domain and people are talking about this issue. A national conversation is needed on what we find acceptable for our children. As an educator, the Minister of State will also have concerns and will have seen in his professional career how good information technology can be in education and how harmful it can be when misused.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Canney. I am delighted he is back in ministerial office. I have always found him to be very courteous, conscientious and helpful. I welcome Senator Freeman's Bill, which presents us with an important opportunity to have a debate on providing protection in the digital world. Many of us have been involved long before today in promulgating the need for cybersafety. Senator Lombard and I have been working together on this area. The issues extend beyond those addressed in the Bill to the issues of young people gambling and loot boxes.
A startling report last week found a 400% increase in child gambling in the UK. What would a comparable report find about our country? It is important that this discussion is held. I commend Senator Freeman on introducing the Bill. We need to ensure we do not operate in a silo mentality. Many issues in the digital world, including parental control and the various risks children and young teenagers face online, whether cyberbullying, texting and sexting or predators. This is about creating knowledge and awareness, communicating information and ensuring there is oversight. That is important.
This is not just about having a digital safety commissioner or what the Taoiseach said or did not say.
It is about making sure that people understand that what goes online remains online. Many of us have been involved with schools, community groups and parents associations to ensure we provide the best code of practice and information for parents, guardians and young people.
I am particularly concerned about some of the practices that have crept into the gaming sector. I am not trying to denigrate the gaming industry which provides much valuable employment and is a great resource in the country. However, in some cases, it is linked with behaviour that we need to discuss in the context of what the Bill is trying to achieve. A recent report from the UK Gambling Commission states 25,000 children between the ages of 11 and 16 years are problem gamblers, with many learning how to bet via computer games and social media. This raises the question as to whether we are all turning a blind eye to and sleep-walking into future problems. For this reason, with a good friend, Mr. Eoin Barry, I met Mr. David Sweeney, SC, from the Interactive Software Federation of Europe, ISFE, and, Mr. Alan Duggan, director of the Galway Film Centre who hails from the same county as the Minister of State, to discuss the issue of loot boxes and the gaming sector and work with them in partnership to bring about best practice.
I very much welcome the debate tonight and the bringing forward of solutions. However, solutions must come from the ground up, not from the top down. It cannot be about big brother watching or, as Senator Craughwell stated, about the nanny state. It is about all of us seeking collective buy-in to ensure the future generation of young people is not, as I said, sleep-walking into problems.
There is a need for more information and data to be gleaned and parsed through and analysed to determine how we can make the digital world a better one to navigate and achieve better outcomes. We all benefit from the digital world and the cyberworld but, equally, there are areas in which greater vigilance is required. A proper debate is needed on mental health and online safety and there are practices that can be outlawed. When I chaired the hearings on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, many of us were subjected to the most vitriolic emails. I was impressed that when I brought one such email to the attention of gardaí in Harcourt Street in Dublin, they were able to trace the computer from which the email had been sent to a particular location, even though it had been routed through many parts of eastern Europe. I was most impressed that An Garda Síochána was able to trace it back to a particular person, and I commend the gardaí involved on doing so.
Senator Freeman and I are not on a crusade against gaming or the digital world but we must ensure that best practice is followed. We need to address issues that have so far not been addressed. When I met the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton, I was enthused and taken by his sincerity. All of us have an obligation to promulgate ideas on various aspects of the cyberworld to help people access information. I commend all those involved in many different helpline activities providing a resource and assistance for people.
Part of our difficulty is that there is a generation of people who do not understand what happens online and perhaps have a hands-off approach to their children's activity. We need to educate parents and young people. I was struck by Senator Lombard's remarks about his daughter. Many of us will have nieces and nephews who are much more proficient online than we will ever be. That presents its own challenge.
Tonight's debate is a starting point to enable the continuation of the work being done. I hope we will work in collaboration, rather than with a silo mentality. It is not about one size fitting all but about ensuring we strengthen regulation without being overprescriptive or becoming a nanny state. At the same time, we must make sure online material is safe and we put in place proper controls, as we have done with alcohol and gambling and in many other areas.
On a wider point, this country has an issue with gambling, particularly online gambling, that we need to address. I hope we will tackle that issue. I commend Senator Freeman on introducing the Bill which gives us an opportunity to discuss this issue.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Canney. Is it his first time back?
It is my maiden voyage.
I am delighted to see him here.
I thank Senator Freeman and her co-sponsors for introducing this Private Members' Bill. As has been said, the online world brings enormous benefits. We see these benefits in our everyday lives, from small business owners using new technologies to improve their products and services to families communicating with loved ones abroad in an instant. However, as the online world becomes more present in our day-to-day lives, we are increasingly aware that it presents risks, especially to vulnerable members of society, including children.
On behalf of the Government, I thank Senator Freeman for the work she has put into producing the Bill. The intention of the legislation is to ensure children do not have the opportunity to access content which is manifestly designed and intended to have a negative impact on their health and well-being. The Bill seeks to achieve this by putting in place a notice and take-down system for harmful material to be enforced by the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg.
The type of material which Senator Freeman is seeking to have removed from the Internet or blocked from Irish audiences represents some of the worst examples of harmful content available online. Any website, the sole purpose of which is to encourage children or any user to commit self-harm or suicide or to engage in practices which are detrimental to their health, for example, pro-anorexia websites, represents the worst of humanity.
Online safety for all but especially for children is a priority for the Government. For this reason, the Government will not oppose the passage of Senator Freeman's Bill. Our commitment to online safety is most clearly demonstrated by the publication and ongoing implementation of the Action Plan for Online Safety 2018-19.
Appearing before the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment recently, the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, stated the era of self-regulation in this area was over. If this Oireachtas is to pass legislation, we must ensure that any proposal is robust and meets the urgent public policy objective of protecting children online. Following his recent appointment, the Minister sought urgent legal advice from the Attorney General. That advice will be important.
The House will be aware that in July the Taoiseach launched the Government's action plan for online safety, which is the first of its kind in this country. The plan commits the six key Departments, namely, the Departments of Communications, Climate Action and Environment; Business, Enterprise and Innovation; Justice and Equality; Education and Skills; Health; and Children and Youth Affairs, to implementing or substantially progressing 25 actions before the end of 2019. The plan is a whole-of-government approach to online safety, which reflects the fact that there can be no single Department with responsibility for the Internet as the Internet cuts across all policy areas and remits. The actions contained in the plan are wide-ranging and include education, guidance and awareness-raising measures, legislative measures and the establishment of robust monitoring and implementation structures. Senators have spoken about these different aspects.
I take the opportunity to highlight some of the highly important work ongoing under the action plan. The National Advisory Council for Online Safety which I chair was established as part of the action plan. The council is a multi-stakeholder forum with a broad membership drawn from key stakeholder groups, including non-governmental organisations and industry.
The terms of reference of the council are designed to make the most of the experience and knowledge of its members. They include providing advice for the Government on online safety issues, identifying emerging online safety issues where the Government may need to take action, inputting into the development of a wide range of online safety guidance materials and reviewing national and international research. The council has met twice since its establishment in October and has set up subgroups to progress its work, including conducting a foundational online safety research project in 2019. It is my intention that the work of the council be transparent and that the minutes of its meetings therefore be available on the website of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The action plan also commits the Government to working with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment to explore the issues arising regarding the Digital Safety Commissioner Bill 2017. That Bill, which was introduced by Deputy Ó Laoghaire, seeks to tackle online safety issues in a similar way to the Senator's Bill by putting in place a "notice and take down" system for "harmful digital communications". An important difference between the Bills is that the "notice and take down" system proposed in the Deputy's Bill would apply to content, whereas the system proposed in the Senator's Bill would appear to apply to websites or services as a whole. As I have said, the views of the Attorney General on the establishment of a digital safety commissioner have been sought. Many of the same legal issues arise in respect of the Senator's Bill, a number of which I will briefly outline.
I will first address the issue of the definition of "harmful materials" in the Bill. The definition in section 3(2) of the Bill contains four parts. In the first three parts of this subsection, the Senator has set out to define the type of activity that could be regulated. This type of definitional work is absent from the Digital Safety Commissioner Bill. The fourth part of the subsection refers to content containing "encouragement of any unsafe practices which would severely endanger the health and wellbeing of the child". Section 3(4) provides that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs or the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment may make regulations specifying "further circumstances in which material is to be regarded as harmful". Given the serious and criminal nature of the sanctions provided for in section 5 of the Bill, the language here would need to be clearer as to whether the proposed regulatory authority, in this case the Commission for Communications Regulation, would be required to interpret this part of the definition or whether this part of the definition would only be in effect once regulations had been prepared by either Minister.
I move to the jurisdictional issues in the Bill. Section 7 provides that a person may be tried in the State for the criminal offence set out in section 5. Section 7 also includes an extraterritorial provision for an Irish person or resident to be tried in an Irish court for acts that are an offence in any other state. These provisions would need to be carefully considered in that they seek to recognise in Irish law the laws which are or may be in place in other countries. This may be legally problematic and would need to be further explored.
Another issue raised in the Bill is the blocking of non-harmful material. Section 4(5) of the Bill provides that ComReg may require a service provider to take steps which would block users from accessing non-offending material. This issue arises because the "notice and take down" system proposed in the Bill would apply to services and websites as a whole, rather than the offending content itself. Under this proposal a website which hosts a large volume of legitimate material of a social or business nature may be made unavailable to Irish users on the basis that it hosts or has hosted offending content. In creating a new law in this area, the Oireachtas will have to balance the fundamental rights of all members of society, including the right to freedom of expression, which is protected by the Constitution and the European Court of Human Rights. It will be important to ensure this section would not have any unintended consequences and end up restricting legitimate free speech.
If the Bill were to provide for users to make a complaint to the service provider in the first instance and, if they were not happy with the response of the service provider, to then make a complaint to the regulator, it could be a way to ensure complaints about "harmful materials" are dealt with quickly and the offending content removed rather than entire services. This would also be in line with global best practice and the European Union liability framework for online platforms set out in the eCommerce directive.
Online safety is for all but especially for children. It is a priority of the Government. It is one we are pursuing through the Action Plan for Online Safety 2018-19 and at a European level - for example, through the upcoming implementation of the audiovisual media services directive. As I said, the Government will not oppose the passage of the Senator's Bill on Second Stage. Given the similarities between the intention of this Bill and that of the Digital Safety Commissioner Bill 2017, it might be useful for the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment to consider the issues identified in the Bill.
I note the Minister of State has a closing statement also. He can only speak once. Is he happy with his contribution?
That is it.
Perfect. I call Senator Freeman to conclude.
I thank the Minister of State and welcome his comments and concerns. I truly want to work really hard with him on this, on making the amendments and changes required, and I do understand there is a lot of work involved. The problem I have is that things are quite slow in the Oireachtas. Senator Lombard made the point that his seven year old probably knows more about the Internet than he does. A number of Senators made similar points. I would not say "probably"; I would say "absolutely". A startling fact I did not mention earlier is that 3% of children up to the age of two years have a smartphone, so this must be done very quickly. I do not mean we should rush it such that we make a bags of it. I am saying we should work on it very quickly together in order that we can pass it through the Seanad and then on to the Dáil. When I talk about the speed required, what I am saying is that every day, every month, every year, children get to know things far more quickly and have far more access than we can ever imagine. One Senator spoke about parental control, which sounds absolutely reasonable. As we heard from Senator Lombard, however, most parents have no idea what their children are looking at. There is a cartoon I am sure the Minister of State has heard of called "Peppa Pig". I have heard of it recently because I have four grandchildren. There are videos online of a bad Peppa Pig who kills not only his family but also her three best friends. We are exposing children to the utmost horrors that neither the Minister of State nor I would ever have dreamt of.
I thank the Minister of State again for not opposing the Bill on Second Stage. I thank the Senators who are wonderfully supportive of the Bill. Again, I know we have a lot of work to do. I thank in particular Senators Ó Céidigh, Boyhan and McDowell for putting their names to the Bill. I would very much like if the Minister of State and I could meet his team in January to look at all the areas of the Bill he mentioned as needing to be amended and added to. Let us not drag this out. Let us really work hard on it. God knows how long the Government will last, but let us be able to look back and say that at least we tried to do something very positive for children. We must do something now.