Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Questions (21)

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

21. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she has taken to enact the recommendations of the Internet content governance advisory group, ICGAG; the additional steps that will be taken to ensure the safety of children online; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25899/18]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Children)

The ICGAG was established in 2013 by the then Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. The purpose was to assess existing provisions for safer and better Internet strategies. The report of the group included a number of recommendations which have application across various Departments. The Deputy will appreciate that I do not have lead ministerial policy responsibility for Internet safety. In the circumstances, I do not propose to comment on the individual recommendations in the report. However, I have significant responsibilities, as part of the cross-Government approach, in respect of ensuring that the Internet is a safer place for children.

In this regard, the Children First Act 2015 places statutory obligations on organisations providing relevant services to children, including the preparation of a child safeguarding statement. My Department will be amending the Children First guidelines to include a specific reference to online safety in the preparation of the statement before the end of the second quarter of 2019. It is also important to ensure that the voices of children and young people are heard and acted upon when we make decisions on Internet safety. In this context, my Department undertakes and supports a wide range of consultation and participation processes with children and young people through Dáil na nÓg and Comhairle na nÓg. My Department also provides funding to three national youth organisations which provide online safety resources for the youth sector. They are: the National Youth Council of Ireland; SpunOut.ie, Ireland's youth information website; and Youth Work Ireland.

Parents have a crucial role in ensuring that children are safe online. Providing information and services to parents is part of the role of my Department, particularly through the Child and Family Agency and community and voluntary sector organisations. This will be a key focus for the Department in the coming years. I will be outlining steps in that regard in the early years strategy.

In terms of Government action, the Department of the Taoiseach is currently developing an action plan on online safety. This will take into account the recent report of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, which we will discuss later, as well as the concerns highlighted in the report we are currently discussing. I am fully committed to playing my part in a co-ordinated cross-Government approach to dealing with the issue.

Has the Minister made specific recommendations in respect of this plan. Does she envisage implementing any of the key recommendations that it will contain? I am acutely aware that numerous Departments other than hers are involved in the protection of children online. However, I request that she, as an Independent Minister in Cabinet, use her voice in the context of the proposed digital safety commissioner. The appointment of a digital safety commissioner is long overdue. It is five years since the report was produced and a great deal has changed in that period. Despite the work of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, the good work that has been done regarding cybersecurity and the advent of the general data protection regulation, GDPR, I am not sure whether parents are aware that the digital age of consent has increased to 16. In that context, there are children as young as eight on Snapchat. Is the Department going to roll out any measures to ensure parents are aware that the age of consent is now 16 or has it considered that?

The Deputy raises a couple of issues in the context of my Ministry and my Department and also regarding my role as an Independent Minister. Given that we discussed these issues at the committee, she knows I am open to the idea of appointing a digital safety commissioner. If that is what we ultimately decide is the best way to move forward, then let us do it.

In terms of the action plan that has been compiled and is being readied for publication in the Department of the Taoiseach, there are some actions in it that it has been decided to implement initially to see if they prove sufficient in terms of the way in which we are currently operating but also to bring matters one step further. If some of those actions do not work, I know there would be an openness to moving forward. For example, it may be the case that, in the context of the action plan, we could establish a new national advisory council on online safety in order to provide a forum for expert stakeholder input and advice for Government and to create a single online access point on government.ie as the authoritative source on information and online safety. As the Deputy points out in the context of my role, I have identified a number of ways in which the Department is supporting that work with parents and children.

My difficulty is that a largely self-regulated industry is in control at this time. The Government is not in control; it is the providers, such as Snapchat and Facebook, which are in control. Regrettably, when hateful speech is put up or when bullying is taking place online, there is no way to deal with it and it has to go through a process whereby the industry judges whether the relevant material should be taken down. Due to the fact that we do not have a regulator in place to ensure that the entire industry is working to the same rules and regulations, we are letting down our young people at this time.

The appointment of a digital safety commissioner is long overdue. The Minister plays a huge role in her independent capacity within Cabinet. She is in an influential position to influence the Taoiseach, who has been found wanting in this regard. I know that the respective Ministers, Deputies Zappone and Naughten, are committed to this. I plead with the Minister, Deputy Zappone, for the sake of the children of the country, to push Government forward to regulate this sphere.

Does the Deputy think the establishment of a digital safety commission would act as a magic wand?

No, I certainly do not.

Exactly. Who knows? Perhaps that is what we need. As stated, I am open to that and I am persuaded by some of the arguments the Deputy is putting forward. At the same time, although the Deputy does not have sight of it, there is an action plan that is coming out shortly in regard to a number of other measures that are going to be put in place in light of what is already going on. Are we completely, utterly and wildly out of control in the context of what is going on with children online? I do not think so. That said, there are still many issues parents and children are worried about and about which the Deputy and I, as public representatives, are concerned. This is a very big challenge; of that there is no question. However, an increasing number of actions will be implemented in order to try to bring this under control, apart from what we are already doing.