Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Questions (8, 9, 10)

Mary Lou McDonald


8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the status of the national digital strategy being led by his Department. [16454/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin


9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the status of the national digital strategy being led by his Department. [16482/19]

View answer

Joan Burton


10. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the status of the national digital strategy being led by his Department. [21730/19]

View answer

Oral answers (16 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, together.

Ireland and the world are undergoing profound change due to the increasing power and rapid diffusion of digital technologies. All areas of our lives are being transformed as these technologies become embedded in daily life, supporting greater connectivity and more personalised products and services. Technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics are already disrupting entire industries.

Digitalisation also poses major questions as to how governments legislate, regulate and deliver public services. The Government is developing a new national digital strategy to help Ireland maximise the economic and societal benefits from digitalisation and its transformative effects. The strategy is a shared effort by the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. An interdepartmental group, which includes representatives from all Departments, is guiding the formation of the strategy. This approach reflects the broad spread of policy areas impacted by digitalisation.

The strategy is being shaped by insights from Departments and agencies, public consultation, stakeholder engagement and expert consultations with academia and industry. A public consultation to allow citizens and stakeholders to feed in and influence the development of the strategy took place at the end of last year. More than 300 responses were received. In parallel, there were extensive consultations with stakeholders and experts.

The strategy will set out Ireland's vision and ambition across thematic areas, including digital infrastructure and security, trust and well-being, effective use of digital by citizens, communities, enterprise and government, and the digital economy's impact on the labour market. Importantly, it will also position Ireland internationally and within the European Union, where we are active promoters of the digital Single Market. I anticipate that it will emphasise issues such as connectivity, cybersecurity, greater use of open data, proactive regulation, public trust in digital, improved online public services, greater understanding of digital well-being, digital skills, and the digital intensity of SMEs. As committed to in Future Jobs Ireland 2019, the target for delivery of this strategy is the second quarter of 2019.

I wish to ask about the establishment of an office of digital safety commissioner. As the Taoiseach knows, Sinn Féin introduced a Bill that reached Committee Stage in early 2018 and received strong support, including from the Chair of the communications committee, Deputy Naughton. The committee was working on definitions of "harmful communications", which was the main issue that needed to be addressed, when the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, announced his proposals, which are still vague, in March. Why will the Government not work with the Sinn Féin Bill, amend it if necessary and come to a compromise on the issue? It strikes me that this would be the best way forward. My colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, has requested a meeting with the Minister on the matter, but there has been none yet.

The Minister has not published the public consultation and has said that he will not despite having committed to doing so. He has refused to commit to a timeline any earlier than the end of this year for publishing the heads of Bills. What is all the foot dragging about and will there be some progress on this situation?

The roll-out of high-speed rural broadband is key to the national digital strategy. The Labour Party and everyone in the House wants to see high-speed rural broadband delivered as soon as possible, but the Labour Party believes that Ireland must maintain public ownership if we are to avoid the disastrous mistakes that followed the Telecom Éireann sell-off.

Last week, the Taoiseach alluded to the fact that the Government had a choice between two models - a gap funding model and a full concession model. The key difference between the two is ownership of the assets at the end of the contract term. In gap funding, the bidder would own the assets outright. If there was a concession agreement, the State would be the ultimate owner.

In July 2016, the then Minister, Deputy Naughten, stated that he was advised that, under a full concession model, the entire cost of the project would be placed on the Government's balance sheet, with serious implications for the available capital funding for other critical expenditure items such as climate change, housing and health, which he said he could not justify. In short, he implied that the gap funding model would not appear on the Government's balance sheet and that that was the reason for it being selected. According to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's memo to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, in January, however, either option would ensure that all of the assets and their cost would be classified as on-balance sheet. As such, Deputy Naughten and the entire Government made the decision on the basis of a false premise. Does the Taoiseach accept that the rationale that the then Minister publicly gave for choosing the gap funding model was mistaken?

There is no doubt that the world we live in has been transformed fundamentally by digital, social media, communication, Internet technology and so on. There are many advantages to that at many levels in our society, but it has also produced many challenges, of which online bullying is one. There is also arguably a concern about the overuse of digital technology, social media and so on.

It strikes me that as the landscape changes, the companies that are making gargantuan, astronomical and mind-boggling profits from the digital transformation should make a contribution to the society in which they function, and from which they profit, to help us to put in the infrastructure, supports and oversights needed to manage the digital revolution. These precise IT corporations - Google, Facebook, Apple and all the rest of them - pay pitiful percentages in tax. In most cases, they pay less than 1% in tax. As we know, many of them are based here. In light of the challenges for our society that are posed by the IT revolution, some of the impacts of which revolution are adverse, does the Taoiseach not think it would be fair and reasonable for these people to pay a little bit more tax? A digital tax of some kind could be used to funnel money into the infrastructure, services and supports for young people that are needed to ensure the digital revolution benefits society, rather than having an adverse impact on it.

When the Government announced last October that a revised national digital strategy would be prepared, the public was given a one-month window in which to make submissions. For the past six months, there has been near-complete radio silence in respect of that strategy. It appears to have disappeared. Will the Taoiseach tell us what is happening in respect of the strategy that was announced more than six months ago? It is was promised at that time that the public submissions would be published, but they have not yet been published. I would be interested to hear why that is the case. The national digital strategy has probably become entangled with the national broadband plan, the history of which we all know too much about. Is the national digital strategy completely entwined with the broadband plan or is it separate? What is the reason for the delay? It is important to note in the context of what Deputy Boyd Barrett has said that we are having progressively more serious problems with bullying of young people as a result of the online activities of others. The Houses of the Oireachtas will have to deal with this issue at some stage. I agree that the technology companies need to take active steps to deal with bullying. They need to fund sections within their companies to ensure there is an anti-bullying czar. They need to target online bullying actively in the same way that they actively target the receipt of money from advertisers. If they put the same effort into tackling bullying that they put into accumulating profits, I do not think we would have a problem with online bullying. The Government needs to put this issue at the forefront of its response to the national digital strategy.

The Action Plan for Online Safety, which was launched in July 2018, contains 25 targeted digital safety actions that will be delivered over 12 to 18 months. It seeks to balance the opportunities and benefits provided by the Internet with the need to ensure people are informed and supported to deal with the risks. The implementation of these actions is under way across relevant Departments and agencies. The key achievements of the action plan to date include the creation of an online safety hub; the establishment of the new National Advisory Council for Online Safety, NACOS, which is advising the Government on Internet safety policy issues; the establishment of a new cybercrime area of responsibility in the Department of Justice and Equality; the development of dedicated advice hubs for young people, parents and teachers; the provision of new digital capacity and resources for primary schools and public libraries; and the roll-out of mental health initiatives, including media campaigns and text line supports. The newly formed NACOS recently issued a progress report on its work, which included proposals for the development of practical guidance for online safety, the adoption of a proposal to conduct a phased research project on online safety during 2019 and the provision of an Irish research base to inform policymaking on further research. The members of NACOS are drawn from a range of stakeholder groups and sectors, including representatives of children's and parents' organisations and major online platforms and experts on online matters.

The Digital Safety Commissioner Bill 2017, which was introduced by Deputy Ó Laoghaire, has been referred to the relevant Oireachtas committee and is the subject of detailed scrutiny. The Bill presents a number of legal and operational issues, including the absence of a definition of the "harmful content" about which the proposed commissioner would exercise his or her takedown powers. The Action Plan for Online Safety covers a range of activities that are relevant to the proposed office of digital safety commissioner, including education and awareness raising, communicating with the public, and oversight and consultative structures. The action plan contains a commitment that the Government will engage with the issues raised by the Bill and highlight the upcoming transposition of the revised audiovisual media services directive, which requires member states to put in place oversight structures for video sharing platform services. On 4 March last, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment gave a speech in which he outlined new proposals for legislation to tackle the spread of harmful online content. He launched a six-week public consultation on the regulation of harmful content on online platforms and the implementation of the revised audiovisual media services directive to seek views on the shape that the proposed legislation should take. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, plans to bring a draft proposal to the Cabinet for the development of an online safety and media regulation Bill and a regulator, including an online safety commissioner.

As I have mentioned in the Dáil previously, the initial five models were reduced to two - the gap funding model and the concession model. The gap funding model was adopted by the Government on the advice of the then Minister, Deputy Naughten, having been assessed on a number of occasions by the Government and independently. One of the advantages of the gap funding model is that it involves a lower cost for the taxpayer. As we are all aware, some people feel that €3 billion is too much to invest in rural broadband. I do not agree with that. There are many people who feel that €3 billion is too high a cost to connect 1.1 million people to high-speed broadband. It would have cost more - upwards of €3 billion - if we had gone for the concession model. The gap funding model also involves greater risk sharing by the private sector. As people know, under this arrangement the risk for the public sector and for taxpayers is capped, but the risk for the private sector is not. Crucially, this arrangement incentivises the company to continue to upgrade the fibre and the fibre optics, which would not necessarily be the case if it were being handed over to the State at the end of 25 or 30 years. As I have said previously, the real infrastructure, the thousands of poles and ducts throughout the country, is privately owned. It went into private ownership 20 years ago when Telecom Éireann was privatised as Eircom. The only physical asset that could possibly revert to the State would be the fibre running within privately owned ducts. That fibre has to be replaced every 25 or 30 years in any event. This system is cheaper, involves greater risk sharing by the private sector and incentivises the private sector to invest in upgrading that fibre.

We are working on the assumption that all of this will fall on the Government balance sheet. This really arose on foot of EUROSTAT's decision to classify Irish Water and, more recently, some affordable housing bodies in the UK as being on the Government balance sheet. That may yet change. This is a €5 billion to €6 billion project. Less than half of the money is coming from the taxpayers of this State in subsidies.

Why did the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, believe it was off-balance sheet?

We decided, in the interests of caution and prudence, to assume it is all on the balance sheet unless EUROSTAT decides otherwise.

It just gets worse.

That is the reverse of the mistake that was made in the case of Irish Water, when it was assumed that it would be off-balance sheet, but it was not.

The former Minister said it was all off-balance sheet.

I cannot answer questions on behalf of the former Minister, unfortunately. That is the current state of play.

What about Cabinet collectivity?

It is important to point out when we are speaking about the ownership structure that there are termination clauses. If the contractor does not deliver on certain milestones, the contract can be terminated. At that point, the fibre would revert to the State. If, after 25 years, the contractor does not want to continue to provide the service, there is the option to buy. It will be possible in the future for the Government to take an equity stake in the business. That could not really be considered until after the contracts have been signed.

We pay for it and then we buy it back.

We already did that with Enet.