I appreciate the deeply harmful effects which cyberbullying can have on persons who experience that or other harmful online behaviours. These experiences can be devastating for those concerned.
In that context, I welcome the successful conviction last week in the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court of a man for a sustained campaign of harassment conducted against a number of female journalists and writers. It is important to see successful use of the criminal law in such cases, as I am conscious of the potential for a chilling effect in relation to these matters, including in particular for women and female candidates for election.
A whole-of-government response is appropriate to addressing these complex issues. As the Deputy may be aware, the Government’s Action Plan for Online Safety 2018 - 2019 identifies a range of positive actions to address online safety issues, including cyber-bullying. There is a general consensus that the appropriate response to addressing such online issues is one that encompasses educational and awareness raising campaigns, as well as effective actions and policies on the part of internet companies.
In relation to harassment laws specifically, the Deputy may be aware that the Law Reform Commission published a report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety in 2016 which recommended a number of legislative changes in order to deal more effectively with the negative aspects of increased use of online communications.
Many of the recommendations outlined in this report were provided for in a Private Members Bill sponsored by Deputy Brendan Howlin - the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017. To ensure that legislation in this area can be enacted as swiftly as possible, I and Government as a whole agreed to adopt and amend that Bill.
Government in May of this year approved the approach to be taken in that regard, and my Department is now engaging closely with the Office of the Parliamentary Council to draft amendments to the Bill, to ensure consistency in its provisions and that the law in this area is robust and effective.
These amendments will result in a Bill which will modernise the laws in relation to sending threatening or abuse messages, introduce a distinct offence of stalking and provide for two offences to deal with non-consensual recording and distribution of intimate images. The amendments will also remove some of the civil provisions in the Bill that may be more appropriately dealt with through proposals to establish the Office of the Digital Safety Commissioner, currently being examined by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
It is my intention that these amendments will be completed and introduced at Committee Stage in the Dáil at the earliest possible opportunity.
Finally and as the Deputy will be aware, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality has been examining these issues, having invited written submissions from stakeholders and subsequently held public hearings throughout October on the issues of online harassment, harmful communications and related offences. I look forward to receiving the Committee’s report on this matter and will examine it closely as we continue to progress our legislative proposals in this field.