As the Deputy will be aware, the Law Reform Commission produced a report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety in September 2016. This report contained a number of recommendations to improve the criminal justice and regulatory response to harm perpetrated online. The report is essentially divided into two parts:
It proposed the appointment of a Digital Safety Commissioner to promote digital safety, to publish a statutory Code of Practice on it and to oversee efficient take-down procedures to ensure that harmful communications can be removed as quickly as possible from social media sites. The proposed legislation in relation to the appointment of a Digital Safety Commissioner is being dealt with by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
It also proposed significant reform in the area of the criminal law and it was intended that my Department would bring forward legislation to give effect to the criminal law aspects of the report. However, due to competing legislative priorities, progress was not as rapid as I had hoped. In 2017, Deputy Brendan Howlin introduced a Private Member’s Bill, the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 to the Dáil. It completed second stage in January 2018 and was not opposed by Government. Cabinet approval was recently given to discontinue work on the Government Bill and to support Deputy Howlin’s Bill to ensure that legislation can be enacted as swiftly as possible. The main provisions of the Bill as published include:
- The existing offence of sending false, threatening, indecent or obscene messages will be extended. At present, it applies to communication by telephone or sms messaging but the new offence proposed will apply to all threatening, false, indecent and obscene messages sent persistently using any form of online or traditional method of communications.
- Two new offences relating to non-consensual distribution of intimate images with/without intent to cause harm or distress (generally referred to as “revenge pornography”). Whether the person against whom the offence was committed is underage or unable to guard themselves from harm is intended to be an aggravating factor to be considered in sentencing for the offence of non-consensual distribution of an image.
- The existing offence of harassment as contained in section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997 will be extended to include all forms of communication, including through online or digital communications and will include communication to, or about a person.
- A new stalking offence.
Department officials have been working with Deputy Howlin with the intention of identifying and bringing forward any necessary Government amendments to ensure the Bill can be as robust and effective as possible.
Legislative reform is one of the actions under the Action Plan for Online Safety 2018-2019, which was launched by the Taoiseach in July last year and is currently being implemented. The Action Plan involves a wide range of actions, across six Government Departments - Departments of Communications, Climate Action and Environment; Education and Skills; Justice and Equality; Children and Youth Affairs; Health and Business Enterprise and Innovation, recognising that online safety is not the responsibility of any one Department and signifying the range and breadth of the issues involved.
In light of the ongoing work in this Department and other Departments to tackle issues relating to online safety, I currently have no plans to review Part 11 or Part 13 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 to extend anti-social behaviour orders to social media usage.