Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Ceisteanna (54)

Tom Neville


54. Deputy Tom Neville asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the status of the implementation of the action plan for online safety; the progress made to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21484/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Communications)

I wish to ask the Minister of State about the status of the implementation of the action plan for online safety; the progress made to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

The action plan for online safety was published in July 2018 and was drawn up following engagement with a wide range of stakeholders, including online safety experts, Government agencies, NGOs, parents, young people and industry. The plan recognises the opportunities and benefits provided by the Internet but also the importance of co-ordinated action and wide engagement in dealing with online risks and harms. The plan contains 25 targeted actions which are assigned to six key Government Departments, including the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

Implementation of the action plan is co-ordinated by a sponsor's group, chaired by the Department of Education and Skills. The first progress report on the implementation of the action plan was published on 5 February 2019 to coincide with Safer Internet day. That report outlines progress in the first six months of its implementation, from July to December 2018. During this period, 22 of the actions targeted for completion were achieved. A further progress report is being prepared by the Department of Education and Skills for the period January to June 2019. In terms of the Department, key actions assigned by the action plan are the establishment of the National Advisory Council for Online Safety, which I chair, and the regulation of harmful online content.

In early March, we announced that Government would address harmful content through the development of new legislation, an online safety and media regulation Bill, which will also transpose the revised audio visual media services directive. A public consultation on these proposals was concluded last month. This Bill will establish, for the first time, a clear expectation for online platforms to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of their users, especially children, and provide for regulatory oversight by a robustly empowered online safety commissioner with significant enforcement powers. It shall also provide a mechanism on appeal to the only safety commissioner to require the take-down of harmful material.

We want to thank those who contributed to the consultation, including NGOs, industry players, experts and members of the public, and to note that these contributions will be published in the coming weeks. We are currently examining the issues raised and suggestions made to inform the development of this new legislation.

I thank the Minister of State for his answer, which I welcome. I look forward to seeing what updates there are in regard to the consultation and what has been put forward. I sit on the Committee on Children and Youth Affairs which, in examining these issues last year, spoke to various young people. What came across from that was the importance of education, which is something I myself champion. It is not only education in regard to the technologies, what they can provide and the content they can put out, it is also looking at the nuances of communication. By that, I mean online communication as opposed to visible, verbal communication in that something written online can be interpreted in a very different way when compared to the same thing being communicated face-to-face, given there is no body language, no tone of voice and so on, which means things can often be misinterpreted.

Second, when inappropriate behaviour happens online, in particular cyberbullying, which affects the mental health side, we have to educate people and give them the tools and equipment to be able to deal with that and to understand the nuances behind it. They need to understand that this is a snapshot in time and although the emotion has been put there, people and situations move on from that. Anxiety can often be driven by that and I believe we need to focus on the education side of communication as online matures.

I agree with the Deputy that education for young children and parents on how to deal with all of that is very important. As part of my role in chairing the national advisory council, we have brought in experts and stakeholders to explain what is going on at the moment. There is a rise in the incidence of people reporting to the different organisations and this is something we need to deal with as a matter of urgency. Education is certainly important but, as the Minister has said a number of times, self-regulation is finished with; it is out the door and we cannot have that anymore. We need proper regulation and proper control. It is something many people have to engage with, including the industry, and education plays a very important role in that.

I welcome the response from the Minister of State. As I said, education will give the tools. For example, the 300 hours we are providing in secondary schools give people the tools to be able to deal with and cope with the challenges that are being thrown at them and means they are able to manage their emotions around that. As I said, this is just a snapshot in time. We need also to look at why people carry out this behaviour online and what are the drivers of that. This online behaviour can often be misinterpreted but we have to get behind this, as a culture, and there has to be a culture shift. We are dealing with this because it is new. It is a maturing environment and we are trying to alter the culture for our young people as they grow up. In the same way people have to conduct themselves socially and act in a socially acceptable way when face-to-face or on the telephone, there must be a socially acceptable way of conducting oneself online. I believe that really needs to be pushed as well.

I agree with the Deputy. The other big problem with online safety is that this is not just confined to our country but applies right across the world, and it is a question of how we deal with the area of regulation internationally. I believe we need to start in our own country, have the regulation and have the online safety commissioner, so we show we are intent on protecting our young people who are most vulnerable.

In my role, I find everybody is engaging. We are starting a survey with children, parents and educators as to what is going on with the use of the Internet, how people deal with something which is not totally right and whether parents are aware of what is going on. All of this is to bring people more into focus with regard to what can be going on. Parents have a role to play as well as educators.

Question No. 55 replied to with Written Answers.