As the Deputy will be aware, the Law Reform Commission in their 2016 report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety outlined the challenges facing society in dealing with harm perpetrated online. They made a number of recommendations to strengthen the legal and regulatory framework in relation to harmful digital communications.
As Minister for Justice and Equality, my primary responsibilities in this area relate to the development of effective criminal law responses to these issues. Any such responses must tackle behaviour that is illegal, whether online or offline. It is important to remember that many forms of harmful online content and behaviours, including cyber-bullying, are not necessarily criminal in nature. 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 online harassment, I have been working with Deputy Howlin on the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017, a Private Member's Bill that completed second stage in January 2018 and was not opposed by Government. The main provisions of the Bill as published include extending the existing offence of sending threatening or indecent messages to apply to all threatening, false, indecent and obscene messages using any form of online or traditional method of communications.
The Bill also proposes extending the existing offence of harassment as contained in section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 to include all forms of communication, including through online or digital communications to or about a person. The Bill will criminalise the distribution of intimate images without consent that causes harm, commonly known as “revenge pornography”.
I obtained cabinet approval in May 2018 to support Deputy Howlin’s Bill to ensure that legislation in this area can be enacted as swiftly as possible. Draft amendments were prepared in my Department, in consultation with the sponsor of the Bill and the Office of the Attorney General, and cabinet approval was given to the drafting of those amendments on the 1st of May 2019.
The amendments will ensure consistency in the provisions of the Bill overall. In relation to criminal offences, they will introduce a distinct offence of stalking in Ireland for the first time. They will provide for two separate image-based offences to deal with the phenomena of “upskirting” and “revenge pornography”. They will 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.
The amendments have now been sent to the Office of Parliamentary Counsel to be formally drafted before they can be introduced at Committee Stage in the Dáil. I think this legislation, in conjunction with other Governmental action under the Online Safety Action Plan will strengthen our capacity to tackle online harassment and I am committed to progressing this legislation as soon as possible.