Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Ceisteanna (31)

Jim O'Callaghan


31. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his views regarding an increased role for the Irish Film Classification Office in the monitoring of the availability of pornography to children; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26867/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Justice)

The terrible murder of Ana Kriégel and the recent conviction of two boys for murder has raised many issues of concern for the public, which issues we, as policymakers, should be taking into account. One such concern is the prevalence of online pornography, which is available to young people. The purpose of this question is to elicit from the Minister whether the Government or he intend to seek to expand the role of the Irish Film Classification Office, IFCO, to assist it in monitoring the availability of online pornography to young people.

I assure the Deputy that the accessing of online pornography by children is a matter for considerable concern, even where that content is not inherently illegal. As stated by the Taoiseach in the Dáil last week, it is a matter of concern to all of us that many young people learn about sex through pornography, particularly as such material is not an accurate representation of what is healthy or appropriate behaviour. Exposure to such material at a young age is certainly inappropriate and may, at times, be harmful.

As the Deputy may be aware, the Irish Film Classification Office, IFCO, is responsible for examining and certifying all cinema films and videos-DVDs legally distributed in the State. The legislation provides that no film shall be exhibited in public unless the Director of Film Classification has certified that it is suitable and a certificate is displayed to that effect. The legislation gives the director power to prohibit a film or to impose conditions or restrictions upon its exhibition. The Deputy will be aware that the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2008 clarified for the first time that a core function of IFCO was classification of content "likely to cause harm to children". Where there is pornography contained within the material covered by the above legislation, IFCO takes a firm stand to prevent availability of such material to children by consistent application of its system of age-related classification of cinema films and videos-DVDs. However, within this legislation, there is no statutory function for IFCO relating to broadcast online or mobile material.

I thank the Minister. The Government needs to give consideration to expanding the role of IFCO. I have mentioned previously in this House that the current generation of young people are being exposed to pornography, the likes of which has not been seen previously. Young men in particular are learning about sexuality from very violent pornography online, which presents women in a very malleable and submissive way. As a State, we need to recognise that we have a responsibility to try to protect our children from the influence of online pornography. We protect our children from the dangers of tobacco and alcohol and, similarly, we should do the same in respect of online pornography.

In 2017, the United Kingdom introduced the Digital Economy Act 2017, which includes the statutory rule that providers cannot provide pornography online to people without verifying that they are over 18 years of age. In July this year, that role will be given to the British Board of Film Classification. Does the Government intend to try to expand the role of IFCO in order that it would have a responsibility to ensure that young people, that is, those under 18 years of age, are not being exposed to online pornography?

I listened carefully to what Deputy O'Callaghan had to say. I do not currently envisage a role for IFCO outside its current statutory remit. In particular, I do not envisage a role in regard to classification of online material, which I think Members will recognise as the dominant distribution model for material of a pornographic nature. The issue of online material, as all Deputies will be aware, is complex. It is an area that is constantly developing. Access by children is not solely the responsibility of any individual Minister or Department. Members will also recognise that content which is not illegal can nevertheless be harmful, especially to those people in society who may be vulnerable, and to children.

My colleague, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, is developing proposals for an online safety commission. In this regard, he has recently held a public consultation to seek the views of citizens and stakeholders as to an achievable, proportionate and effective approach to regulating harmful content, particularly online.

The Government should examine the British legislation, which expressly provides for the establishment of an age verification regulator. The responsibility of the regulator is to ensure that children are not exposed to online pornography. We need also to place more of a responsibility on the social media, large technology companies, that are making huge profits. We need to try to set up a statutory office, expanding the role of IFCO, in order that there can be an obligation on the providers of pornography to be satisfied that the people to whom they are providing it are over the age of 18 years. I am aware that when the UK was giving this responsibility to the British Board of Film Classification, there were some privacy concerns.

The issue in the UK is not about trying to identify who is watching pornography. The objective of the legislation and the new statutory position is to ensure that the person providing the pornography has verification that the person watching it is aged over 18 years. The Government is going to have to do something about this because the prevalence of violent pornography on the Internet is such that some steps be taken to ensure social media companies or the people providing it are responsible for it. We have a responsibility as an Oireachtas.

I agree with the Deputy and I assure him that my Department and I will take our responsibilities seriously in that regard, although it is an area that requires input from a number of Departments. The Deputy specifically raised the position in the UK. Last Thursday, the UK Government announced that it was postponing the age verification scheme just weeks before its planned launch. It announced a delay of six months due to an administrative oversight. It has since been reported that the government failed to notify the European Commission when laying the regulator's guidance in Parliament in late 2018, undermining the legal basis of age verification. Deputies may be aware that this is the third delay in respect of age verification in the UK. Last week, in response to a parliamentary question, the Taoiseach indicated that we would examine the UK situation. I would be most happy to do so. While Ireland may envisage difficulties, this is also a situation of some complexity in other jurisdictions. This is why I do not want to pre-empt the round of discussions and consultation currently under way, chaired by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I look forward to hearing the outcome of that consultative process in due course.