As the Deputy will be aware, many forms of online content and behaviours, including cyberbullying, can be harmful but they 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. The Government’s Action Plan for Online Safety 2018 - 2019 has outlined plans to provide resources and to facilitate positive actions being taken to combat online safety issues including cyberbullying.
In relation to harassment laws specifically, the Law Reform Commission published a report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety in 2016 which recommended a number of legislative changes to deal more effectively with the negative aspects of increased use of online communications. Many of the recommendations outlined in this report have been provided for in the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017, a Private Member’s Bill sponsored by Deputy Brendan Howlin. The main provisions of the Bill as published include extending the existing offence of harassment and the introduction of new offences to deal with the distribution of intimate images. The Bill also provides for a new offence in relation to sending indecent of obscene messages using any form of online or traditional method of communications.
The Bill completed second stage in the Dáil in January 2018 and was not opposed by Government. I obtained Cabinet approval to support Deputy Howlin’s Bill to ensure that legislation in this area can be enacted as swiftly as possible. Following the agreement by Cabinet to support and amend the Bill, officials in my Department engaged in extensive consultations with the sponsor of the Bill and the Office of the Attorney General to prepare draft amendments. The amendments will ensure consistency in the provisions of the Bill. They will also 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.
These amendments were approved by Government on the 1 May 2019 and have now been sent to the Office of Parliamentary Counsel to be formally drafted. They will be introduced at Committee Stage in the Dáil at the earliest possible opportunity.