Combating cyberbullying in the interests of society

Wed, Jul 2, 2014, 01:01

The internet has had a major positive impact on nearly all aspects of social and economic life. Four fifths of Irish households have internet access. Every day over half the population go online, using social media, sending emails, and accessing online banking, shopping and other services. As it continues to develop and evolve, benefits and risks to users have increased. The digital sector’s importance to the Irish economy cannot be underestimated. As a recent Internet Content Advisory Group (ICAG) report notes: the digital sector contributes 4.4 per cent to Ireland’s GDP and supports 95,000 jobs directly and indirectly.

That, however, is not to underestimate or minimise some of the online world’s darker sides: notably, the challenge that cybercrime and cyberbullying presents. The latter is one of the issues the ICAG addressed in its report and recommendations to the Government on the governance of internet content. In particular, how best to protect adults and children from online bullying and abuse, whether the offensive content is sent by text message or by online communication.

The Government has agreed to legislate, and to make such bullying behaviour a criminal offence. Ministers have also expressed their concern about incidents of cyberbullying of candidates in the recent elections. Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte described it as the “selective targeting of some candidates for a level of abuse and intimidation and harassment that is simply not acceptable in a democratic society”. But before new laws are passed, one might first question whether existing laws in this area have been fully tried, and found wanting. Cyberbullying will not be defeated by merely creating a new legal deterrent.

Success will require internet service providers and social network companies themselves to play their part, and to assume a more vigilant role in protecting users from bullying and abuse. Otherwise, the great empowering platform that is the internet, with its tremendous engagement opportunities, will be diminished.