Biggest threat to online child safety comes from new apps – Denis Naughten

‘Big tech’ is developing software to crack down on hate speech online and can be used to support child safety, says Minister

Minister for Communications,  Denis Naughten: ‘The people who want to exploit children will use every loophole possible.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Minister for Communications, Denis Naughten: ‘The people who want to exploit children will use every loophole possible.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

The Minister for Communications Denis Naughten has suggested the “big players” in the technology industry are not the problem when it comes to online safety for children.

Mr Naughten said the biggest risk to children comes from new apps which are being developed as evidenced by recent court cases.

In January, it was reported that Matthew Horan, who was jailed for nine-and-a-half years after blackmailing young girls into sending him sexually graphic photos and videos, had used apps such as Instagram, Kik and Snapchat to send and receive child pornography.

Speaking before the Government’s open policy debate on online safety at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin, Mr Naughten said “big tech” is developing software which is cracking down on hate speech online and can be used to support child safety.

“The tools that are being developed by the big players are now being made available freely to the new app developers,” he added.

“We also need to develop those tools in relation to child protection so it is not a case of bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted.”

Mr Naughten was asked if the Government had a hands-off approach to the big tech companies given the number of employees that companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have in Ireland.

He responded: “The big players are well able to fight their own corner here in Ireland and across Europe. We need to look at where the real challenges are. The real challenges are in the new apps that are being developed. The people who want to exploit children will use every loophole possible.”

He also said the forum would not be a “talking shop” and would inform Government policy on online safety for children.

Speaking at the launch of the open forum, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said every child in Ireland is now a “digital native” and Government could only do so much.

“Any initiative that treats young people as passive actors simply won’t work in my view,” he said.

Mr Varadkar distinguished between criminal content such as grooming online and non-criminal behaviour such as cyberbullying. He said strategies are needed for both.

“Our responses have to be nuanced to take account of these differences and our responses also have to be realistic,” he said.

He said Irish society needs to ask itself what the best approach is and that it must include a mixture of law enforcement and education for parents and children.

“We have to be honest with ourselves. Government action alone will not work.”

Mr Varadkar also suggested that the big tech companies have a role in promoting online safety too. He said if they were not seen to do the right thing they would forfeit the trust of the public.

“In the long run these companies can only survive and thrive and be popular if they are part of the solution to online safety,” he said.

Representatives from Google and Facebook were among those attending the forum. Facebook head of public policy Niamh Sweeney said it was a myth to suggest that “big tech” companies such as hers owned people’s data.

“You are the only person who owns your data. That is a point that is lost . . . every time. We do not sell your data,” she said.

Ms Sweeney said Facebook has built one of the “world’s most sophisticated reporting infrastructures” which will stop people loading incriminating photographs.

The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children chief executive Grainia Long said the online safety was “the child protection issue of our time”.

She said there was a widespread belief that the problem was so all-pervasive as to be insoluble, but she did not believe that to be the case.

However, she said the Garda Síochána was under-resourced in dealing with issues of online safety for children and she feared that the proposed office of a Digital Safety Commissioner would be similarly under-resourced.