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Seven year prison sentence for internet harassment in Dáil Labour Bill

Justice minister said Bill was ‘timely and appropriate’ but needs amending

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said he agreed about the urgency involved in dealing with the issue. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Internet harassment would carry a maximum prison sentence of seven years under legislation introduced in the Dáil on Wednesday by Labour leader Brendan Howlin.

“I believe the internet is a public space, and I believe that, as with all public spaces, our people deserve to be protected there just as they would utilising a public park or roadway,’’ said Mr Howlin.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said the Government would not oppose the Bill, adding it was “timely and appropriate’’.

However, he said a significant number of amendments would be required to get the Bill to a point where it could be safely enacted.

Mr Howlin said under the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 a person who intentionally or recklessly, and without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, engaged in harassment, would be guilty of an offence if they seriously interfered with a citizen’s peace and privacy or caused alarm, distress or harm.

The actions specified were persistently following, watching, pestering or besetting another person, he said.

The punishment would be a fine or imprisonment for 12 months or, on conviction or indictment, in the case of a more serious offence, a fine or a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

Mr Howlin said the Bill also allowed for stalking to count as an aggravating factor in sentencing.

Distributing an intimate image without consent, commonly referred to as “revenge porn’’, would also be an offence, he added.

Distributing or publishing a threatening, false, indecent or obscene message, to or about another, would be an offence too, said Mr Howlin.

“I have made it clear we believe these proposals are proportionate to the real harm caused and danger posed by people who believe they can act with such reckless disregard for the well-being of others,’’ he added.

“We firmly believe these safeguards are required.’’

Mr Flanagan said the area was complex and multifaceted and involved a number of government departments.

Work was underway to introduce a clearer policy framework and to better inform the public and the House on the structures and laws in place, he added.

He said an open policy forum on digital safety would be held in March to hear the views of stakeholders.

Mr Flanagan said he agreed about the urgency involved in dealing with the issue, having regard to apparent vacuums in the law.

Labour TD Joan Burton said the popular RTÉ television presenter Maura Derrane was “taken apart’’ on social media, and subsequently in the newspapers, because somebody felt a striped jumper was not the right thing to wear on television.

“We need to get over ourselves a bit and not be so hurtful to other people in a thoughtless way,’’ she added.

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