Online and text message bullying to be criminalised

Advisory group’s report says web safety and digital skills should be taught in schools

 

Abuse sent via text message and through online communications, such as Tweets or Facebook messages, will become a criminal offence, under measures announced by the Government today.

A report on the governance of internet content containing 30 specific recommendations was discussed by the Cabinet, and Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte said the proposals will be implemented in the coming months.

Separately, Mr Rabbitte said he and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald will be examining incidents of candidates being targeted for cyber-bullying during the recent local election campaign.

“I’m not talking about casual commentary by someone who is angry about a particular measure or something that was done by happenstance,” Mr Rabbitte said, adding it was the “selective targeting of some candidates for a level of abuse and intimidation and harassment that is simply not acceptable in a democratic society”.

There were instances in the campaign of candidates and activists being followed, harassed and filmed while canvassing, with the video being posted online.

The report of the Internet Content Advisory Group, chaired by Dr Brian O’Neill of Dublin Institute of Technology, said internet safety and digital skills should be taught in primary or secondary schools.

It also said parents should be given training to “make them aware of the risks of cyberbullying among other topics” and that the Social, Personal and Health Education curricula in primary and secondary schools need to be updated to “promote a positive, safer and more effective use of technology by children”.

Mr Rabbitte said the change to regulations to make abuse via text messages and other internet communications is not a “major matter but it is a sensible matter we ought to do”.

“It is a clarificatory statement rather than a major change. But I am committed to it and we should do it.”

The report also says there should be a review of the current discovery and disclosure rules in court to bring procedures “in line with societal and technologic norms”.

Labour Party senator Lorraine Higgins said she welcomed the suggestion “that examples of online harassment, such as Facebook posts could be used as evidence”.

When asked if internet service providers would take up the changes suggested in the report, Mr Rabbitte said the Government tends to “approach this on a collaborative basis with the industry”.

“The industry does not have a vested interest in abuse and misuse of the technology any more than we do.”

On the issue of examining instances of cyber bullying of election candidates, Mr Rabbitte said a number of his Cabinet colleagues “expressed the view that I or the Minister for Justice should take such steps as are open to us to see if we can identify the source (of videos, etc) but what some candidates put up with is not part of the democratic process”.

“It would be foolish of me to say that I can put my finger on precisely the source. Colleagues have views on that but I don’t think views are good enough.

“I would like to think some of it can be tracked and traced, whether it can or not I don’t know. Obviously it would be great if it could.”