Online harassment highlights ‘need to train more gardaí’

Government has ‘failed to properly resource’ Garda, expert to tell justice committee

Fiona Ryan and Jonathan Mathis were the subject of online abuse after the couple appeared in an ad campaign for supermarket chain Lidl. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Fiona Ryan and Jonathan Mathis were the subject of online abuse after the couple appeared in an ad campaign for supermarket chain Lidl. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

The Government has failed to properly resource An Garda Síochána to deal with online crimes and must train more gardaí in how to investigate online harassment, the Oireachtas justice committee will be told on Wednesday.

The committee is examining the issue of online harassment and will be told that an investigation should have been launched into the online abuse which was levelled at a mixed-race Co Meath couple who appeared in an ad campaign for supermarket chain Lidl.

Fiona Ryan (33), her fiancé Jonathan Mathis (32) and their 22-month-old son featured in a television and billboard campaign for Lidl. The billboard ad featuring their photograph began appearing in early September.

They made the decision to leave Ireland after being subjected to abuse online and receiving a death threat.

Chair of Digital Rights Ireland TJ McIntyre will tell the committee that the issue of online harassment has been “in the public eye and on the legislative agenda, in one form or another, since 2012”.

Civil matter

In his opening statement, he says the case of the Ryan family has illustrated issues with the resourcing of gardaí. “Ms Ryan reported abuse she received on Twitter to the Garda but was told it was a civil matter.

“However, that abuse should have prompted an investigation into whether individual users were guilty of harassment, and later posts against the Ryan family should also have been investigated as threats to kill or cause serious harm.

“This case highlights the continued need for greater training for gardaí throughout the country in how to handle cases of online harassment.

“As long as this level of under-resourcing continues it is hard to see how any significant number of cases of online harassment can be pursued, creating the risk that any expansion of the criminal law in this area will go unenforced.”

Mr McIntyre is expected to tell TDs that it is “disappointing” that the Government has “failed to properly resource An Garda Síochána to deal with this area and failed to reform the law on access to internet data”.

Legislation designed to protect children online was announced by the Government in May. Minister for Communications Richard Bruton said he would introduce an Online Safety Act which would force internet and social media companies to regulate the content they facilitate.

Mr Bruton intends to empower an online safety commissioner with authority to order internet companies to remove content.

Mary Aitken, an honorary professor in the department of law and criminology at the University of East London, is also expected to tell the committee that exposing Irish children to a range of online harms is a “fundamental breach of their constitutional rights”.

“I passed an Eason’s store on the way here. I didn’t see any glossy magazines on the lower shelves promoting self-harm, DIY suicide or anorexia, freely available to children beside comics. It is a repugnant idea of course. But this is the reality of the internet.”

She says that “while adults debate, posture and play ‘pass the blame parcel’, the social technology industry keeps thriving, money keeps flowing and the online harm continues.”