Online safety is ‘child protection issue of our time’, warns head of ISPCC

Bruton seeks urgent advice from Attorney General on digital safety commissioner Bill

Children feel fear and isolation when  something they do online goes horribly wrong, says chief executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, John Church. Photograph: Getty Images

Children feel fear and isolation when something they do online goes horribly wrong, says chief executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, John Church. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Minister for Communications Richard Bruton has sought “urgent” legal advice from the Attorney General on a range of issues raised by a Bill proposing the creation of a new digital safety commissioner.

The private members’ Bill sponsored by Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire was again the subject of detailed scrutiny by the Oireachtas Communications Committee on Tuesday. Officials from the department, as well as representatives of Google and Facebook, and child protection organisations all made submissions.

Mr Ó Laoghaire said there was “no doubt but that safety online has become one of the most significant challenges facing Irish society and is arguably one of the most significant child protection issues of our times”.

He said parents, in particular, were concerned about what was happening, especially when it came to predatory, harmful material and online bullying.

Mr Ó Laoghaire said the issue required a policy response and an educational response, but also strong regulation and the establishment of a statutory office “with real powers and teeth”.

The primary functions of the commissioner would include the promotion of digital safety, the implementation of measures to improve digital safety, including oversight and regulation, and a timely and efficient procedure for the removal of harmful communications, Mr Ó Laoghaire said.

Chief executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), John Church, told the committee that online safety was “the child protection issue of our day”.

Mr Church said the organisation supported the creation of a digital safety commissioner and he welcomed Mr Bruton’s comments to the committee last month that it was time to move beyond self-regulation online.

There were “stark examples” recently of where self-regulation was failing, Mr Church said.

Highlighting one case the ISPCC had encountered, Mr Church said a teenage girl had contacted it via webchat to say she had sent nude pictures to her boyfriend and that when they broke up he had sent them to his friends.

“And now her friends and people in school are talking about her and calling her vile names. She feels really embarrassed, stupid and ashamed. She feels really hurt and betrayed by her ex-boyfriend. She didn’t think he would do such a thing. She feels scared her parents will find out. She said she is so upset she wants to kill herself,” Mr Church said.

“This example illustrates the fear and isolation children feel when they do something online [that] goes horribly wrong and they perceive the situation as out of their control to manage.”

Fiona Jennings, policy co-ordinator of the ISPCC, said it would be a good starting point for the committee to look at creating a definition of “harmful communications”, as outlined in the draft legislation.

“We would encourage the committee to create a definition that is not overly broad and that is workable,” Ms Jennings said.

Assistant secretary of the Department of Communications, Patricia Cronin, told the committee the Minister was of the view that if the Oireachtas was to pass a law in this area, “It must ensure that it is robust, effective and proportionate and properly meets the public policy objective to protect children online”.

Ms Cronin said the Minister had asked the Attorney General for urgent advice on a range of legal issues which the draft legislation presented.

Representatives of Facebook and Google also told the committee there should be a clear definition of what constituted “harmful communications”.

Head of public policy at Facebook Ireland, Niamh Sweeney, said Facebook understood the motivation behind the establishment of a digital safety commissioner, particularly the appeal of having an independent statutory body that was authorised to adjudicate where there was a dispute between a platform and an affected user.

But it was only through a “multi-pronged” approach, which also included education, that the issues would be addressed.