105. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality the details of the measures her Department is taking to combat online grooming, cyber blackmailing, cyberbullying and other forms of online abuse directed at children or carried out by children on other children; the details of data on the prevalence of reported cases of these activities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16942/17]
Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): As the Deputy will be aware, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 was enacted on the 22
nd of February 2017. The Act contains provisions which strengthen existing criminal law in combatting child exploitation and, in particular, address the use of modern communication technologies as a tool which may lead to child sexual exploitation.
Section 8 of the Act creates two offences. The first criminalises persons who contact children either online or through mobile communications such as text messaging for the purpose of sexually exploiting the child. This offence is targeted at the initial stages of grooming and does not require physical contact or meeting between the adult and child in question. The offence does not necessarily require that the communication contain a sexual advance or include sexual material as these are not generally features of sophisticated grooming. This offence carries a penalty of up to 14 years’ imprisonment.
Section 8 also includes an offence of sending sexually explicit material to a child. This offence protects children from unwarranted and unwanted advances. There is also recognition that the intention behind this type of activity may be to expose the child to such material with a view to developing the child’s familiarity with such material or activity. The penalty for this offence is up to 5 years’ imprisonment.
In relation to the broader area of safety online which would include children as well as adults, the Law Reform Commission published its Report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety in September 2016. While noting the positive benefits to society of the interconnected digital world in which we live, the report also noted the emerging trend to engage in online communications that cause significant harm to others.
In December 2016, the Government gave its approval for the drafting of a General Scheme of a Bill which would provide for new and amended criminal offences along the lines set out in that report. It is intended that this Bill will address the criminal law aspects of the Law Reform Commission’s report. The Commission has proposed extending some existing offences and creating some new criminal offences specific to digital communications. The precise formulation of the offences will be subject to review and potential variation during the drafting of the General Scheme.
While it is not feasible to regulate or monitor the internet in anticipation of all possible incidents such as cyberbullying, if a member of the public becomes aware of activity on the internet which they suspect may be illegal, they can report it confidentially to Hotline.ie which is operated by the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland with oversight by the Office for Internet Safety (OIS) in my Department. Hotline.ie provides the public with the means to report illegal online content, such as child sexual abuse material and liaises with an Garda Síochána, as appropriate, to have illegal content taken down.
An Garda Síochána has an arrangement in place with a large internet service provider to block access to child sexual abuse content in accordance with a list they provide. Among the aims of this initiative is to reduce inadvertent viewing by members of the public, including children, of this illegal material. An Garda Síochána also has a Schools Programme where personal safety issues, including online safety, are highlighted and discussed with children and young people in schools.
In order to assist the public to stay safe on the internet, the OIS in my Department has a series of booklets aimed at parents. The booklets provide information on various aspects of internet safety including filtering, using social networking sites and cyberbullying. The booklet on cyberbullying gives information on such matters as prevention and key advice for children, young people and parents including advice for parents who suspect that their own child may be a cyberbully. These information resources are made available free of charge on the OIS website and also in hard copy on request. The website also contains a wide range of information and links to further resources on internet safety.
With regard to the request for information on the prevalence of reported cases of these activities, I have asked the Garda Authorities for this information and I will furnish it to the Deputy as soon as it is available to me.