State and internet firms join to fight online abuse and incitement

Co-ordinator Maura Conway. Photo: Collins

Alan O'Keeffe

Online offences concerning cyber-bullying and sexual exploitation of children must be countered by governments working in partnership with internet service providers, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said yesterday.

"This partnership will be crucial to our efforts to create a safer online environment," said the minister.

"It is our young people and the most vulnerable in societies that are most susceptible to those preaching hatred and violent radicalisation," she said.

The minister spoke about the problem of hatred and extreme views on social media in an address to a Dublin City University conference on violent online political extremism.

The university is a member of a the VOX-Pol network of nine colleges worldwide involved in a five-year partnership to research and examine online extremism.

The conference was organised by VOX-Pol co-ordinator Dr Maura Conway.

The minister said later the Law Reform Commission was examining ways of tackling cyber-crime, which will result in new laws.

Asked about threats made against people on social media, she said while free speech must be defended, "threats to people's lives have to be taken seriously, threats to rape have to be taken seriously".

"We need robust laws in relation to online abuse, which will be developed in Ireland. Our laws have to be updated continually to deal with crime online. We've a lot more to do with voluntary co-operation with internet companies," said the minister.

Those companies have been willing to respond "where there are real dangers and where there is a real threat".

"But there are obviously grey areas and that's where we run into difficulties," she said.

"But in terms of harassment of children online and child exploitation, the new Sexual Offences Bill deals with that very thoroughly... That provides protection for children being groomed online because we have a lot of children being groomed online," she said.

In terms of violent Islamic extremism, she said Irish residents were "not immune" from radicalisation and some end up becoming fighters abroad.

"Clearly, we have less numbers than many countries. The gardaí and security to ensure that any further crimes can be prevented.

"I believe integration policy is important (as well as) reaching out to minority communities," Ms Fitzgerald said.

In her address to the VOX-Pol conference, the minister said it was "undeniable" the internet had a role in "radicalising individuals to violence".

"Extremism is no longer an abstract problem that happens somewhere else. It's here," she said.

She also referred to "extreme xenophobia or nationalistic tendency" violent individuals, citing killings that included the murder of British MP Jo Cox last week.

Greater sharing of intelligence was needed, while not necessarily impinging on privacy and free expression, the minister said.