Pat Rabbitte: I'm not convinced that blanket internet censorship is way to go
Whether we like to talk about it or not in polite company, pornography has become an issue in need of discussion. But before we do that, we need to make a clear distinction between images of child abuse and other illegal material, and what might be described as 'normal' adult content featuring consenting adults.
The first type of material is illegal to possess, produce or distribute, and there is a strong and evolving body of legislation in place to deal with it. Moreover, An Garda Siochana, the Department of Justice, and the entire criminal justice system, through measures such as Hotline.ie and the Office of Internet Safety, have an excellent track record of rooting out those who would create, share or profit from such material.
In fact, following on from a recent EU directive, the Justice Minister is presently working on a means of transposing this to allow the blocking of illegal material online.
Legal pornography, on the other hand, is something quite different. However, we must acknowledge that there is a world of difference between an illicit teenage reading of the racier parts of a DH Lawrence novel, and the world that many children and young teenagers now inhabit, where a diverse universe of pornography exists, online and within easy reach.
The effect of this readily available explicit content, whether children happen across it by accident or by design, in changing attitudes and behaviours is not something that can be overlooked. It is entirely understandable that parents and children's rights bodies are concerned as to how to deal with this.
However, the perennial question is as to the appropriate response by the State, and I remain to be convinced that blanket censorship or a 'default on' blocker is the correct or workable response.
Even if it were possible to convince internet service providers (ISPs) of the wisdom of introducing such a measure, the question of whether the State should be encouraging service providers to filter or block content to all users, regardless of whether there are children resident, would still arise.
The recent UK example is a departure from the European norm, and may well have lessons for us in the future. However, at first glance, it has a number of difficulties associated with it.
That is not to say that there is nothing that can be done. In the first instance, the most important task is to help educate children, young people and parents as to the risks that can be found online; to support parents and teachers in explaining these issues to children; and to identify the optimal technical solution to protect children.
There are a number of measures already in place, such as the Department of Education's Webwise programme (www.webwise.ie). This is an internet safety initiative focused on raising awareness of online safety issues and good practice among students, their parents and teachers.
Similarly, technical solutions have their place. The majority of web-connected devices are sold with software already installed to allow certain content to be restricted, and there are a range of tools available online to help parents do the same.
These solutions are there, and they can help, without resorting to an over-arching solution that may well turn out to cause more problems than it resolves.
Ireland is a free, open and inclusive society. We respect individual rights of freedom of speech, of worship and of sexual orientation, but in our recent history it was not always so. We have a less than proud history of censorship, and of a quasi-authoritarian approach to the State exercising absolute authority in determining people's access to information on a wide range of issues, particularly where human sexuality was concerned.
Any move that harks at regression must be examined carefully. The means by which we regulate the internet are evolving, and much remains to be learnt. While Government will keep a close eye on what happens in the UK, for the moment, it appears that the solution for protecting children from inappropriate content online will be a multi-faceted effort by government, industry, educators and, most importantly, parents.
Against that background, I will explore with the ISPs their willingness to follow the example of their counterparts in England and whether such an approach can be made effective. Industry shares in the responsibility to take all reasonable steps to protect our children.
Pat Rabbitte is the Minister for Communications