Saturday 20 April 2019

State response to online dangers for children has been pitiful

Despite the increase in cyber-bullying and internet paedophiles, the Government refuses to take on the tech giants, writes Philip Ryan

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Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Tomorrow morning children up and down the country will awaken to new laptops, tablets and smartphones. They will have nagged and pleaded for the devices for some weeks, if not months, until their parents relented.

They will have whined and moaned that all their friends in school have phones and profiles on the latest social media application du jour. Parents have read all the horror stories about online bullying and the unrealistic body image pressures which stem from social media.

They will do their best to make sure their kids are educated on the dangers of the internet and social media. They will pray to God that their loved ones are not targeted by online predators like former RTE producer Kieran Creaven, who stalk social media for vulnerable and unwitting victims. But in reality, all parents can do is hope and pray their kids are not adversely affected or targeted once they log on to the internet.

There is no responsibility on the billionaires who own hugely profitable tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They take little or no responsibility for what is published on their websites or apps. They take no responsibility when a child is bullied or targeted by a paedophile on their platforms.

The Government has enacted very few laws in the area of cyber-bullying and certainly none of the legislation published puts any responsibility on the online oligarchs who line their pockets while children are bullied and targeted by predators. Social media companies and internet providers are supposed to regulate themselves.

The Government has been aware of the dangers of the internet, especially for children, for two decades.

An unpublished Oireachtas research paper on the regulation of internet access for minors, which has been seen by the Sunday Independent, lays bare the Government's inaction on keeping children safe from the grim realities of the internet's underbelly.

The confidential report examines the Government's reaction to the rise of online threats to children and compares the Irish case to international standard bearers. It makes for an interesting read.

As far back as February 1997, it was recognised that there was an increasing amount of illegal and harmful content on the internet. The Department of Justice established a working group to examine the rise of online criminality with an emphasis on child pornography.

The group reported back the following year and found it would be "counter-productive" to regulate the internet by introducing new laws to control illegal and harmful use. Instead, the group recommended a system of "self-regulation" and a "common code of practice and common acceptable usage conditions". It also called for the establishment of a complaints hotline (hotline.ie) which is now run by an industry lobby group - Internet Service Providers' Association of Ireland (ISPAI).

It also recommended setting up a non-statutory advisory board which would help with self-regulation. The Internet Advisory Board was set-up in 2000. It was replaced seven years later by the Office for Internet Safety, which is responsible for the code of practice and ethics which is supposedly upheld by internet service providers.

It commits tech firms to ensuring their "services and promotional materials will not contain material that is illegal, misleading, likely to incite violence or cruelty, racial hatred, prejudice, discrimination; or even where the material is not illegal, but it is considered inappropriate".

It also asks that internet service providers set out "guidelines" for customers which prohibit them from using their services "to create, host, transmit material which is unlawful/libellous/abusive/offensive/vulgar/obscene/calculated to cause unreasonable offence".

Even the most casual user of the internet, especially social media, knows the above guidelines bear very little resemblance to their online experience.

The Oireachtas research paper includes a page and a half under the heading: "Government policy in relation to children's social media use." It highlights four "parents' guides" on online bullying and social media which are available on the Office of Internet Safety's website.

It also mentions an 'Action Plan on Bullying' and an anti-bullying website (tacklebullying.ie). There was also an Oireachtas Committee report on cyber-bullying from three years ago, which is has never been acted on, and a private member's bill from two years ago which has also gone nowhere.

Overall, it shows a pitiful response from our legislators.

Other countries require internet service providers to filter illegal content from their services before it can be accessed by children. In Japan, mobile phone operators are legally obliged to provide under 18 users with a child filtered service unless their parents allow them opt-out.

Communications Minister Denis Naughten has been saying Ireland needs a Digital Safety Commissioner who will have the power to fine tech giants that allow illegal or offensive content to be published on their websites or apps. The all-powerful new State body was supposed to usher in a new dawn and put manners on the social media magnates profiting from platforms that allow faceless trolls to bully innocent children.

Here's what Naughten said in February when he was highlighting the virtues of an internet regulator in the Irish Independent: "Stories and statistics all point in the one direction - keyboard bullying and harassment has to be tackled quickly and the time for the appointment of a Digital Safety Commissioner is now."

In later interviews, the minister talked about unlimited fines for social media companies for allowing "sinister" content to be published on their platforms.

Last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar poured icy cold water over the Independent minister's plans. Asked by the Sunday Independent if social media companies could do more to protect children, Mr Varadkar said: "I definitely do think the tech companies could do more in this space and one of the things we have considered as a \Government is appointing a digital safety commissioner." He added: "We have decided at the moment not to go for that but what we are asking for is for tech companies to step up to the plate and to do a bit more to protect people."

Naughten is still determined to establish a Digital Safety Commissioner but it seems the Taoiseach believes it is the tech companies' responsibility to protect users, not the Government's.

There has been a lot of tough talking from politicians when social media firms appear before committee meetings but those in power remain reluctant to move away from self-regulation. As with most government policy decisions, it will take a tragic event and public outrage to force the State into taking action and make the internet a safer place for children.

Sunday Independent

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