Monday 14 October 2019

Mary Aiken: '"Cyber mob" have decided to take law into their own hands'

Charlie Flanagan. Picture: Collins
Charlie Flanagan. Picture: Collins

Mary Aiken

In July 2000, eight-year-old Sarah Payne was murdered by child sex offender Roy Whiting.

She was abducted as she played with her brothers in a cornfield near her grandparents' home. The British public were shocked by the brutal crime.

Outrage ensued, and in August of that year at the height of a tabloid campaign aimed at 'naming and shaming' child sex offenders, Yvette Cloete, a 30-year-old South African woman working as a trainee children's doctor in Gwent, Wales, returned home to find the word 'Paedo' plastered in paint across her door.

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She was understandably upset, reported the matter to the police and subsequently decided to move house. The vigilante mob had been too ignorant to recognise the difference between a 'paedophile' and a 'paediatrician'.

This week two 14-year-old boys were convicted of murder, having lured schoolgirl Ana Kriegel to a derelict house, where she was subjected to an aggravated sexual assault and killed. Profoundly disturbing details from the trial were heavily reported in the media, including the thousands of images of pornography that were found on the phone of one of the boys, some of which depicted extreme sexual violence.

The Irish public has been appalled and shocked by this crime. There is also widespread public anger that intimate details of Ana Kriegel's life were put on display during the trial, while the two boys were afforded anonymity.

In an era of '#MeToo' where transparency now trumps legal process, the 'cyber mob' decided to take the law into their own hands, and 'out' the two young offenders.

Images were circulated on social media despite a court order preventing the 14-year-old boys being named, in keeping with a provision under the Children Act prohibiting the identification of minors accused or convicted of a criminal offence.

However, what happens in cyberspace has an impact on the real world and vice versa.

Another innocent boy was falsely identified on social media as being responsible for Ana's murder, and the family of one of the boys convicted of her murder has now been "forced into hiding" as a result of material published online.

In the wake of Ana's tragic case and the ensuing online chaos, politicians are making the usual bland statements. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan plans to hold discussions with British ministers regarding new laws introduced in the UK which will block children from having access to online pornography stating: "I am very keen to look at international best practice to be best informed."

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that in time a review would be undertaken to see whether the new UK porn law is effective, stating "we should learn from other jurisdictions". In an era when children can access pornography as easily as a cartoon, these vapid policy statements are not good enough.

I have been highlighting the problem of harmful age-inappropriate content online for over a decade. In 2017, UK police forces reported a surge in sexual assaults on minors, by minors and in 2018 Senator Joan Freeman and I introduced a Children's Digital Protection bill on this matter, which is now at its third stage in the Seanad. Other jurisdictions have laws in place regarding online harm, and meanwhile our Government is still talking about 'reviews' and 'best practice.'

No wonder we have cyber vigilantes, intent on dispensing their own form of social justice. Perhaps people are exasperated waiting for a Government that has a reputation for being 'soft on technology' to take action.

Societies have to work out where on the spectrum of total order and total disorder they position their activities - in cyberspace we are heading towards disorder.

Politicians have to work out their priorities, staying on the right side of social media in the run-up to a general election, or proactively tackling the online harms that are so clearly having a negative impact on children.

Irish Independent

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