Wednesday 18 September 2019

Ronan Lupton: 'Education must begin at home, and censorship isn't the answer'


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Ronan Lupton

The tragic circumstances of Ana Kriegel's murder raise very serious questions about the effect that access to pornographic content online has over those exposed to it, how that access was obtained, and what the wider implications for society will be.

Within hours of verdicts in the Kriegel case, panic set in. Calls were made in the Dáil to introduce legislation blocking access to pornographic content similar to reforms deployed in the UK. Labour leader Brendan Howlin asked that the Government commits to seeking a report from the UK on whether its system is having the desired effect.

Meanwhile, our nearest neighbours announced the suspension of legislative and regulatory provisions concerning internet content and age verification on various grounds. Most notably on the basis that age verification and indeed blocking might well be unworkable. Anecdotally, the very same legislation fully excluded social media platforms, arguably the most accessible adult and viral content hurt lockers, from its reach. Proof that yet another important policy issue had descended into shambles.

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There is nothing new about calls for censorship and regulation here. It usually takes some tragic event or viral content to bring them to the fore again. Censorship calls are usually coupled with commentary from the worried, seeking to outright ban mobile devices, iPads in schools, and general internet access for children. Alas, we do not live in a walled garden. Such bans are incompatible with school curriculums and progressive online education policies. Even when bans and blocks are imposed, there are alternative means to gain access to content.

Introducing censorship without compromising the constitutional right to freedom of expression is akin to mixing oil with water. Censorship of lawful adult content has been aptly described as a privacy time-bomb. There is a role for legislative intervention and a digital safety czar, acting as a one-stop-shop for civil content complaints. However, education and standard setting must begin in the home, extend to the school, and eventually become societal norms. The Government's efforts to bring forward the Online Safety Act are a firm step in the right direction and will be effective if all stakeholders play their part in an even-handed manner.

The legal maxim that hard cases make bad law seems to apply. Expediting censorship laws that may for the most part be ineffective would be a regressive step and one best avoided.

Ronan Lupton is a practicing barrister specialising in media, privacy and data protection law.

Irish Independent

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