Wednesday, 30th January 2013
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to take this Adjournment matter. In February last the Independent group tabled a Private Members’ motion in the Seanad seeking to block child abuse material on the Internet, at which time the Minister for Justice and Equality gave a clear commitment that the matter would be fully considered in the context of the proposed Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill.
I note from the Government’s legislative programme for the spring session of 2013 that while publication of the Bill is expected in 2013 it is listed in section C, along with 12 other justice and equality Bills, as a Bill in respect of which the Heads have yet to be approved by the Government. I am concerned the matter is not receiving the urgency I would like. Furthermore, the impending transposition deadline of the 18 December 2013 for the relevant EU directive on the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and child pornography adds greater urgency to this debate.
The Minister of State will be aware of a number of recent cases which highlighted the alarming and disturbing volume of child abuse material circulating within this jurisdiction. One such Irish case pertains to a recent criminal prosecution for child pornography involving 135,555 images and videos showing severe child sex abuse in Ireland, including bondage, cruelty and bestiality. A child abuse image is a crime scene. It is a digital record of sexual abuse being perpetrated against a child. Directive 2011/92/EU of the European Parliament and Council of 13 December 2011 combatting the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and child pornography and replacing the Council framework decision needs to be in place in Ireland by December 2013. I refer the Minister of State to Article 25 of that directive. Among the wide-ranging provisions in relation to criminal offences and sanctions in the area of sexual abuse and exploitation of children, the directive requires all EU member states to take the necessary measures to ensure the prompt removal of any web pages containing or disseminating child abuse material hosted on servers within their jurisdiction.
With appropriate safeguards, the directive also permits member states to take measures to block access to Internet users within their territories of web pages containing or disseminating child abuse material hosted on servers outside their jurisdictions. While Ireland has arrangements in place to secure the removal of child abuse material on domestic servers and to report materials found outside the jurisdiction via the INHOPE network, Ireland has not sanctioned a system that would allow the same material hosted overseas to be blocked where its removal proves difficult or takes an unreasonable length of time.
I put it to the Minister of State that, in transposing this EU directive, we have the opportunity to legislate for the blocking of child abuse material, bringing us into line with a number of our European partners – Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Malta, the UK and France, which has just passed legislation but does not yet have its provisions in place. We need legislation and a victim identification database. We must underpin existing measures to ensure the removal of material. We must direct Irish Internet service providers to put in place a blocking system where removal proves difficult or is likely to take an unreasonable length of time.
I am conscious of my time. The Minister for Justice and Equality’s record on child protection is exemplary. While he was in opposition, I had the pleasure to work with him on many issues in my role in an NGO. However, the Internet service providers are lobbying strongly not to impose blocks. Having considered the matter, I believe that we should block. My purpose in raising this matter today is to give it urgency and to ensure that we block.
Minister Kathleen Lynch: The Senator worked closely with the current Minister and I am glad that she recognises his commitment and that he is not someone who is easily swayed, regardless of the lobby group involved.
On the Minister’s behalf, I thank the Senator for raising this most important and sensitive matter. He recalls a useful debate in the House almost one year ago when the Senator last raised this topic. She seeks an update on the progress being made in transposing Directive 2011/92/EU.
I have only a limited time available to me, but the Minister wanted to address an impression that may be conveyed by the opening lines of the motion. They suggest there is a large quantity of child abuse material in circulation. Of course, any quantity is too much, but the suggestion of large quantities is at variance with recent reports from Hotline.ie. Its most recent annual report for 2011 indicated that the level of validated reports of illegal content remained modest, which the Minister understands continues to be the case.
We can be thankful that increased vigilance and surveillance have meant that the circulation of child abuse imagery has become less overtly visible on the Internet, although I am never sure about whether this is actually good. There is less likelihood of the inadvertent viewing of such material by the general public. It is well known that there are levels of circulation of such material that are not amenable to surveillance, but those involved are subject to regular targeting by crime prevention agencies, including the Garda.
Turning to the directive, the deadline for transposition is 18 December. The Minister’s Department has been conducting a review of the law on sexual offences generally. This includes an examination of the measures required to implement a number of international legal instruments, one of those being the EU directive. This work is close to completion and the Minister expects to bring a draft general scheme to the Government shortly for approval to have the necessary legislation drafted. The Senator will appreciate that, until the proposals are considered by the Government, the Minister is constrained in what he can say concerning their precise content. However, they will constitute wide-ranging legislation to implement the recommendations of two Oireachtas committees, facilitate full compliance with the criminal law provisions of relevant EU, UN and Council of Europe instruments, reform the Sex Offenders Act 2001 and enhance the protection of children against sexual exploitation, including child pornography.
Regarding the specific issue of blocking of websites containing child pornography in accordance with Article 25, paragraph (2) of the directive, the Minister can inform the House that his officials are engaged in discussions with the Garda and representatives of the Internet service providers on this matter. These are the key players in implementing any arrangement to give effect to that paragraph. The Minister knows that they are fully committed to doing whatever is required to prevent the Internet from being used for the viewing and distribution of child pornography. However, there is still some way to go in the current discussions and he is not in a position at this time to say definitively what measures can be put in place or their form.
As the Minister stated when the Seanad last debated this issue, the Internet is a global phenomenon, with no single organisation controlling it. International co-operation is vital in combating illegal activities, particularly in view of the rapid rate of technological innovation. The Minister is pleased that Ireland is one of 48 countries that signed the global alliance against child sexual abuse online, which was launched in December 2012. This is a joint EU and US initiative and aims to reduce as much as possible the availability of child pornography online. This is an example of how the international community can marshal its resources to defeat this heinous business.
I look forward to hearing from the Senators and will be paying close attention on behalf of the Minister to the opinions expressed. It has always been my opinion that it is only with international co-operation that one can do anything about these issues. We have the benefit of being a member state of the EU and we should use our membership to its fullest extent.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout: Next week will see the tenth annual safer Internet day. The Minister of State questioned the reference in my opening lines to a large quantity in circulation, but just one case—–
Minister Kathleen Lynch: It would be too much.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout: —–involved 135,555 images and videos. How many children in Ireland are we talking about? Please, let us not quibble over figures. Since Hotline.ie does not advertise, the public do not know that they can report cases. The countries that block can report how many hits per day those sites receive. I would accept this measure. Time and again, Internet service providers argue that it should be down to the country of source. In that case, why not review our drugs policy? Let us go to the country of source. Let us not put up any customs control. This does not make sense. We block drugs coming into the country. Why do we not block child abuse material? The same logic applies. We are discussing children’s lives.
I am happy to work on this issue and I realise the Minister’s commitment, but I also realise that there is a strong lobby. I want an equally strong lobby on this side to argue that blocking is the answer.
Minister Kathleen Lynch: I will be brief. There is no disagreement on this issue. Even if some disagree, they would not have the courage to argue in public. We need to do something as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, we must go through a process. The Minister is as committed to this matter as the Senator.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout: I have no doubt of that.