The State’s legal advisory body said such abuses can have “substantial” effects on people and have been linked to “serious psychological harm and even, in extreme cases, to suicide”.
The Law Reform Commission said the digital industry here should be legally obliged to comply with a statutory code of conduct in terms of taking down offensive material from the internet.
In a major report, it proposes a digital safety commissioner which will police this code — and have recourse to court enforcement orders if its directions are not complied with.
The commission said that given so many internet corporations have headquarters in Ireland, their legislation, if enacted, would have a “huge influence” on social media worldwide.
“Digital communication have the capacity to be instant, numerous, reach large even global audiences, be permanently available and are frequently anonymous in nature,” said the report.
“Harassment by digital or online means can also have an inescapable quality as the victim can be targeted anytime and anywhere because of the ubiquity of internet-connected devices such as smartphones.”
It states: “Thus, the potential for harassment by digital or online means to cause substantial harm is significant and it has been linked to serious psychological harm and even in extreme cases to suicide.”
The report and accompanying draft bill, spanning 237 pages, recommends two new offences:
- Intentional victim-shaming, involving the posting of intimate images without consent (known as “revenge porn”) — punishable by up to seven years in prison;
- Posting intimate photos or videos, often called ‘upskirting’ or ‘down-blousing’, which causes harm — punishable by up to six months in prison.
Ray Byrne, a commissioner with the LRC, said the first new offence involved the “intention” to cause harm, which he described as a “very serious” offence and therefore could be prosecuted on indictment in the Circuit Court.
He said the second offence may not involve such an intent, but did result in harm to the person, usually a woman, and was a summary matter for the District Court.
The report, entitled ‘Harmful Communications and Digital Safety’, also proposes three amendments to existing laws:
- Expanding the definition of harassment to specifically include online activity, such as posting fake social media profiles;
- Making stalking a specific offence, describing it as an aggravated form of harassment;
- Expanding the existing offence of sending threatening or intimidating messages to include online methods.
“There are two major pillars to this: one criminal offences for the most serious things and the second is promoting good and safe behaviour under civil law,” said Mr Byrne.
He said they consulted with a wide range of groups, including the internet companies, and favoured the setting up of a statutory system of national standards, supervised by the digital safety commissioner.
Mr Byrne said the current industry voluntary system was “not good enough”. He said a statutory system operated in Australia, where he said it appeared to work well.
All companies will have to comply with the code, which includes a time-lined process of taking down imagery. If a company failed, the DSC can seek an enforcement order and, if that is not complied with, the company would be in contempt of court.
Mr Byrne said it was up to the Government and the Oireachtas to implement the draft bill.
He noted that Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald had mentioned at the weekend the need to combat revenge porn.