Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald has ordered her officials to draw up proposals, saying the nature of online communication can “magnify” the damage caused to victims. The development follows the publication last September of a reportby the Law Reform Commission.
The State’s independent legal advisory body called for a number of new criminal offences to tackle online abuse like revenge porn and cyberbullying and recommended a powerful oversight agency.
Ms Fitzgerald received Cabinet approval on December 20 to draft a general scheme of a Non-Fatal Offences (Amendment) Bill to address the matters raised in the LRC Report on Harmful Communication and Digital Safety.
“The speed and scale of modern online communication can magnify the damage done by harmful communication,” she said.
“Phenomena such as so-called revenge pornography and the publication of voyeuristic material can do serious and lasting damage at the touch of a button and it is important that we act now to ensure our laws can deal effectively with these challenges.”
Department officials said that the report identified the need for education and empowerment and a “graduated response” where criminal law was reserved for the most significant harm.
Officials said the Tánaiste would now draft a bill, in consultation with Government colleagues, that will provide for new and extended criminal offences, including:
- An extended offence of harassment;
- A specific offence of stalking;
- A new offence of revenge pornography;
- Extending the offence of sending threatening or indecent message to all online communications.
The department has noted the commission also made “significant proposals” on the regulation of social media. But it is not clear if the department will go along with the robust measures recommended by the LRC, including that of a watchdog.
The LRC report said the offences could have “significant” effects on people and had been linked to “serious psychological harm and even, in extreme cases, to suicide”.
The commission said revenge porn should be punishable by up to seven years in prison. It said the posting of voyeuristic material should be punishable by up to six months in prison.
It 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.
It proposed a digital safety commissioner, which would police the code and have recourse to a court enforcement order if its directions were not complied with.
Department officials said the LRC report had implications for the right to freedom of expression and the rights and responsibilities of social media companies.
“These aspects of the report are likely to be the subject of considerable public debate,” one department source said.
“Balancing the rights between freedom of expression and privacy will require further consideration.”
He said the sanctions would need to be “proportionate” and that education and civil law should precede any criminal measures — particularly in relation to children.