The issue is likely to be discussed by the Cabinet next week as it addresses a Dáil motion on online harassment.
As revealed by the Irish Examiner, Communications Minister Denis Naughten intends to set up the office following a shocking case of a Dublin man who exploited young girls online. The Independent minister will speak with Australia’s eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant by phone next week, to prepare plans for the watchdog and online safety steps.
Speaking to RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke show, he said: “We can put a co-ordinating office in place and yes the legislation will have to be put in place as well. I think we can take steps far quicker than has been envisaged.”
Despite Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying last month that he did not agree with the idea of a digital safety commissioner, the minister and colleagues are intent on setting up the new agency.
Mr Naughten said the Law Reform had made recommendations for the new office based on the Australian model and he wanted to explore this to “hit the ground running”.
He said companies needed to step up to the plate and come companies, such as Google had. Mr Naughten favours a parental supervision platform used by the search engine which restricts children’s access online. But the new agency mus also go ahead, he insists: “I would like to see this be put on a statutory basis but I don’t think we need to wait for legislation to be enacted to make progress in this area.”
The new agency could force networks to take down abusive material, publish a code of practice on digital safety and turn to the courts if necessary. An open digital safety forum on March 8 at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham will involve gardaí, Interpol, NGOs, state bodies and parents groups and will help set the foundations for the new office.
It has also emerged the matter will likely be discussed by Cabinet next week, after Labour leader Brendan Howlin said his party would move a private Dail motion about online harassment.
Meanwhile, child protection agencies have welcomed the process to set up the new digital safety commission.
The ISPCC said the office would play a major role role across education and awareness and monitoring areas of law reform. Mr Naughten was to be commended on making the decision, it said.
“The appointment of a Digital Safety Commissioner is a key part of the action required to keep children safe online, and the other measures needed include law reform, education measures and enhanced regulation of industry,” said ISPCC CEO Grainia Long.
CARI CEO Mary Flaherty also said “CARI has been highlighting the risks associated with digital media in Annual Reports since 2013, CARI had, in the preceding two years received an alarmingly high rate of phone calls regarding grooming and inappropriate attacks on children and young teens using Apps and the internet. We identified amongst the thousands of Apps those particularly designed for children, Facebook, Instagram, Kik and Snapchat.”
On Monday, child predator Matthew Horan, aged 26, from Dublin, pleaded guilty to 11 counts of sexually exploiting a child and possessing child pornography. The court heard he targeted at least 15 children in Ireland and abroad online. He will be sentenced today.