Cyber-psychologist: Government breaching children's rights as tech companies allowed to 'monetise harm'

Irish governments are breaching the constitutional rights of children by failing to introduce, and implement, laws to protect them from online harms, a leading cyber-psychologist has said.

Cyber-psychologist: Government breaching children's rights as tech companies allowed to 'monetise harm'

Irish governments are breaching the constitutional rights of children by failing to introduce, and implement, laws to protect them from online harms, a leading cyber-psychologist has said.

Dr Mary Aiken, an academic advisor both here and abroad, told the Oireachtas Justice Committee that social technology companies profit by promoting “extreme content” aimed at children.

She said recommendations made three years ago by the Law Reform Commission, the official State legal advisory body, had gone unimplemented and that, in the meantime, “thousands of more children” had been needlessly exposed to “repugnant, toxic and life-damaging material”.

Speaking at the third session of the justice committee's hearings on online harmful communication, Dr Aiken said that this “must stop” and said legislators “need to act urgently”.

Dr Aiken, attached to the University of East London, said the Constitution recognised the rights of all children and obliged the State, as far as practicable, “by its laws protect and vindicate those rights”.

She said: “Exposing Irish children to a range of online harms is a fundamental breach of their constitutional rights.”

Dr Aiken has advised various agencies, including Europol, the EU police agency, and governments, including the UK authorities.

She said that no countries have, as of yet, established a regulatory framework for online harms, but that Britain “will be the first”.

She said: “Unfortunately, Ireland, an important hub for technology companies should be demonstrating cyber leadership, but has made little or no progress to date despite numerous investigations and reports.”

Dr Aiken said unfettered technology had exploited the vulnerabilities of children:

Monetising harm by designing intelligent algorithms to promote extreme content, and harvest dollars from a child in the ‘attention economy’ is not about celebrating access; it is about exploitation.

She accused the internet companies of denying any responsibility.

“While adults debate, posture and play ‘pass the blame parcel’, the social technology industry keeps thriving, money keeps flowing, and the online harm continues.”

Dr Aiken said Britain was acting because it was facing a “tsunami” of problem behaviour stemming on online harms and claimed that mental health services in Ireland were also being “overwhelmed” by the impact on children.

She said “feral behaviour” currently operated in the cyber world, where there were “no consequences” and that the “only way to modify behaviour” was to put laws in place.

She said the behaviour needed to be seen on a “continuum” and that lesser offences needed to be tackled before they “escalated” to more serious ones.

Sinn Féin deputy Martin Kenny put it to her that the internet providers seem to “step back” from behaviour on their platforms as if they were “bystanders”.

Dr Aiken said social technology companies needed to be held accountable, saying they have been “allowed define themselves” and that Facebook even called itself a “movement”.

She said legal difficulties should not prevent action being taken and that, like with all social issues, and that the problem could not just be looked at from a legal point of view.

Responding to suggestions of waiting for an EU response, with proposals supposed to be coming down the tracks, she said Ireland should act now.

“The government has been aware and has failed to act. Harm is being done while we sit and wait,” she said.

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