CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
OPENING STATEMENT FOR MINISTER FLANAGAN AT THE OIREACHTAS COMMITTEE ON CHILDREN AND YOUTH AFFAIRS
ON 21 FEBRUARY 2018
CYBERSECURITY FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE
Chairman, Members, thank you for the invitation to discuss the topic of Cybersecurity and safety for children and young people. I am aware that the Committee has had input from a variety of actors in this area including justice sector representatives and our partner bodies.
My Department deals with the criminal and legal aspects of internet safety. We have strong laws to protect children and last year, we introduced new offences to target child exploitation.
The key criminal justice acts in this area are the Child Trafficking and Pornography Acts 1998 to 2004. The existing law was amended by the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 to enable a number of new offences to be added; to combat the exploitation of children and, in particular, to address the use of modern communication technologies as a tool which may lead to child exploitation.
Separately, Heads of a Bill are currently being prepared in my Department to address specific criminal legislative recommendations that were set out in the Law Reform Commission's 2016 Report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety. The Commission has proposed extending some existing offences and creating some new criminal offences.
My Department is responsible for legislating and, of course, An Garda Síochána is responsible for ensuring the law is upheld. As part of the Garda Modernisation and Renewal Programme, there is a significant focus on emerging threats, one of which is online child sexual exploitation. An Garda Síochána is responding to this challenge in a variety of ways including through the Online Child Exploitation Unit (ONCE) at the Garda National Protection Services Bureau (GNPSB). Within the child protection unit at the GNPSB, a new unit, staffed by specialist personnel, has been created which is tasked with the identification of online victims of exploitation.
I know that last October, Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll and his colleagues had a lengthy discussion with the Committee on these issues. Subsequently, in recent weeks, we have seen some of the successes of Operation Ketch which targets those possessing and distributing child exploitation material. In early February, Operation Ketch led to searches of homes across the State (12 counties; 31 homes) and the seizure of computers, phones, laptops and other equipment with tens of thousands of image of child pornography. During this phase of the investigation, searches were carried out under warrant pursuant to the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act, 1998 across a number of Garda Divisions. The searches were carried out by newly established Divisional Protection Service Units and local Detective Units.
Alongside these criminal justice aspects, my Department, in common with a number of other Departments, has a role in promoting internet safety. The Office for Internet Safety in my Department coordinates the EU Safer Internet Programme for Ireland and channels EU funding to four partner bodies who in turn provide relevant internet safety awareness raising, helpline and takedown services. That office oversees the work of Hotline.ie and the Garda blocking initiative in the context of an EU Directive on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography. It has also developed internet safety awareness material by working with its advisory body. I know that many of you will have received copies of those information booklets in recent months.
My colleague, Minister Naughten, also has a role in this area, and together with Ministers Zappone and Bruton, we are working to ensure that the various initiatives in Government are as impactful as possible. Part of this work involves an Open Policy Debate which is scheduled to take place on 8 March 2018.
The key objective of the Open Policy Debate will be to raise awareness of cross-departmental actions already taking place to deal with harmful online content and to identify any possible gaps in the Government’s approach and steps to address them. The emphasis in the Open Policy Debate will be on children and young people. Arising from that event, it is anticipated that a whole of Government approach to this issue can be formulated and advanced.
Chairman, Members, you will have noted from the wide range of contributions that have been made to you that the issue of cybersecurity for all and, in particular, for children and young people is a difficult one in the fast moving and vast arena that is modern communications. I know that I and my colleagues are anxious to make progress and I feel that I speak for us all in thanking the Committee for its work and looking forward to its report on this matter.