Internet Filtering in Ireland: More Information from the Seanad

Following on from our freedom of information request, Senator Paschal Donohue recently raised the issue of internet filtering in the Seanad. In a perceptive intervention he pointed to business risks of filtering and sought to establish precisely what is the current policy in this area. The Government response is very interesting – confirming for example that all Irish mobile broadband providers are already filtering (presumably against the IWF blacklist) and that the the Department of Communications has been frozen out of the discussion. Full text:

Senator Paschal Donohoe: I thank the Minister for taking this Adjournment matter. It relates to Government thinking on dealing with the issue of illegal file sharing across the Internet. There was some publicity about that in recent weeks in regard to a freedom of information request to the Government through an organisation called Digital Rights Ireland. It was looking to establish Government policy on how it would work with Internet service providers in Ireland to stop files being shared illegally across the Internet.

In raising this issue on the Adjournment I seek to do three things, the first of which is to establish Government policy and thinking on the area because until now I have been unable to get a read on the most recent thinking in terms of the way this area will be dealt with. How we respond to this is becoming increasingly important because there have been a number of High Court rulings in this area to which the Government will have to respond and deliver a policy that will deal with this area.

Second, I have an interest in Irish companies that work on the Internet. These are legitimate large Irish companies that would work in digital media, digital gaming, digital art, animation and so on which depend on the Internet to deliver a legitimate business that is a symbol of the smart economy we are all committed to delivering. Some of those companies have flagged a number of issues in terms of where they see Government policy going that could seriously affect their ability to operate successfully out of Ireland.

Two points have been made to me, the first of which is the need to recognise and emphasise that not all file sharing across the Internet is illegal. Much of the file sharing is important for digital games, on-line enterprises and marketing activity to work. It is completely legal and the kind of enterprise and activity our country is trying to promote as being a hub for Europe and the world.

The second point is a more technical one that I am trying to understand further but it is worth putting on the record. It appears that many of the protocols and technologies that would be involved in illegal file sharing are also the ones used to run legal file sharing and the approach the Government might decide to take may be unable to recognise the difference.

That leads me to the third point I want to make. As this issue was raised with me and I talked to some experts in the area, the message I got back from large employers here, who are strategic to what we are looking to do with our smart economy is that a policy that did not consult them could threaten the jobs and expertise we are building up in areas like cloud computing, digital media and attracting companies like Facebook, which has its European headquarters in Dublin, Google, Bling and so on which depend on many of these technologies for their business and operations in Ireland.

This issue is now being dealt with across Europe and the world and it is being treated much more seriously than was the case in the past. While I am presenting this as a threat to our country because inevitably we respond to bad news we hear and raise them in these Houses, the important flip side is that as other countries make a decision about the way they will respond to this issue, there is the possibility they will use a blunt instrument to deal with it.

I urge the Minister, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of Communications, Energy and the Marine to consult broadly with the businesses and stakeholders in Ireland to ensure we come up with a policy that deals comprehensively and seriously with the issue of illegal file sharing, which includes everything from the sharing of songs illegally to child pornography, which is a very serious issue, but in a way that recognises that a great deal of commercial activity we are trying to attract uses the same technology. We have already had much success in that regard.

If we were to do engage in a consultation process, we could formulate a policy that might be more nuanced and effective than those of many other competitive countries which are looking to get the same technologies. That would add to our ability to grow these industries domestically through indigenous talent and would also be another string in our bow in terms of attracting such companies to our country, which we all want. Our country has had a great deal of success in this area up to now.

I realise the Minister of State will reply on behalf of another Department. I understand the reason for that but this is a serious issue and if we all engage in it, it might ward off danger and present an opportunity to us as well. I look forward to the Minister of State’s response and hope to have an opportunity to pursue this issue in the Seanad.

Minister of State at the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Skills, Enterprise, Trade and Innovation and Justice and Law Reform (Deputy John Moloney): I thank Senator Paschal Donohoe for raising this important matter on the Adjournment. I want to advise Senator Donohoe that the Office for Internet Safety, OIS, is an executive office within the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which the Senator has acknowledged, and has responsibility for promoting Internet safety, with a particular focus on combating child abuse imagery, more commonly known as child pornography. The office is advised by an Internet Safety Advisory Council comprised of key stakeholders in the statutory, industry and community sectors.

The Internet is a worldwide phenomenon with no borders and no single organisation controlling it. Efforts to combat illegal and harmful materials and activities on it can be hampered by the multiplicity of jurisdictions, differing legal systems and societal norms. Tackling Internet downside issues is a complex business and continues to set new challenges and commitments for all those charged with protecting against the downside of the Internet.

In a number of EU member states — the United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands — a system of Internet blocking-filtering has been introduced on a voluntary basis whereby a so-called blocklist of sites containing illegal child pornography is made available by the police or other competent authorities and is utilised by individual Internet service providers to prevent access to such content. Germany and France have introduced or are considering the introduction of legislation requiring ISPs to block access to websites containing child pornography.

It is generally acknowledged that all such Internet blocking or filtering systems are not foolproof and can be circumvented in certain circumstances. However, such filtering systems are understood to be useful in preventing Internet users from inadvertently encountering such illegal content. All mobile phone operators in Ireland, under a voluntary agreement brokered by the European Commission with GSM Alliance Europe, an association which represents European mobile phone operators, implement a form of filtering on their mobile Internet services which prevents access to websites identified as containing illegal child pornography. There is an existing self-regulatory framework for Internet service providers in operation in Ireland that actively encourages the adoption of best practice procedures aimed at limiting the proliferation of illegal child pornography content on-line. Members of the public may report such material to the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland service. If the material is hosted here and deemed to be illegal and in contravention of Irish law, ISPAI members are obliged to remove such material. If the material is hosted in another jurisdiction, it is notified to the Internet hotline in that jurisdiction and the relevant law enforcement agencies for follow-up, with the aim of having illegal content taken down.

So far as the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is aware, standard Internet service providers in Ireland do not implement any blocking or filtering system in respect of child pornography. The Office of Internet Safety, because of its stated role in the promotion of Internet safety and, in particular, combating child pornography, has a role in examining such issues with advice from the Internet Safety Advisory Council. In undertaking research to develop policy advice in this area the Office of Internet Safety has had discussions with a variety of relevant interests on issues pertinent to the consideration of the possibility or feasibility of introducing Internet filtering in Ireland, specifically in respect of illegal child pornography content. These ongoing discussions were referred to in recent press reports. However, no decisions have been arrived at on the issue of Internet filtering or blocking at national level. Any proposals for the introduction of such a system would, at the very least, need to be submitted to the Government for consideration. The introduction of any such system, particularly if it is mandatory, might require primary legislation. Notwithstanding this, a draft proposal for a directive on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography has been published recently by the European Commission which could potentially require member states to implement some form of blocking system for websites containing child pornography. This proposal will be discussed in the European Parliament and at the Council of Ministers. Ireland’s participation in the adoption and implementation of this measure will be subject to Government and Oireachtas approval.

Senator Paschal Donohoe: Everyone is supportive of any measure that can be taken to deal with the evil of child pornography and its distribution on the Internet. The consequences of a course of action that could be taken may be more far-reaching and profound than is understood. The response of the Minister of State concerns the discussions taking place — referred to in the first part of my submission — but does not take account of the second part — the effect such a measure could have on interests in Ireland. There are options to deal with the dissemination of child pornography and violent material on the Internet that would have a more benign effect on elements we are legitimately trying to attract to the country. That the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is not mentioned in the response is telling. That Department is at the forefront in attracting legitimate businesses to the country.

I again thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter.