20 February 2015

Op-Ed on Internet Safety

Local TD Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Justice & Equality, writes about her work to promote online safety and tackle cyberbullying, and outlines supports available for parents who wish to ensure safe online experiences for their children.*

The internet is giving tremendous opportunities to all of us. From a professional, educational and social point of view, it is connecting us all in ways scarcely imaginable even 20 years ago.

However, there are some dreadful horrors associated with the internet, including online child sexual abuse - increasingly an area which Garda law enforcement is having to deal with.

Governments, families and parents have to be very vigilant in making sure that we get the very best from our modern technology while protecting our society - particularly our children - from its dangers.

As a government we’re working with the tech industry to bring in forward-thinking legislation, and of course information and education is the best way for all of us as parents to help our children be safe online.

In my work as a local TD, I regularly meet parents and teachers who are wary of the pitfalls facing their children.  I can relate to their worries: As a mother of three, and a social worker by training, the protection of children has formed a central part of my life for many decades. As a politician I have always sought to promote robust and innovative legislation to protect our children, both off-and-online. In my current role as Minister for Justice and Equality I have carried forward this conviction from my previous portfolio as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

My Department takes the lead on internet safety for children through the work of the Office for Internet Safety (OIS). The OIS operates in the important area of prevention and awareness-raising including the promotion of internet safety - particularly for children - and by raising awareness among parents and teachers about the importance of safety on the internet. 

The OIS has produced a series of information booklets and other materials which are available to parents and teachers in hard copy (free of charge) and electronically on www.internetsafety.ie . This includes a booklet on cyberbullying, addresses for service providers, social networking sites, mobile phone companies and other sources of information.

Through the EU Safer Internet Programme, the OIS coordinates projects and funds four partner organisations for awareness raising:

www.webwise.ie: Provides material and programmes to ensure children, teachers and parents understand the benefits and risks of the internet.

www.hotline.ie: Allows the public to report suspected illegal content or activities found on the internet

www.childline.ie (1800 66 66 66): provides a 24/7 service where children affected by issues encountered on the Internet may turn for advice and guidance

www.npc.ie: Anti-Bullying Training for Parents

I am proud to say that Ireland is an active member of international efforts to promote and strengthen internet safety. The Irish hotline was one of the founder members of the international umbrella organisation for hotlines which is called INHOPE. Ireland is also a member of the Global Alliance against Child Sexual Abuse Online.

In November 2014 An Garda Siochána launched a new initiative for blocking child pornography on the internet. The Gardaí signed a Memorandum of Understanding with major internet provider UPC, whereby the Gardaí provide a list to UPC and the blocking is carried out in accordance with the list. 

I congratulate the Garda Commissioner for initiating this innovation in Ireland and I commend UPC for having the vision to participate in this venture. I am pleased to say that the Gardaí are working with other companies to extend the initiative. It should mean that there is less chance of a child or young person coming across illegal material on the internet by mistake.

Internet companies themselves are very conscious of these issues – just this week I held a roundtable with major players such as Facebook, Google and UPC, and I am encouraged by the steps they are taking to improve and enhance their safety features.

We cannot be vigilant enough when it comes to online bullying, and I will work closely with the Garda Siochána and all the major internet companies headquartered in our country to ensure that no stone is left unturned in creating a safer online environment for our children.

As parents, we live in a very different world to the one we grew up in. We are as likely to ask our kids “How did you get on online today?” as we are to ask them “How did you get on today?”

Technology can transform our lives for the better, so we have to make sure that it develops in such a way that our children can use it in a safe and secure manner.

(* This article was published in the Gazette newspaper on Thursday 19th February 2015)