State to appoint digital safety officer to protect children against online predators

Communications Minister Denis Naughten confirmed he is to press ahead with plans for the online watchdog following the public outcry after the case of child predator Matthew Horan (pictured) made national headlines this week.

The 26-year-old Dubliner used popular apps such as Snapchat and Instagram to groom girls as young as nine to send him sexual photographs of themselves.

On Monday, Horan 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 tomorrow.

The decision by Mr Naughten to appoint a digital commissioner comes after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently flip-flopped on the issue, saying tech companies should instead step up to the plate to root out cyberbullying and online predators.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Mr Naughten said: “It is something I am very concerned about, I am not going to comment on any individual case. But as a parent of young children, I am very conscious of this issue. We need to progress and move this issue on.”

Mr Naughten will speak with Australia’s eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant later this week about online safety concerns and also spoke about the same with Google vice president Nicklas Berild Lundblad in Dublin last week.

He said an open digital safety forum on March 8 at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham involving gardaí, Interpol, NGOs, state bodies and parents groups will also help set the foundations for the new office.

“That will be the baseline for that [the new office]. It is important now that we look how we can get a formalised structure in place.

“In fairness to the industry, they are doing this globally in relation to cybercrime, hate speech, that really needs to be replicated, not just at a global level, but at an international level in relation to child protection.

“I have been progressing this in my own department and other departments. We are having this forum and I am engaging with counterparts, in Australia and elsewhere, to see how we can move this forward.

“I want to move this forward in a structured manner, but I want to do it in a timely manner as well and I would like to see significant progress made this year on it.”

The new watchdog could force networks to take down abusive material, publish a code of practice on digital safety, and turn to the courts if necessary. Mr Naughten says foundations for the new role will be laid down this year.

“There may not be a legislative process in place, but I think we can do a lot of this and put a lot of the supports in place without having to go down in the short term the primary legislative route.

“I am currently consulting with advocacy groups, industry and my ministerial colleagues on the steps needed to create such an office in Ireland.”

Mr Naughten outlined how he and his family use a parental supervised Google platform so his young children can safely surf the web.

The minister favours this model as safety tool rather than one suggested this week by junior minister Jim Daly where social media sites would police users by linking their accounts to their public services card.

The Google mechanism is one that definitely needs to be explored where you actually have the parents authorising the children online.

“You have to remember that there hasn’t been a tool for children to go online. All of my children are under 13 years of age. They now use Google as a tool for education, they use it in relation to school, we were on Google on Monday night, doing their homework with them and over the weekend.

“We have to acknowledge that that is happening on a day-to-day basis in families around the country.”

The option allows a parent to create and manage a Google account for a child, where children can access restricted searches, Gmail and other services.

These parental supervisions should be installed in all apps, said Mr Naughten, adding: “I think this is an opportunity now to see can we exploit that particular vehicle as a mechanism right across other aspects of the internet as well.”