Labour Bill to tackle online harassment

31 January 2018

Labour Party legislation to tackle online harassment, stalking, cyber-bullying and so-called ‘revenge porn’ will be debated during Private Members’ time in the Dáil this afternoon.

The Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 seeks to modernise existing harassment laws to cover modern technology and social media, and follows recommendations in the Law Reform Commission’s report on Harmful Communications and Digital Strategy.

Speaking ahead of the debate, Labour leader Brendan Howlin, commented:

“The advent of technology means we’re now living in a very different communications climate, and Ireland’s harassment current laws don’t reflect that.

“Our Bill seeks to bring existing regulation up to date by broadening the legal definition of communication, so it covers all electronic, written and spoken word, including for example, an iMessage, Whatsapp or Facebook message, and a tweet or social media post.

“It seeks to protect against online harassment by covering against the persistent communication about someone as well as directly to that person, which is often the case when it comes to cyber-bullying.

“Women are also too often the targets of online abuse, and Labour’s Bill moves to protect against so-called ‘revenge porn’ by creating a new offence of distributing an intimate image without consent. This has proven effective in countries like the UK where such legislation already exists, with the British Crown Prosecution Service reporting more than 200 convictions across 2015/16.

“Importantly, the Bill makes it clear that it is not to be interpreted as altering the law so as to prohibit or unduly restrict the exercise of the rights of peaceable assembly or peaceful picketing, or any other constitutional right.

“Free speech should remain just that. But harassment, stalking, and aggravated online bullying are not expressions of freedom – they are attacks on it.”

ENDS

Notes to editors:

The Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 can be found here:

https://www.oireachtas.ie/documents/bills28/bills/2017/6317/b6317d.pdf

Key features of the Bill:

1.     Communications

The Bill adopts the broadest possible definition to mean the communication of information by any means, including –

  • communication by spoken words, other audible means, behaviour, writing, sign or visible representation, and
  • the communication of information that is generated, processed, transmitted, received, recorded, stored or displayed by electronic means or in electronic form.

2.     Harassment

The offence of harassment is currently found in the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997. The new version provides that a person who, intentionally or recklessly and without lawful authority or reasonable excuse –

  • persistently follows, watches, pesters or besets another person, or
  • persistently communicates with another person, or
  • persistently communicates with a third person about another person, is guilty of harassment if those acts seriously interfere with the peace and privacy of the victim or cause alarm, distress or harm to the victim.

The punishment is a Class A fine or imprisonment for 12 months or, on conviction on indictment, to a fine or 7 years.

3.     Stalking

If the defendant’s acts both seriously interfered with the victim’s peace and privacy and caused the victim alarm, distress or harm, the court may take that into account as an aggravating factor.

If the defendant and the victim were in an intimate relationship and, in the course of or for the purposes of committing the offence –

  • the defendant made use of personal information about the victim, or
  • the defendant made use of an electronic device or software in order to monitor, observe, listen to or make a recording of the victim or his or her movements, activities and communications, without the victim’s knowledge and consent, the court may take that fact into account as an aggravating factor.

4.     Intimate images

The Bill creates a new of offence of distributing an intimate image without consent – what is commonly referred to as revenge porn.

A person who without lawful authority or reasonable excuse –

  • takes, distributes or publishes, or threatens to do so, an intimate image of another person without consent, and
  • by his or her acts seriously interferes with the peace and privacy of the other person or causes alarm, distress or harm, is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a Class A fine or to imprisonment for 6 months or both.

5.     Prohibited messages

The Bill provides that a person who –

  • with intent to cause alarm, distress or harm, or recklessly, or
  • persistently, distributes or publishes a threatening, false, indecent or obscene message to or about another person is guilty of an offence.

The offence is punishable on summary conviction by a Class A fine or imprisonment for 12 months or both and, on conviction on indictment by an unlimited fine or imprisonment for 7 years, or both.

This replaces section 13 of the Post Office (Amendment) Act 1951.

Additional notes:

Children

The Bill states that criminal proceedings against someone under the age of 17 may not be taken except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Privacy of victims

The Bill provides for the protection of the identity of victims, broadly modelled on reporting restrictions in the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981.

Restraint orders

The Bill provides for civil restraint orders. The Circuit Court may order that a person shall not, for a specified period, communicate with or about a named person, or approach the place of residence or employment of a named person.

This is based on the comparable powers in the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997.

Saver for constitutional rights

The Bill makes it clear that it is not to be interpreted as altering the law so as to prohibit or unduly restrict the exercise of the rights of peaceable assembly or peaceful picketing, or any other constitutional right.

 

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