Cyberbullying could soon become a criminal offence in Ireland

11 Jul 2013

Cyberbullying and indeed any form of harassment using technology needs to be included in legislation and made a criminal offence in Ireland, according to a recommendation by the Irish Government’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection Dr Geoffrey Shannon.

The recommendation follows the loss of young lives to suicide this past year, allegedly due to bullying on social networking sites, as well as the loss of a senior Government minister.

Shannon pointed out that there have been few convictions so far for the use of technology to harass, bully, or intimidate people. This is despite cases where perpetrators would bombard victims with hundreds of emails and SMS messages.

In many cases perpetrators would receive suspended sentences and fines.

He said that despite social networking’s growth being described as an “epidemic” and acknowledgement that bullying via social networks has been a factor in victims’ deaths, the time is now to make cyberbullying a criminal offence.

In his report, Shannon pointed out that the Post Office Amendment Act 1951 has been significantly amended since it was enacted to include harassment by telephone. The Communications Regulation (Amendment) Act 2007 was also updated to include provisions on indecent or menacing SMS messaging.

However, the Minister for State at the time rejected an amendment extending the section to include cyberbullying.

Shannon points out that Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997, prohibits the harassment of a person “by any means” by “persistently following, watching, pestering, besetting or communicating with him or her.”

Few criminal prosecutions for cyberbullying in Ireland

“On review of reported cases of harassment involving social networking, email and SMS, there appear to be very few criminal prosecutions taken of this type of  harassment under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997, despite the suitability of that Act. When cyberbullying is being described as an epidemic, we need to examine why this is the case. Specifically, is there reticence to investigate complaints of cyberbullying?

“Responding to calls for new criminal legislation to tackle cyberbullying, the Minister for Justice identified our existing laws against harassment as being suitable.

“However, the minister has directed the Law Reform Commission to examine difficulties in prosecuting for cyberbullying and, in particular, the necessity to show persistence in the harassment.

“Existing laws regarding harassment can be used to incorporate cyberbullying incidents. A review of the Post Office (Amendment) Acts should be undertaken with a view to incorporating emerging means of cyberbullying,” Shannon’s report pointed out.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years