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New laws proposed to protect children from online threats

By Deboreah McAleese

Published 06/11/2015

Tragic death: Ronan Hughes
Tragic death: Ronan Hughes

Stormont is to consider the introduction of tough new laws to better protect youngsters from online bullies, abusers and paedophiles.

The new laws would deal with online harassment and revenge 'sexting', and make it a criminal offence for an adult to masquerade as a child on the internet.

Former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), Jim Gamble, met with the Assembly's Justice Committee yesterday to lobby for the changes.

Mr Gamble said the new laws would protect people from those with malicious or criminal intent. The legislative changes the Ineqe Group boss has called for include:

  • A new law to deal with online harassment by an individual who uses internet anonymity or creates multiple online accounts to harass another person.
  • Ensure prosecution for those who make or distribute images with malicious intent, such as those whose relationship has come to an end and who are seeking revenge by distributing images they had previously obtained or made with the consent of the other party.
  • Make it illegal for an adult over the age of 18 to masquerade as a child online and engage with an individual they believe to be under 18.

The proposed legislative changes come just months after tragic Coalisland teenager Ronan Hughes took his own life after being targeted by faceless online blackmailers.

A criminal gang demanded more than £3,000 from Ronan and then sent images of him to his friends on social media.

Ronan's parents described their son's online blackmailers as "relentless".

Mr Gamble told the Justice Committee yesterday that 27% of internet users have been called offensive names, 22% have had someone try to purposefully embarrass them, 8% have been physically threatened, 8% have been stalked, 7% have been harassed for a sustained period, and 6% have been sexually harassed.

"Statistically, this means that four in 10 internet users are victims of online harassment to varying degrees of severity," he said. "In my experience, technology changes at a greater pace than our legislative framework.

"This often results in laws which no longer fit with human behaviour as social paradigms have shifted in regards to how people interact.

"It is clear to me that comprehensive legislation, with appropriate safeguards and unambiguous enforcement, can not only protect people from those with malicious or criminal intent - it can also protect people from themselves."

Mr Gamble said that these changes in the legislation "could have a far-reaching and prominent effect on current laws elsewhere in the UK and could potentially see a shift in the way the police handle sexting and online aggravation."

Alistair Ross, chairman of the Justice Committee, said that the suggested revisions "could make a significant public impact."

The PSNI has advised anyone who has a disturbing interaction online to immediately tell someone.

The Samaritans provide a support service for those who need to talk to someone.

The charity can be contacted through the website Samaritans.org, or people can call it on 08457 909090, 24-hours-a-day, 365 days a year.

Belfast Telegraph

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