Dáil Éireann - Volume 483 - 26 November, 1997

Ceisteanna — Questions. - Information Society Commission.

1. Dr. Upton asked the Taoiseach the way in which the funding allocated to the Information Society Commission is spent; if he will account for the increase in its funding in the 1998 Estimates; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19684/97]

The Taoiseach: The Information Society Commission was established by the previous Government in May following the report of the Information Society Ireland Steering Committee. Its function is to oversee the implementation of a strategic framework for the development of the information society in Ireland.

The principal reason for the 48 per cent increase in funding for the commission in 1998 over 1997 is that the 1997 allocation is in respect of only six months' operations. The 1998 allocation makes provision for full year costs.

The funding allocation of £338,000 for 1997 reflects the set up costs for the commission and its secretariat. It takes account of salaries, wages and allowances; travel and subsistence; incidental expenses such as staff training and development; postal and telecommunications services; the purchase and installation of office machinery and other office supplies and consultancy services.

During 1997 the commission has been developing its work programme which will be implemented in 1998 and subsequent years. The allocation of £500,000 in 1998 will cover the same items of expenditure as in 1997, although expenditure on items such as office machinery will not be as substantial as in the current year. A greater [852] proportion of commission expenditure in 1998 will be devoted to the development and implementation of campaigns to raise awareness of the information society among key target groups.

Dr. Upton: How many people are employed by the commission? How much is being spent on consultancy services and what firms have been employed to do this work?

The Taoiseach: The commission is located at Dublin Castle. The secretariat consists of a part-time director, an assistant principal, an administrative officer, a higher executive officer and a staff officer. Additional clerical support will be provided in the near future. The commission has not spent much of its resources for 1997 on consultancy work but I understand it will require to do so in 1998.

Dr. Upton: The commission plans to establish a series of advisory groups. Have they been established and how much is it expected that each will spend? When can we expect their reports to be made available?

The Taoiseach: The commission will present an interim report before Christmas. There are six advisory groups on awareness, infrastructure, enterprise, learning, Government services, social inclusion and legal issues. The commission is representative of a wide variety of interests and Government agencies. It has been involved also in other work with outside bodies. I acknowledge the work done by the steering committee. Most of the people involved were asked by the previous Government to give of their time and it is my experience that they have done so in a generous fashion.

Mr. J. Bruton: Has the commission set for itself achievement targets in terms of results so that it will have a basis within the ambit of the strategic management initiative for measuring its own achievement? Have the legal issues in regard to doing business over the Internet and being able to enter into binding contracts over the Internet or by e-mail been resolved in view of the importance of being able to use modern technology in a legally sound way?

The Taoiseach: The commission has set identifiable and quantifiable benchmarks and will monitor their achievement on an annual basis with relevant State agencies, Departments and private sector groups which will be asked to assist it by providing status reports and evaluations on a regular basis on the development of the information society within their areas of responsibility and expertise. The views of the various subgroups mentioned will be taken into account.

Mr. J. Bruton: Will the reports be published?

The Taoiseach: Yes. The purpose is to stimulate debate. Work is being done on the transmission [853] of data by code. It covers the entire area of information technology. Issues of taxation and law arise. There is an argument about whether VAT can be charged on information technology — the Internet——

Mr. J. Bruton: There is no limit to the ingenuity of the Revenue Commissioners.

The Taoiseach: In this case, the ingenuity of the European Commission in Brussels. There are new words such as “encryption” and “decryption”. I would not consider myself as being extremely knowledgeable but I have spent some hours with members of the commission and others examining aspects of the matter. How we can exercise control over what is transferred by means of the communications network will be the issue of the 21st century. Agreement has not been reached on any of these issues. The European Commission and others are examining the matter in great detail. It is fraught with legal and technical difficulties which will take some time to resolve.

Mr. Quinn: Before the Taoiseach gets into the heady heights of encryption and decryption, is there any chance at all the Information Society Commission might liaise with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the President of the District Court and the Garda so that they would actually know which judges are linked to what levels of responsibility? Is there any chance that the Taoiseach might encrypt that into the mind of his irresponsible “It was not me, Sir” Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform?

An Ceann Comhairle: That is a separate question.

The Taoiseach: An outrageous remark.

Mr. Quinn: Will he put it on e-mail?

Mr. G. Mitchell: The Taoiseach mentioned that one of the issues being examined by the Information Society Commission is law. Does that include the issue of libel?

The Taoiseach: Not particularly — the laws of libel in this area are fairly clearly stated — and certainly not in the course of discussion of one of the issues with which it is primarily concerned. It is concerned with the whole issue of controlling its own techniques, with matters like the BIT tax and how it will deal with the information society as it moves forward. Certainly that legal issue has not been raised.

Mr. J. Bruton: Why not? Surely it is an issue that should be raised.

The Taoiseach: Obviously, the experts are not over-taxed on that but I will raise it with them.

Mr. J. Bruton: I put it to the Taoiseach that, in [854] a matter of this nature, it is not for experts to tell us what we should do. If we decide the Internet is being abused, either to libel people or defame them in any other way, it is for the lawmakers to decide what should be done and for the experts to tell us how to do it rather than the other way round.

The Taoiseach: I was asked about the subcommittees and their operations on which I have informed the House. That is not one of the issues highlighted to me. Perhaps it is of concern and, if so, I will raise it with them.

Mr. J. Bruton: Does the Taoiseach agree it should be a matter with which they are concerned?

The Taoiseach: It may be an issue that is not creating difficulties for them.

Mr. J. Bruton: If people are systematically libelled on the Internet they have no redress because of the form of communication used whereas, if the same information was communicated by means of the print media or the normal conventional electronic medium, they would have such redress. Will the Taoiseach agree that at the very least there should be a level playing field between methods of communication and that people are entitled to protect their reputations from any form of dissemination of injurious information, including any on the Internet? Furthermore, does he agree that, as the Minister responsible for the information society, the Taoiseach might give the subcommittees a direction on the necessity of examining this area of law?

The Taoiseach: Perhaps I should make the position somewhat clearer. I was replying to Deputy Upton's question when I enunciated the subcommittees and their involvement. In regard to the broad aspect of the Internet, of course, Deputy John Bruton is correct. Within the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform there is a working group examining the harmful, illegal use of the Internet, which is what I think are its terms of reference——

Mr. Quinn: I am very glad they are doing something.

The Taoiseach: They have been doing a very good job recently within that Department, as we will have noted from yesterday's cases.

Mr. Quinn: They might need to regroup.

The Taoiseach: The working group is to report on that aspect by the end of the year.

Dr. Upton: Does the Taoiseach agree this type of question may well be relevant to the Government advisory group on legal issues, a subgroup of the commission? Will he put the concerns [855] raised by Deputies John Bruton and Gay Mitchell to that subgroup and request it to report thereon?

Mr. J. Bruton: Hear, hear.

The Taoiseach: In addition, the illegal aspects of the use of the Internet are being examined by the working group within the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and from which I am sure legislation will emanate.

Mr. J. Bruton: The problem is whether there is legal jurisdiction on the Internet; it is not a question of whether something carried on the Internet is legal or illegal. There is not jurisdiction; therefore, I understand no law is applicable to its contents. There is not much profit in pursuing this issue too vigorously here. I am not trying to score any advantage over the Taoiseach on this matter which is somewhat extraneous to the main question. Perhaps we can raise the matter again by way of parliamentary question when the Taoiseach might be able to give the House more specific information.

The Taoiseach: I do not want to go into detail on the work of the Information Society Commission, the subject of this question. However, in respect of what Deputy John Bruton is talking about — the use of information carried on the Internet — a subcommittee working on the matter is due to report by the end of the year. In addition, I gave a commitment the Bill on child pornography would be published shortly which will render it illegal to down-load specific material from the Internet.