The APC European Internet Rights Project
Country Report Irish Republic
By Paul Mobbs
From the late 1970s the Irish Republic has deliberately expanded its IT sector in order to exploit the opportunities of the new information economy. Through both economic development and education initiatives, the emphasis has been on expanding IT literacy. This has been helped in part through the investment of US IT companies in order to provide jobs and the IT infrastructure. Whilst this change has benefited the Irish economy, the benefits of these changes have not been universal.
Whilst Article 40 of the Irish constitution creates fundamental personal rights equivalent to those of the European Convention on Human Rights, there has been no move to create explicit rights in relation to digital freedom and expression. The emphasis within recent Irish policy on electronic communication has been on the development of e-commerce1, the development of the necessary telecommunications infrastructure2, and the modification to governance to control a globalised Internet-based economy3. There are no direct measures apparent to tackle the issue of the digital divide4.
In 1996 the Irish government established the Information Society Steering Committee5. This led in 1997 to the setting up of the Information Society Commission6 (ISC). The Commission undertakes research and study into the development of IT and Internet use in Ireland, and makes recommendations on how to improve Ireland's use of ICT. Recent studies by the ISC7 indicate that use of the Internet is growing in Ireland doubling access from 16% to 33% of the population during 1999 alone. Up to 7% of the Irish population use Cybercafés. A more recent survey8 found that 41% of the population had access to the Internet, 54% of adults were familiar with the use of personal computers, 43% with the use of the Internet and 41% with the use of email. But this recent study also found evidence of a growing digital divide. 30% of those unemployed had an understanding of personal computers, only 13% had familiarity with the Internet, and only 10% had familiarity with email, compared to 64%, 45% and 39% respectively for those in employment. (Note, the ISC's third report is due out in late December 2000)
Recent research by the ISC has reviewed the use of the Internet by Irish business9 and found that 96% of Irish businesses are connected to the Internet and 64% have a website (but note, these figures are averaged to reflect the use of these services by the largest businesses). But the survey also found that 80% of companies had IT skill shortages (although only 15% of companies provided IT training to staff and half had no training plans) and 25% of companies had no security policy.
The Irish government has recently updated the legislative framework for e-commerce with the Electronic Commerce Act 2000. This Act sets the framework for digital signature and certification services, and the registration of domain names. The Irish government has also updated copyright laws to take account of new technology. The Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000 creates protection over traditional intellectual property rights, and also extends these rights to databases and encrypted communications. Significantly, intellectual property rights are also extended to 'technological protection measures'. Therefore, the decryption of data that forms part of a product for example the list of blocked websites used by Net filtering software is now unlawful. This has significant impacts on those working on censorship issues in relation to the Internet because decryption and disclosure of information on blocking would be an infringement of property rights. Also, it is not clear if there is a public interest clause within the operation of the Act to protect people undertaking such actions.
The current framework for the use of encryption in Ireland, recently stated by the Irish government10, is that the public is free to use any form of encryption to protect privacy and confidentiality, and the import and use of such system is not subject to control (although exports are). In the event of the state requiring access to encrypted communications, orders can be secured to obtain plain text copies of document/transmission. It would appear therefore that the state cannot require the general disclosure of the encryption keys used by the user.
Censorship of the Net in Ireland is rather a grey area. From 1997 onwards, there has been a backlash from certain groups against the unregulated use of the Internet because of the ability for the public to access 'damaging' material. The current legislation on racial hatred, and on indecent images/pornography, does not clearly apply to electronic information. However, other legislation, such as the proscription of certain dissident terrorist groups, does apply to the Internet. In 1998, a government commission deliberated on the 'downside' of the Internet11, assisted by a study on the issue compiled by the University College of Cork. The report of the working group was unable to produce definitive recommendations for legislation because much of the material that people may have taken exception to was published offshore. Mostly, the recommendations were to 'Internet proof' new legislation.
The surveillance possibilities associated with the Internet have not been subject to a wide debate in the Irish republic. To date most concerns, as one would expect in a state with a heavy emphasis on IT industries, has been the monitoring of staff in the work place12.
The provision of telecommunications and broadband services to the public has only recently become and issue. Parts of the Irish telecommunications system have recently been privatised to assist development of the national infrastructure. This has allowed new service providers to enter the market. During 1999 Gateway computers announced its intention to develop free Internet and email services in Ireland. This was closely followed up by an announcement from Ireland Online. During mid-1999 other companies entered the market, such as Oceanfree.net. However, the initial development of free access was been frustrated by the Telecom Eireann's requirement for the payment of an 'interconnector' fee to those providing Internet services. In mid-1999, the telecoms regulator in Ireland ruled that Telecom Eireann should charge fixed rate subscription or call access to Internet service providers. But as well as in the field of telecommunications, there have also been developments in relation to cable TV services. In early 2000, Independent News and Media's ISP, Internet Ireland, announced a joint venture with a French company to provide Internet access via cable TV set-top boxes.
In summary, Ireland is behind in the development of Internet services in some areas. But the emphasis on the development of IT by the Irish Government has led to the development of organisations such as the Internet Society Commission that have enabled the development of Internet services to be clearly and authoritatively studied. The work of the ISC also makes it clear that a clear digital divide exists in Ireland between different social groups. In terms of the use of the Internet, Ireland does not have the authoritarian approach of other countries in areas such as the use of encryption. But the grey areas that exist in relation to Internet content, defamation and decency mean that in the near future Ireland will have to address the issue of deciding what Irish society considers 'tolerable' uses of the Internet.
1 Ref.: Electronic Commerce Act 2000. Online at http://www.irlgov.ie/tec/communications/act27-00.pdf
2. Implementing the Information Society in Ireland An Action Plan, ref. PN6727, January 1999. Online at http://www.irlgov.ie/taoiseach/publication/infosocactionplan/infosoc.htm
3. E.g., Electronic Commerce and the Irish Tax System, Irish Revenue Department 1999.
4. There are some references to social inclusion in the Information Society Commission's Second Report, April 1999. Online at http://www.isc.ie/cgi-local/publications.cgi?f=exec&id=5
5. Information Society Ireland Strategy for Action, December 1996. Online at
6. Information Society Commission website http://www.infosocomm.ie
7. Irelands Progress as an Information Society - 1999 Research into General Public Attitudes towards Information and Communications Technology, Information Society Commission, October 1999. Online at http://www.isc.ie/cgi-local/publications.cgi?f=exec&id=6
8. How the General Public is Adapting to the Information Society in Ireland, Information Society Commission, October 2000. Online at http://www.isc.ie/cgi-local/publications.cgi?f=exec&id=42
9. How the Business Community is Adapting to the Information Society in Ireland Information Society Commission Findings, Information Society Commission, September 2000. Online at
10. Framework for Ireland's Policy on Cryptography and Electronic Signatures, June 2000.
11. The Internet: Tackling the Downside the First Report of the Working Group on the Illegal and Harmful Use of the Internet, Department of Justice, Equality and Legal Reform 1998. Available online http://www.irlgov.ie/justice/Publications/Internet%20Submissions/subnet3.htm
12. E.g., Big Brother is Reading your Emails, The Irish Times, 7th September 2000.