Standing up to the cyber bullies

By Clare Ambrosino

Home Affairs ILast week Parliament Street revealed alarming new figures on the rising crime rates linked to social media. According to research, crimes on Twitter have soared by 390 per cent and there are currently no real measures to prevent a further rise in the future.

This week I spoke to my former boss Sean Kelly MEP, who is one of the leading figures on the European political scene and someone who has done much to throw light on the hitherto unknown issues of cyber bullying and misuse of personal data.

Mr Kelly, who represents Ireland South and is a member of Fine Gael, the right of centre party which leads the Irish coalition government, was, last Tuesday, awarded the title of MEP of the Year for the Digital Agenda in recognition of his work in the role of Data Protection Rapporteur for Industry, Research and Energy and for his raising awareness and inspiring action to prevent cyber-bullying in all its forms (emails, texts, Twitter, Facebook, photo sharing apps such as Instagram and Snapchat).

I asked Mr Kelly his opinion on the use of social media in politics and what he thinks politicians should do to improve it in terms of user safety. He acknowledged that social media is a wonderful means of communication and said that it was becoming an increasingly popular and important tool for politicians, allowing them to get their message across with spontaneity and directness which would have been unimaginable in the past.

“I began being active on social media about four years ago and am now engaging with more that 5000 constituents on Twitter alone. Not only is it an effective way to get your message across to the public, in a way that I am happy with, even on subjects that the mainstream media may not be interested in reporting, but it also represents a novel and interactive way for constituents to keep us accountable and communicate their opinions to us directly”

Of course social media does have a dark side and it is this dark side which has given rise to new and unexpected forms of criminal activity. One example can be seen in the sharp increase in cases of cyber-bullying where computer users, protected and emboldened by their relatively anonymous status, bully others, on line, sometimes with tragic results.

According to research by UK charity Beat Bullying, over 1,700 young Europeans are at risk of death by suicide this year due to bullying and cyber-bullying. The misuse of individual’s data is also a huge matter of raising concern for consumers. As Mr Kelly states, “The growth of social media platforms has been so quick that regulators have struggled to keep up and failed to prevent digital crimes.

“The Data Protection regulation, for which I am co-author is the European Union’s response to some of  these issues and will try and set legislation to ensure these cyber crimes are legally criminalised.”

Mr Kelly is a firm believer that the EU can be an invaluable vehicle to protect conservative values. He says that as the internet knows no national boundaries, then no single member state could ever have regulated effectively against on- line criminality. However, with so many cultural realities at the table, the process of finally getting the DPR into operation is slow and laborious.

What’s more, while it does address cyber bullying (in so far that it legislates against a perpetrator disclosing personal information about their victim), there are still aspects of cyber bullying which need to be dealt with more specifically. Mr Kelly therefore urges individual governments to work quickly to implement educational schemed which would equip teachers, police officers and parents with the tools to deal with noxious cyber activity.

“It is of the utmost importance that parents and carers are up to date about user-safety guidelines and procedures so that young people are better protected from such issues as Cyber-Bullying.”

Mr Kelly is campaigning for the introduction of an EU and national level anti-bullying campaign involving key stakeholders in education, government and commercial and youth sectors in order to eradicate bullying and cyber bullying once and for all. At national level, Sean Kelly has launched a series of forums across Ireland to raise awareness on how to counter cyber bullying and he suggests that similar schemes should also be developed in the UK.

It is clear that cyber-criminality in all its forms must be taken seriously and people should be alert to the ever evolving methods used by these internet criminals. “Something has to done to fight these crimes. We cannot afford to lose any more young lives because of cyber-bullying nor can we tolerate identity theft with all its consequences.”

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