Directors of internet companies should be held criminally liable for a failure to take down harmful sexual content once requested by victims, according to the Rape Crisis Network.

The organisation said image based sexual abuse online can be just as damaging to victims as contact sexual offences and should be treated just as seriously.

Gardaí, the Rape Crisis Network, the ISPCC as well as leading experts appeared before the Oireachtas Justice Committee to discuss harmful content and harassment online.

Michael Gubbins of the Garda Cyber Crime Bureau said an increasing number of children are sharing nude or sexually explicit photos of themselves on social media or in online chat groups.

He said as well as online bullying, there is an added danger that the images can be used as a trap to engage with a child online.

The legal policy director of the Rape Crisis Network, Caroline Counihan, said the organisation is getting more and more contacts from clients of all ages about harmful online contacts of an intimate nature. 

She said forms of "image-based sexual abuse" should be regarded as seriously as contact sexual offences, because the impacts on their victims are just as damaging.

Ms Counihan said she would not rule out the idea of making directors of internet companies criminally liable for what she said described as an indefensible failure to take down harmful material where it has been notified to them.

All experts called for the urgent establishment of a digital safety commissioner, something that has been promised by the Government for some time.

John Church of the ISPCC said this was imperative and that the current regulation falls short of protecting children.

The Minister for Communications has said he is introducing legislation that will require codes of conduct by online companies.

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, Richard Bruton said he agrees with calls for the appointment of a digital safety commissioner.

"I am introducing legislation which we're currently drafting that will require codes of conduct by online players. There will be an online commissioner who will enforce those codes with severe penalties.

"Where there is illegal content, and where a company becomes aware of illegal content, they already have an obligation to take it down. But what I'm dealing with will be things like harmful sexual content, bullying, and things that don't constitute illegal offences," he said.

Mr Bruton added that an independent online commissioner will have the capacity to investigate complaints, penalise companies and enforce their compliance if they deviate from what is an acceptable code.

He said he aims to publish the heads of the legislation and bring it to the committee before Christmas.