My Lords, the internet has transformed our way of life. It is one of the big human success stories that have happened during my lifetime. Access to the internet has grown rapidly and continues to grow. However, the expansion of the internet also poses significant child protection concerns in terms of access to pornography and other adult material. Certainly, child safety challenges have moved on very significantly indeed since my time as chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, back in the 1990s, when the internet, as we know it today, barely existed.
In this context, I have tabled the Bill because I am concerned that the internet has made harmful material, previously inaccessible to children and young people, now readily accessible. As a recent report to the UK Council for Child Internet Safety Evidence Group said,
“the volume of harmful content is greater than before and the bar to access is much lower”.
I am also concerned about the consequential increased sexualisation of our young people, as demonstrated by a number of recent reports to government. In 2010, when Linda Papadopoulos investigated the sexualisation of young people, she reported:
“Pornography shapes young people’s sexual knowledge but does so by portraying sex in unrealistic ways … it is increasingly dominated by themes of aggression, power and control”.
When Tanya Byron produced an update on her 2008 review in 2010, she said:
“When talking to parents I have found that their top digital safety concern is easy access to pornography and inappropriate adult content”.
Some of these concerns have been very much in the news this year with the Rochdale and Oxford grooming cases and, more recently, the shocking revelations about Jimmy Savile. In evidence on the Rochdale case to the Home Affairs Select Committee in June, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner said that,
“the evidence we have been gathering is that pornography is definitely having an impact. Young people are accessing very extreme pornography; there is no question about that … Parents may think that they can control what is going on because they can have a blockage on a computer, but the reality is children can get anything they like on their mobile phones, and they are”.
We have also witnessed increasing public concern manifest variously through the Safety Net campaign petition with more than 100,000 signatures, the Daily Mail’s “Block Online Porn” campaign and the seminal Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection.
In approaching this subject area, we have to ask ourselves a question. Why is there a whole series of protections that pertain to children offline that are spirited away when we move to the online world? Children do not mysteriously change and become more mature when online than offline. I believe that children need, and more importantly deserve, the same protections offline as apply online. However, it is not just about the children. It is also about the parents who say again and again that they want to be given the tools to get on and parent. It is with this in mind that I propose the Online Safety Bill today.
The objective of the Bill is to improve online safety for children by empowering parents. The Bill has four key provisions, which build on the recommendations of the Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection, so expertly chaired by Claire Perry MP, and of which I was a member. Clause 1 would require internet service providers—ISPs—and mobile phone operators—MPOs—to provide an internet service free from pornography. Clause 2 requires electronic device manufacturers to provide a means of filtering inappropriate adult internet content at the time of purchase, where the device connects to the internet. Clause 3 requires ISPs and MPOs to provide information about online safety. Finally, Clause 4 requires Ofcom to report on the impact of the legislation every three years.
Right at the heart of the Bill are provisions requiring that ISPs and MPOs provide the option of a pornography-free internet. Those wanting to access pornography will be able to do so, subject to an age verification procedure, demonstrating that they are aged 18 years or over. That an opt-in system is necessary is eloquently demonstrated by Ofcom surveys of parental views demonstrating,
“the perception that parental controls were a fairly complex area, and that choosing and installing them would therefore require a considerable investment of time and effort”.
It is right that the responsibility for bringing up children should be with parents. But they need help and it is surely society's role to help them. We do not allow children to buy R18 films or allow them into cinemas for 18 films and we should not make it easy for them to access pornography online, on purpose or by accident. The industry and Government have a responsibility here and my Bill will, I hope, help them to rise to that challenge.
Of course, I am aware that there are those who will respond to my proposal with a number of criticisms. First, some say that this is censorship. It is patently not censorship. Adults will still be able to access what they are able to access now. This is simply about helping parents to protect their children. The provision may loosely be equated to putting pornography on the top shelf of a corner shop.
Secondly, some say that what is proposed is not technologically possible. I disagree. In terms of filtering, take TalkTalk’s very successful HomeSafe package, AVG's award-winning family safety software, or Olly, which filters out more than 630 million pornographic websites. There is also, most importantly, age verification. The technology behind age verification is key to the Bill’s success. Prior to 2005, there was significant concern about the number of children gambling online. Online gambling companies were especially vocal about that and concerned. Crucially, however, they did nothing really robust to address the problem until they were compelled to introduce age verification via the Gambling Act 2005 to ensure that children could not access remote gambling. Since the law came into force in 2007, children's charities have not been made aware of any significant incidents of children gambling online.
Thirdly, aside from what is technically possible, there are those who would say that this legislation is unlikely to be 100% successful. I want to be very clear that I do not bring this Bill to your Lordships' House naïvely expecting that, if implemented, it would, at all times and in all places, prevent children from accessing pornography. Its purpose is to make the internet safer, and this it can deliver. We do not say that, because a child might find an 18 DVD and, unbeknown to their parents, watch it, that the rating system is useless. We do not say that, because some children might manage to watch something inappropriate after the watershed, the watershed is pointless. Then there are those who ask, “What about the ISPs’ code?”. Of course, in October 2011 the UK’s four largest ISPs—BT, TalkTalk, Virgin Media and Sky—clearly feeling the pressure, announced a new, yet to be properly implemented, voluntary code of practice. That introduced the policy of active choice which will require new customers with these ISPs to decide whether to apply filtering technology.
The ISPs’ voluntary code is certainly a step in the right direction. However, it has a number of significant drawbacks. First, the code will not apply to existing customers and, as customers rarely change their ISP, it will not protect the majority of households. Secondly, the code does not cover all ISPs in the UK. While those four ISPs currently dominate the market, we cannot be sure that that will always be the case. Thirdly, it does not apply to publicly available wi-fi spots. Fourthly, it makes no reference at all to age verification. Fifthly, it is not statutory and, as those of us who are familiar with what happened in relation to online gambling will recall, that is problematic. In fact, the ISPs are significantly behind the MPOs, which introduced their own code of practice as long ago as 2004. That code committed MPOs to place commercial content, classified as 18, behind access controls and make it available only to those customers that it has satisfied itself, through a process of age verification, are 18 or over. However, the latest Ofcom data reported that only three in 10 parents of 12 to 15 year-olds, who use their phones to access the internet, said that the phone blocks websites aimed at those 18 or over, so it seems to me that there is still much room for improvement.
Moreover, as the MPO code is also non-statutory, it permits quite a divergence in practice which means that MPOs apply various forms of parental control rather than the uniform golden standard. The absence of a gold standard can be confusing for customers as they move from provider to provider.
It seems to me that neither the censorship technology definition of success or existing self-regulatory arguments effectively counter the case for my Bill. Before drawing my comments to a close, I would like to make a brief point about the definition of pornography. The term “pornographic images” in the Bill is used in the same way as in Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, where possession of extreme pornographic images was made an offence. Under the 2008 Act an image is pornographic if,
“it is of such a nature that it must reasonably be assumed to have been produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal”.
We have already defined pornography and we have debated the subject in previous debates so I hope that we will not need to take more time on that today. For the avoidance of doubt, it would mean that web pages that might contain nudity but are not meant for the purpose of arousal, such as medical websites or sex and relationship education websites, would not be blocked. I hope colleagues will agree that that is a wholly reasonable proposal.
Finally, I should say that I am encouraged that the Government have taken some steps this year in relation to the online safety challenge by holding their summer consultation on parental control mechanisms, and an opt-in arrangement was among the proposals recommended. However, the consultation, sadly, made no reference whatever to age verification, without which none of the proposals advanced would be of much use. I would suggest to the Minister that my Bill proposing a statutory opt-in arrangement with statutory age verification, as in the Gambling Act 2005, provides the kind of solution that we need and that would help the Government in their efforts to fulfil their coalition agreement commitment to combat the sexualisation of childhood. I very much hope that the Government and the House will support the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for bringing this Bill forward. As the father of a 10 year-old girl, I am getting to that point in my life when I am having to pay close attention to this area of the internet and to what I should do to best look after the interests of my daughter. However, in a country where 1 million mothers have a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, I think that we ought to keep things in proportion. The internet is not the only way that children get access to these things, and I well remember in my youth not being put off by the fact that images had been generated for medical purposes, shall we say.
This is not the easiest area to be effective in, but we should do something to make it easy for parents to install, and make use of, internet-blocking or filtering software, which gives them at least some level of security and control over what happens to their children.
I do not, however, feel comfortable with the particular technical solution proposed in the Bill. If you give ISPs the responsibility for deciding what is pornographic and what is not, you are recreating the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. You are making it terribly difficult for these organisations, which are not set up for this purpose, to decide whether a particular website should be accessible. You are placing on them the burden of ruling and of having appeal procedures on this. I do not think that that is practical. You leave them with a liability that will be difficult for them to insure against and control. I cannot see that as being the right way forward.
I should much prefer to see the ideas incorporated in the noble Baroness’s Bill in terms of compulsion on ISPs and on equipment manufacturers used to make sure that at the point of purchase of a device the option of turning on a variety of parental controls is offered. Parents could be offered the opportunity to turn on a form of controls on the point of signing up with an ISP. The noble Baroness made a point about dealing with contracts with continuing ISPs. Perhaps there could be a point after Royal Assent for the Bill by which all existing contracts had to comply.
This is important, too, because these controls are about much more than pornographic websites. They are about supplying parents with the information that they need to deal with sexting, which is the abuse of text messages for sexual bullying, and other forms of harassment that take place over the internet for ills other than pornography. They will allow parents to know what is going on and deal with it. That is not effectively dealt with by just blocking systems. Fundamentally, in a free country, these things should be dealt with by parental choice and not by imposition through an ISP.
My Lords, I very much welcome the Bill from the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote. It is necessary.
It is a short Bill. Clause 1 deals with opt-in and Clause 2 with filtering. I think it will be supported by parents in respect of the whole area of what, in many respects, is child ensnarement into sexually explicit services.
The article in Child Abuse Review of 2009 demonstrated clearly—and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has this morning talked about—the impact on children of some internet pornographic services. They not only affect the children being drawn into those services but they affect how they look at each other as young people—the respect that young boys have or do not have for girls in these services. That has come out in some of the cases that have been in the press recently.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked how you define these things and said that it goes back to the Lord Chamberlain deciding what is and is not acceptable. Normally, I agree very much with his views but I do not on this, because the definition of what is acceptable in any kind of statutory or non-statutory legislation will be there whether or not you have an opt-in.
What the noble Baroness proposes is not new. Some years ago, I was the chairman of the premium rate telephone industry regulator following the liberation of telephone services in the UK and we saw the emergence of adult services, which, in a growing industry, at one stage took up something like 70% of those services. The self-regulatory road was gone down and it involved opting out, but that did not work. In the end, the industry itself agreed with us as the regulator that it had to introduce an opt-in to take part in these services. The world did not fall apart, but it meant that children who would normally access the services, especially in school holidays—the call rate would go through the roof in school holidays—could not do so. One of the early measures that we took was to require that sex magazines should be put on the top shelf in newsagents, but that did not stop the proliferation of these services among young people either. They find a way and they pass the number around. In the end, the only way of dealing with these services was to say that if you wanted them from the service provider you had to opt in. Some people did, but it meant that children did not have access to them.
Really, the Bill is about child protection; it is not about censorship. I cannot find anyone who would support access to these services but they are not illegal. Therefore, if an adult chooses to use the service, that is okay and they can do that, but that does not mean that the services should be freely available to children. They are quite often in their bedrooms with no one else around. They may hear the parent coming up the stairs and bang a key, and the parent has no idea what they have been looking at.
The measure proposed in the Bill is welcome. It is a good step. It will not deal with all the problems but that is not a good enough reason not to try to deal with some of them. The Bill will not deal with texting, for example. Indeed, I gather that 02 does block adult services on its mobile phones but not on broadband. The iPad, which so many of us now have, has no provision for filtering out these services, even if people want to. Some companies have devised their own self-regulation. O2, Vodafone, Virgin and T-Mobile have all done it, but we do not have a level platform in the industry. The problem is not with the people who are trying to do the right thing in those companies but with those who do not, and they are the ones who are making children even more vulnerable at a very formative stage of their development.
I welcome the Bill and I look forward to the discussion in Committee. I am sure that there will be many interesting exchanges on the Bill. I hope that the Government will give the Bill time and that we see it on the statute book. It will not answer all the problems and there will be technical difficulties but, if the industry knows that it will have to sort those difficulties out, it will. I support the Bill.
My Lords, we have heard so much about child abuse recently. The Bill would protect children from abuse in another form. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Howe of Idlicote on bringing this much-needed Bill to Parliament and for her hard work on online danger to children.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to today's Second Reading debate on the Online Safety Bill. The Bill makes a number of informed provisions with respect to child safety online, which I very much support. I support the proposal in Clause 1 of an opt-in system. As my noble friend has already stated, under an opt-in system, internet service providers and mobile phone operators will be obliged to protect people from accessing pornography unless they deliberately opt in to access pornography, which would involve an age verification process to confirm that the person concerned was 18 or over.
I believe that the introduction of such a system would be a welcome step forward for children, young people and parents. As legislators, we have a duty to protect children and young people from the damaging effects that consumption of pornography can have on their minds while they are growing to maturity. An opt-in system is extremely effective at providing such protection without preventing adults from accessing online pornography should they wish to do so—although I must say that some adults get very upset when they unexpectedly find porn online.
Clause 3 states:
“Internet service providers and mobile telephone network operators must provide prominent, easily accessible and clear information about online safety to customers at the time the internet service is purchased and shall make such information available for the duration of the service”.
I believe that with Clause 1, which introduces an opt-in system in relation to pornography, Clause 2, which places an obligation on the manufacturers of internet-enabled devices to incorporate general filtering mechanisms, and Clause 3, which introduces an educational obligation, the Bill is extremely well balanced. The introduction of an age-verified opt-in system is, without doubt, the surest way of ensuring that children do not accidentally stumble on—or successfully deliberately seek out—pornography online. It is consequently very important that Clause 1 becomes law. Moreover, the provision of general filtering for internet-enabled devices would greatly assist in more general protection.
While Clause 1 is the single most effective thing we can do to protect children from accessing pornography online and Clause 2 is very helpful with respect to other material, they are not magic bullets. There are other things that must be done to ensure child safety online. Online safety is a complex area and in an environment where content is no longer passively received—as when watching TV or listening to the radio—there are more dangers than accessing age-inappropriate content. Social networking, internet chatrooms and YouTube websites, where content is self-created and commented upon by others, throw open the floodgates to all sorts of issues which parents need to address when bringing up their children. Bullying can now happen online, not just in the school playground. Privacy issues become more important as children need to understand what sort of information should not make it into a public forum. Clause 3 offers important support to parents, in addition to blocks and filters, by educating them about online safety and encouraging them to discuss these issues with their children.
One sexual threat posed to children and young people online is the infiltration of internet chatrooms by adults seeking out children to groom for sexual exploitation. Clause 1 would not have the effect of blocking internet chatrooms that are popular with children and so could not really help in this regard. Clause 3, however, does provide a means for addressing this issue, by encouraging and empowering parents with information about online security risks and how best to address them. Clauses 1, 2 and 3 are complementary and together provide a powerful framework within which to promote the best possible child safety online.
As my noble friend said, the Government have still not announced their response to this summer’s online safety consultation, a consultation which was conspicuous for not mentioning age verification once. I very much hope that the Government will recognise that placing age verification right at the centre of the Bill is vital and that they will adopt this Bill as the best vehicle for securing online safety for children in the United Kingdom. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say and I wish the Bill a speedy passage through both Houses of Parliament.
Please excuse my voice: I have a terrible cold.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for introducing the Bill, which is both principled and practical and has an elegant simplicity that is not characteristic of all proposed legislation. The revelations concerning Jimmy Savile have shocked the nation and it is right that we are shocked. We are much less tolerant, as a society, of inappropriate sexual contact between adults and children than seems to have been the case a generation or more ago. We are very protective of the bodies of the young with, it seems, an exception for the eyes.
Why is it that we are not more outraged by the way in which internet pornography, often of an extreme and degrading kind, can assault the eyes, the minds and the imaginations of children and young people who may not even have reached the age of puberty? Is it because we are unconvinced that the visual has power to shape our thinking and our responses? That cannot be the case; otherwise we would not do so much to encourage our children and young people to see great art, to appreciate sculpture, to have their imaginations enlivened, to be thrilled by what they see as the creative expression of human beings in relationship with each other and with the world in which they live. So our carelessness in relation to online access to pornography by children and young people ought to be a major scandal in itself.
There is, after all, a growing body of academic research which suggests that pornographic images can remain in the minds of young children and disturb their psychological and sexual development. We should hardly be surprised at this, since for generations we have classified films so that those with the most disturbing images would not be seen by those under 12, 15 or 18. Somehow we have allowed online pornography and violence to be treated differently, as if we are entirely helpless to control it. Of course, as many of us have read, the issue is more pressing in the United Kingdom because of the independent access so many children and young people have to the internet, whether in the privacy of their bedroom or on a mobile phone. It is not always recognised that our children are more likely to be online independently than is the average elsewhere in Europe, or that half of all teenagers in the UK now have a smart phone and can access the internet at any time.
The fact that less than a third of all parents use the present parental controls on those phones, where they exist, to block unsuitable content is probably not an indicator that parents do not care, but that they are uncertain what to do and are given too little advice by internet service providers and mobile phone operators. After all, it is the parents who most often seek advice from their children about access to the internet and how to operate tablets, iPhones and all the rest. In your Lordships’ House, the Communications Select Committee, on which I sit, has recently gone paperless. We have been provided with iPads and access all our material online. It would be fair to say that most of the teenagers in the UK might have adapted rather more quickly than noble Lords have to this modest evolution in our process. All this suggests that there is a need to ensure that any parental controls are sufficiently robust so that attempts to change settings inappropriately are quickly identified.
I support the opting-in procedure, and the age verification system already in use for online gambling, and will not repeat what other noble Lords have said so well. I am very surprised that the recent government consultation made no mention of this and look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that matter. I am also glad to see the Bill making provision for additional filtering of content so that parents can make informed judgments about what their children should see at different stages of their development. Overprotected children can sometimes be ill equipped for the world at the age of 18, and it is not the intention of this Bill to shield young people from that which is educative; only from that which is deeply harmful.
However, I have a question about the definition of pornography itself. I understand, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, pointed out, that the reference to “pornographic images” is being used in the same way as in Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, where the possession of extreme pornographic images was made an offence. Is relying on the definition of pornography in that Act fully sufficient for the purposes of this one? If I have understood it correctly, it is the possession of extreme and degrading images that is made illegal, but perhaps not everything that might properly be regarded as highly sexualised images, such as those that objectify women or scenes of graphic violence, which may not be pornographic but which are deeply disturbing. We cannot catch everything in a definition but I still wonder how robust this definition is.
My other concern relates to the grooming of young people online, on which I share some of the convictions of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. I have been told that children and young people who have accessed pornography are more open to grooming in chat rooms, but I doubt whether the two are necessarily connected. Should something on the lines of this Bill become law, it would not remove all the dangers of the internet for children and young people, nor is it claimed that it would. The sexual grooming of young people can be very hard to identify and is not easily blocked, if at all. Even with the passage of this Bill, parents, teachers and carers would need to ensure their children were internet savvy, not just technically, but in interpreting the content they access and the contacts they make. Almost three years ago, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety produced the “Zip it, Block it, Flag it” strategy to help children and young people stay safe online. It would still need to be used.
Although teaching our children and young people to be vigilant online remains a priority, the provisions in this Bill would be very welcome indeed. It would achieve a healthier and safer internet culture, which is why I so warmly support it.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on introducing this Online Safety Bill. I believe that it is an extremely important piece of legislation that if made law—and I hope it is—would greatly enhance the provision of child safety online.
Some 30 years ago, I chaired an examination of video violence and its effect on children that had been set up my late noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford. The conclusion of the inquiry was that it did affect children adversely. The report of course was immediately panned by various academics working with the video industry. However, some two or three years later, a number of other reports came out that confirmed our findings. I suspect that similar things will happen with examinations of online pornography.
As has already been said, access to the internet is more readily available. At first it could only be accessed from bulky computers. Now, iPads, mobile phones and various portable devices mean that access can happen almost anywhere. This brings great benefits, some of which I use in relation to health service provision in the developing world. However, it also brings significant risks as children gain increasing media independence, such that their parents have little or no opportunity to monitor or control. To plagiarise the wonderful subtitle of Reg Bailey’s review of the sexualisation of children last year—Letting Children be Children—I welcome this Bill as it seeks a way of letting parents be parents, by giving them the means to protect their children.
In the time available, I wish particularly to address the concern, which some may have, that this Bill represents a form of censorship. I hope noble Lords will agree with me that this argument does not stand up to scrutiny. The bottom line is that the opt-in system proposed by this Bill does not prevent any adult from accessing pornography. Any adult can opt in to access pornography, subject to age verification confirming that they are indeed an adult over the age of 18. That being the case, it seems to me that there are only two possible bases for objection.
The first is that the online world should not be subject to any order, regulation or proscription. For these people, for some reason, keeping the web in a Hobbesian state of nature is more important than putting in place provision to ensure that children do not accidentally stumble on pornography; possibly quite extreme pornography. For them the state of nature ethic is more important than caring for children. I do not know whether the same people would feel the same way if there were no procedures to prevent online credit card fraud or prevent misuse of personal data.
Of course, the offline world makes no claims to constituting a state of nature, let alone of making this into some ethical good. Responsible supervision of what is available to children and young people is something that we accept as necessary and appropriate in respect of books, magazines, DVDs and television. It seems to me that if one were so minded this could be construed as censorship, but I doubt that many in this House would deem it as such; rather, it would be recognised for what it is—responsible care for those who are not equipped to protect themselves and discern what is harmful. Clearly, supervision in this regard is for the good of the child and society as a whole. It would be irresponsible and foolhardy to allow the development of internet media in a way that made it impossible for responsible supervision to be provided. However, that is what is now happening.
The second argument is that we should encourage awareness of filtering but not intervene in any other way to help parents: the ball should be left in their court and the state should not intervene, as anything else would be hopelessly patronising and paternalistic and take away parents’ responsibility for their children. That is an interesting point of view, but we do not expect this argument to be accepted when it comes to the classification of DVDs and films at the cinema. We are committed to signposting to all consumers, including parents, what type of material the person is considering viewing.
Parents are a child's first line of defence and, of course, must engage with the challenge of how to protect their children offline and online. Although some parents will be switched on to the dangers as well as the opportunities of the online world, sadly, this is often not the case. Less than half of parents of five to 15 year-olds have online controls installed on computers at home. However, home computers are arguably secondary, given that, as I have already mentioned, the ubiquitous nature of internet access today means that a child or young person has only to step out of their front door with their smartphone to access potentially unfiltered online content. We know that the use of mobile internet is growing rapidly. There were 6 million more users between 2010 and 2011, with the most significant growth being among younger age groups. I am told that 62% of 12 to 15 year-olds own a smartphone and just over half of these smartphone users say that, of all regularly used media, they would miss using their mobile phone the most.
Crucially, take-up of filtering or restricting access to content on mobile phones is very low. Only 31% of parents said that they had limited their child's access to the internet in this way, according to a 2011 Ofcom study. Do we really think that it is appropriate to refuse to provide parents the assistance of an opt-in system and instead let them sort out their own filtering? How much better and simpler for them to do so in the context of an empowering opt-in system, where the choice is still 100% theirs, rather than in an environment, the unhelpfulness of which is a result of the belief that not making things simpler for parents is more important than protecting children online.
I believe that, rather than the provision of an opt-in system constituting a patronising arrangement for parents and other adults, it is actually about empowering them and extending choice; about giving them the option of an easily accessible pornography-free internet alongside the option of a pornography-filled internet.
The empowerment at work here makes perfect sense for those of us who have not forgotten our political theory. The likes of Hobbes argued that people in a state of nature would give up their state of nature freedoms, as they did not have much positive consequence, trading them in instead for more limited but, crucially, more meaningful civic rights. In other words, it was in sacrificing extreme expressions of freedom that people found meaningful freedom in the law and order and civility of a civil society subject to law and regulation.
We accept limits to our freedom at all times in our society. This is a good thing. I fear that those pointing toward the Bill as an example of censorship seem to have either misremembered that this is the case, or have a rather strict interpretation of freedom which is simply incompatible with the society in which we live. In much the same way that fences are put up at the edge of cliff-side coastal paths, so must we accept that it is nothing less than good sense to take steps which seek to stop children stumbling across inappropriate content online.
Figures may vary about the degree to which there is unwanted exposure to pornographic content—a study from 2012 suggests that such exposure is as high as 50%—but it seems to me that to consign inappropriate content to an online top shelf is necessary, sensible and a mere replication of offline best practice. Unfettered definitions of freedom result in a system wherein some freedoms remain in place which cause harm to others—the very opposite of what we strive to do in this House and in a civilised society.
Far from constituting something that is patronising, it seems to me that providing an opt-in system is entirely consistent with respect for freedom in civil society in that it actually empowers people, giving them meaningful options. It is no surprise that parents themselves seem very keen on the opt-in, as witnessed by the Safetynet campaign petition which secured more than 100,000 signatures earlier this year.
There are few perfect laws, but we must not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. This Bill should be an Act of Parliament already. It is an eminently sensible set of measures which seek to bring online protection into line with protection provided offline and ensure that children are protected in a way which the developments of modern technology demand.
My Lords, the whole House is enormously grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, for bringing forward this timely and important Bill today. The degree of support that it seems to be finding from all quarters of your Lordships’ House is encouraging. Indeed, it is encouraging to see the range of speakers that we have today. That fact alone should send a very clear message to the Government that they should no longer be dithering on these issues but moving to try to find some solutions. There is also a very clear message to the internet service providers that they, too, need to put their house in order and start to find the most appropriate technical solutions to these problems.
The only note of dissent so far has been from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. He seemed to make the point that the Bill would place too much of an onus on internet service providers, that this was not what they were good at, and that responsibility should essentially rest with parents. I hope that I have not misrepresented his argument too greatly. That is the standard defence that is heard in these arguments in all aspects: that the internet service providers are the mere conduit or the mere pipeline by which this stuff gets into people’s homes and that somehow, because they are merely the provider of the pipe, they are not responsible for anything that flows through it. To argue that they therefore have no responsibility is rather like saying that water companies have no responsibility for purifying the water that they deliver, because their main purpose—the thing that they are good at—is providing pipes. Actually, they are not that good at that either, given the level of leaks. We do not accept that argument. We say that there is a responsibility on the providers of the pipeline to ensure that the water is pure and safe. That is essentially what the Bill is about.
Let us be clear. In this country, access to pornography is controlled offline. Therefore, there are limitations but they are not total limitations. However, it is made more difficult to access pornography in printed form, on DVD or whatever else. This legislation, should it be passed, will enable us to adjust to the fact that society increasingly exists online. It levels the playing field. It brings what is happening on the internet to the level of everything else, whether it is the top shelf of the newsagent or the age clarification which exists for cinema or DVD material.
We also know that Parliament has already legislated on the principle of age verification. The Gambling Act requires robust age verification. We have already tested this and Parliament has been through these arguments. As my noble friend Lady Dean said, the world did not end because age verification was required in that area—actually, she was applying it to another area, but the principle is that the world did not end. Age verification can be done and it now needs to be applied more generally. The solutions are available and workable. A number of sites notionally have an age restriction but the reality is that those restrictions are laughably weak. However, mechanisms are available that can make those age restrictions work. We should be encouraging that and this Bill is a step towards enabling that to happen.
The other change that has happened in recent years, which we have to accept, is that most children now spend much of their lives online. Most of their social transactions are mediated through internet-enabled mobile phones. The days when I recall one of my sons spending about three hours on the phone to arrange where he and his mates would meet no longer apply. Now, it is all done through the internet—through social media networks and so on. Ofcom’s survey in 2011 found that the average time spent online by five to 15 year-olds was 90 minutes per day. However, I suspect that that statistic is already out of date. It is probable that most five year-olds do not spend that amount of time online but that therefore means that the figure for slightly older age groups is much higher. The same survey found that many—in this instance, I think it was 41%—had been disturbed by something that they had found online and that a quarter had received unsolicited explicit material online.
That was a survey of a year ago. This is an area where things move rapidly and I suspect that we need to have in place legislation that is able to respond to these changes. Those figures will already be out of date. Even I was surprised to learn that 37% of three to four year-olds use the internet, but we have all heard stories of, and perhaps even seen, toddlers whose reaction to a picture in a printed book is to try to expand it with their fingers to make the image get larger. Again, I suspect we are simply not keeping up with the trends.
The reality, which again was found by the Ofcom survey, is that parents know less about the internet than their children do. I recall that when I was part of the sub-committee of the Science and Technology Committee that looked at personal internet security, we were told repeatedly of parents who could not quite manage the parental control software and so got their children to install it for them. That is hardly going to induce this sort of control and maybe they were not quite the responsible parents whom we are looking for, but that is the reality. The children are ahead of their parents in all this, so you have to make it easier for the parent who wants to be responsible. In my view, this is what this Bill is about: opt-in control through ISPs will limit unsolicited and inappropriate material getting into the home.
There is also a sort of golden age view, rather like the image of the family sitting around the dining table in their front room listening to the Home Service, which we were all brought up with in the 1950s. If it ever really was a golden age, the day of the concept of the computer being somewhere in the main room of the home, so that access to the internet is mediated through that process, has long passed. There are now so many internet-enabled devices in most homes that such access is not confined to one room where there may be adequate supervision.
Most children, as has already been said, will have internet-enabled mobile phones but most of the game machines that they use in their bedrooms are also now internet-enabled. There are Xboxes and Game Boys, and all these things are internet-enabled. Not all of them can receive images or material but that is the direction of travel. Children play games on them with people all over the world whom they do not know. That raises all sorts of interesting and wider child protection questions but it demonstrates why we have to be able to control the pipeline that delivers what comes into the home. It is not just about the main computer; it is about all the internet material that comes into the home, which is mediated through the channel of the internet service providers. However responsible parents may be, they can simply no longer actively monitor all the material that their children are accessing, even if such total monitoring would be wholly desirable.
There is of course a collective responsibility in all this. In that inquiry into personal internet security, we used the road safety analogy. We said that responsibility for safety on the roads was accepted and that there was: a personal responsibility as to how you were a road user, whether you were a driver or a pedestrian; a responsibility on the manufacturers of cars to make their cars more safe; a responsibility on local authorities to ensure that roads were well lit; and a responsibility to have roads that were well maintained. All that was with a view to delivering safety. We need to take that same approach to these sorts of issues.
Frankly, children need to be educated about internet safety at the same time as they receive road safety advice. We should be looking at them doing it at that young an age. Parents need to be enabled to be responsible through the measures contained in this Bill by being able to decide, in terms of the material that can come into the home, not to opt in to pornographic material. ISPs and equipment manufacturers need to make it easier for parents, and site owners need to have robust age verification.
This Bill is not a total solution to the problems of online safety but it is a step in the right direction, making it easier for everyone to play their part in securing online safety. I sincerely hope that the Government are going to be supportive and, if not, I hope that they are going to tell us how they will move forward on these issues.
My Lords, I agree with colleagues and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, for raising this very important issue to consider through this Bill how children access pornography or programmes that might put them at risk of being groomed by predators and paedophiles. I say at the outset that the age verification element is very important. It is helpful, as others have said, that the general attitude today finds the idea of exposing our children to adult material, and especially to grooming, absolutely abhorrent. At last.
The Bailey review of last year provides a helpful exposition of the problem and its complexities and the difficulties of finding a workable solution. He also emphasised the importance of working with parents, guardians and carers, which includes anyone with responsibility for a child, including children in care. We often talk just about parents but it is actually those with any responsibility for a child. I also welcome the Government’s recent consultation on online protection and am sorry that the timing of this Second Reading is too early to hear the results of that consultation.
This brief Bill tries to provide a mechanism to protect our children and I absolutely applaud the sentiment. However, I want to propose that there may be more than one way of doing this because I fear that there are some unintended consequences from following the route of automatic filters for all on every electronic device, which the householder has to apply to have reduced. I shall come to this in a minute.
First, though, I want to raise the technical term of the definition in Clause 5 on interpretation, which says:
““image” and “pornographic” have the same meaning as in section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008”.
Your Lordships will see in the Act that the definition of pornographic is held within Section 63, headed:
“Possession of extreme pornographic images”.
Section 63(1) says:
“It is an offence for a person to be in possession of an extreme pornographic image”.
Note here the word “extreme”, because it goes on to say:
“An “extreme pornographic image” is an image which is both—
(a) pornographic, and
(b) an extreme image”.
The third subsection then defines pornographic, as we have heard, such that:
“An image is “pornographic” if it is of such a nature that it must reasonably be assumed to have been produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal”.
The remainder of the section continues with definitions. The formal definition of extreme pornography takes 13 lines, and rightly so. I will not read that now but the point I am trying to make is that the definition of pornography in that Act—that is, legal pornography which is not extreme and illegal—is briefly referred to in passing to subsequently define extreme pornography, which is what that Act is trying to define for the courts.
Such a simplistic definition of pornography will cause immense problems in our courts. How do you define arousal and to what level of arousal—partial, full? Is that arousal the view of the average person on the Clapham omnibus, or should the definition cover the various fetishes that people may have? The famous film director Quentin Tarantino is a foot fetishist. There are a number of people who have assessed his use of bare feet in all his films. Clearly they arouse people with the said fetish.
Secondly, this limited definition of pornography would exclude much of the world’s classic works of art. Thirty years ago I was working with Jonathan Miller on the BBC production of “Troilus and Cressida”, which we had set in the Hundred Years War. We used some of the delightful pictures of Cranach the Elder, showing nudes of young women with the barest film of gossamer material across their bodies. Groundbreaking in Cranach’s day, this nudity still arouses passion in many who view them, as have thousands of artists over the subsequent seven centuries. Are these images pornographic? Unfortunately under some of the automatic filter systems at the moment, they are.
This brings me to my second concern. The current filters on the market, which the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, referred to, are pretty crude and inevitably filter out more than just pornography. I wish there were another word to describe them, but it is true. They are a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Let me give you some brief examples.
Some years ago, my late father-in-law, an academic, suddenly stopped receiving e-mails. After a while he went to see the IT experts at his university. “Ah,” they said, “it is our new filter to stop you accessing naughty sites. The problem is that there is a key banned word in every e-mail that you are getting. It is your first name, Dick”. He had to have his own name unfiltered. These filters have not improved since. One of my colleagues here in Parliament was working for an MP, on the Sexual Offences Bill. She suddenly discovered that she was not receiving briefings from outside organisations by e-mail, because they contained either the word “sexual” in the subject line or attachments, or references to rape or other forms of sexual abuse. Thankfully she picked this up. A friend was working for one of the charities at the time and she was able to get her e-mails unblocked, but it could have had an impact on how Parliament scrutinised that particular piece of legislation.
How, you might ask, do these examples affect children who might be trying to access information on the net? Stonewall has expressed real concern about automatic filter systems for young people worried about their sexuality, who want to seek safe information and advice. Over half of the gay young people in a University of Cambridge survey for Stonewall reported homophobic bullying at their schools, with many citing worrying levels of depression and anxiety. Many students reported that their schools used such filters, which meant that they were unable to seek help from organisations such as Stonewall if they put the words “homosexual” or “gay” into the online search engine, because they were blocked.
Over the last five years, the Liberal Democrat youth movement has run a very effective campaign in further and higher education, and it is therefore available to 16 to 18 year-olds, called “Homophobia is Gay”. It, too, would be banned under these filters. It has been groundbreaking in getting young people to think, first, about the language they use and, secondly, to review their behaviour which might be bullying.
Many of our newspapers would also be banned. The Daily Mail, which I understand is very keen on this Bill—and I applaud the sentiments behind its campaign—would hit a problem with the crude image-filtering mechanism for photos, which assesses the percentage of bare flesh. It is not clever enough to work out whether a girl has a bikini top on and such an image would therefore be classified in exactly the same way as page three of the Sun. There is a fundamental problem with the technology at present, which needs to be addressed urgently. The Bill as written will not encourage this sophistication. It needs to. Perhaps this can be addressed at Committee stage.
Finally, there is the key issue of which is more effective; opt-in or opt-out. This Bill proposes an automatic filter that individuals would have to opt in to subscribe to pornography by asking their ISP to change the levels. Given the problems outlined above, I suspect that many parents would get incredibly frustrated with the crude nature of the filter and I am concerned that some of them might opt in. I prefer an opt-in system, which asks you as a parent—defined in the wider sense right at the start—when you have a new device, be it phone, TV, or computer, what levels you want to set. My cable TV company already does this and most telephone companies are following suit, given that most phones now act as mini-computers. We set the levels ourselves when our children were teenagers. Interestingly, on the communal computers and TV at home, even though the children are well over 18, we have never bothered to reset them. I suspect that most households are the same.
Much of the progress in this area is down to the work of the Internet Watch Foundation. This is not known to many lay people, because it works specifically with the ISPs, telcos and cable companies. It has been doing so quietly behind the scenes over the last decade, encouraging them to have peer regulation. I would hope that it would be a key part of the solution, blocking illegal sites daily as it does, using peer pressure among the companies to bring the providers into line and making sure that they give parents access to sensible filters. That is the important reason to have more sophisticated opt-in arrangements, rather than a pure opt-out system. Parents must be involved.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre website emphasises to children and parents—especially parents—how important it is to talk to each other. Its top tips start with the advice to talk to your child about what they are up to online and to be a part of their online life. This is vital. Children who are being groomed, for example, feel themselves in a cycle of fear and shame where they think no one will believe them. Childline reports that children feel themselves to blame for what is happening to them. Any chance of parents having relaxed conversations with their children about what they are doing on line, as they, the parents, set the filter levels, often with the children doing the technology, is much more likely to encourage children to talk to their parents if they are worried.
I applaud this Bill. It has the best intentions, but I worry that there are three or four areas which will need to be explored more at Committee stage to provide reassurance that it will not be a crude tool that will defeat its admirable aims of protecting our children.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for initiating this Bill, which I welcome. I want to attempt to put her Bill in the overall context of how we as legislators have incrementally abdicated responsibility as our society has changed and continues to change for the worse. I am not able to speak with any authority on a technological basis, as many others have done today.
What has changed in society over the past 70 years or so since I was a youngster, or even over the past 30-plus years since I left the classroom as a village schoolmaster? The negative aspect of modern, anything-goes society, where it seems almost self-righteous to mention moral values, is alarming. I know that we cannot reverse the technological advances of the computer, or indeed of television, and nor should we want to, but surely we have been too tardy in addressing the issues of what is made available, especially to children.
I am fully conscious of the political correctness that lauds freedom of choice, freedom of the press, freedom of expression and every other freedom that you can think of. Rather than protecting our individual rights, such unqualified freedom is but a mandate for the unscrupulous to exploit our weaknesses, whether that be a tendency to greed, to violence, or to sexual excesses. There is little purpose in our pointing the finger at the BBC over the Savile issue if we treat moral standards as though they are solely the responsibility of others. Why do we seem to believe that there is some social obligation on us to accept that every modern comedian who uses the f-word has the right to do so? We forget that Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and “Dad’s Army” could make us laugh without resorting to lewd and base language. Be that as it may, it is time we took some control of our lives and the future of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives by supporting the Bill introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, throughout its various stages.
I have alluded in terms of general social behaviour to our modern society. Now, in that context, why should anyone accept that pornography would not and does not so negatively influence our children and grandchildren, those impressionable youths who learn by example? Children and teenagers do learn by example. I experienced that in my quite a few years in the classroom. We will, in general terms, condemn societies where women are treated as second-class citizens, yet we tolerate those who spew out pornography that is bound to create the impression that our women are no more than sexual chattels. Is it any wonder that over recent years there has been a noticeable recorded increase in domestic violence if we leave the peddlers of porn unchallenged?
Given the identified risks posed by online pornography, I strongly believe that the Bill introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, defines the best way ahead for promoting child safety. Of course, there may be areas of the Bill which we will strengthen in Committee. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and other noble Lords would like to see that happen, but if that is going to happen, I bluntly suggest that we have to target—I use the word advisably—porn providers, and there has to be some answerability, if necessary through the courts.
The Bill puts in place measures that will help protect children and young people from the damaging effects of accessing pornography online. I particularly welcome the fact that an opt-in system will be introduced by the Bill. This system, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and others have already outlined, will require internet service providers and mobile phone operators to provide filtering software which would allow only those who are aged 18 or over and feel a need to access pornographic material to do so. The fact that this system would ensure that children and young people could not accidentally encounter such material online is of particular importance.
Given that other noble Lords have dwelt on the opt-in provisions of Clause 1, and many have touched on Clauses 2 and 3, I shall conclude with a word about Clause 4. It states:
“OFCOM must prepare a report for the Secretary of State about the operation of this Act—
(a) every three years from the date of Royal Assent; and”—
“(b) at the direction of the Secretary of State”.
It is essential that this clause be enacted alongside the other measures in the Bill. At the moment, no organisation is charged with statutory responsibility for assessing how ISPs and MPOs perform when it comes to ensuring that they adequately help parents protect their children online. I am cynical enough to believe that they do not really care, so it is important that we should seek to remedy this situation through this legislation.
In addition to its responsibility with respect to programming that goes online, Ofcom has other relevant responsibilities, including the production of reports that look at areas which touch on online content and behaviour, such as the recently released media literacy statistics which include qualitative and quantitative research on parental views and uptake of internet control software. The House will be interested to know that Ofcom found that only 46% of parents have installed parental control mechanisms and, moreover, that uptake is much lower for hand-held devices. I do not believe that that is a conscious opt-out by parents. Most parents are like me—they do not know how the internet works, other than to send their e-mails and so on. They simply do not understand, and there needs to be properly designed help for them.
Given Ofcom’s current role, it certainly makes sense to give it the duty systematically to review how well the law is functioning in ensuring that parents are helped to protect their children while they are on the internet. Clause 4 is an excellent mechanism by which this could be achieved. I very much welcome the Bill and look forward to Committee.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for introducing this excellent short Bill and for her tireless campaigning on child safety and the media. Thanks are also due to others who have produced reports that highlighted this issue, including Reg Bailey and Claire Perry MP. I am also grateful to the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety and John Carr for their persistence in gathering evidence on the problem that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has presented to us today. My noble friend Lady Dean said that this issue is about child protection, not censorship, and that is true. This is an issue of child welfare and of the importance of child welfare coming first, as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I share other noble Lords’ concerns about the definition of pornography and its impact, which needs to be reconsidered in Committee. I think that the right reverend Prelate would agree that some of the images available on electronic devices involve extreme violence, which is also unacceptable, especially to young people. We only have to look at some of the games available, even to young children, which involve cruelty, killings, beheadings and torture. I would have liked that to be clearer in the Bill.
That having been said, the Bill is important and timely. I reflect on the Private Member’s Bill that I introduced to your Lordships’ House in June 2009. Some of the points made then by me and by other noble Lords are still relevant. As we know, the use of the internet is growing at an amazing rate. New devices are coming on the market regularly, and children are remarkably good at using such devices. A book called Consumer Kids by Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn makes us aware that,
“a visit to the bedroom of a British child of 11 … might yield a music system, TV, phone, text messaging, mobile phone, computer, instant messaging, voice over internet protocol, email, games console, DVD or VCR, MP 3 player”.
We live in two worlds: the real world where the identity of a consumer and their age can be checked, and the virtual world where that is difficult in relation to gambling, alcohol, drugs, knives, guns and pornography. Age verification remains a real problem.
Some good, responsible action has been taken. There have been agreed codes of conduct and practice by companies. Wi-fi providers have moved to bar access to adult content to minors on services they supply to the public, for example in high street shops.
However, let me give an anecdote which reflects some of the disturbing aspects of online safety and why we need to tackle confusion and bad practice. The Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety reports that, some time ago, McDonald’s—I speak here as a vegetarian, so I am not particularly supportive—told its wi-fi supplier that it did not want customers coming in to bring up pornographic images that people sitting on nearby tables may be able to see. How many other high street brands take a similar responsible view? The coalition reports less happy stories. Here is a shocker to demonstrate the point further. One reported test case involves someone who lives near a pub and a Starbucks. Both establishments provide free wi-fi access to their customers. In the pub, where children are not admitted, the wi-fi is provided by O2. In Starbucks, where children are allowed and encouraged to come in, the wi-fi is provided by BT Openzone. O2’s wi-fi services do not allow any access to pornographic websites. In Starbucks anyone can have full access to anything the internet has to offer including the most obscene pornographic websites.
Surely it is disgraceful that BT and Starbucks continue this practice, even though the matter was raised with them more than a year ago. Three of BT’s competitors have in the mean time put blocks on access to this material. It does not speak well of the UK’s capacity for self regulation when such huge, prominent companies are unprepared to be very firm and to set an example with regard to access to pornography. Until recently I was not aware that Starbucks is so lax about this or that apparently it pays no tax in this country. I, for one, will never set foot in Starbucks again unless these issues are sorted out and put right promptly. It clearly needs to wake up and smell the coffee. I wonder if there is anything the Government can do—perhaps a letter reminding high street companies of their duties to protect our children.
Age verification, as has been said before, can be a problem at home, and we know why. Parents may do their best, or not, to ensure that children do not have access to unsuitable material online. Parents can be fooled and may not be as adept at using online services as their children. Not surprisingly, research shows that children with rules about personal supervision in the home are less likely to access the internet in their bedroom or via mobile telephone than those who do not have rules. The organisation CARE points out that a recent government consultation on parental controls suggests that only the proposed opt-in choice provides a comprehensive solution for online pornography. The result of that consultation, as has been mentioned before, has not, so far as I know, yet been published. I understand that BT, TalkTalk, Virgin Media and Sky issued a code of practice in October 2011 so new customers have to choose whether they are going to use the free parental controls provided. Existing customers will be made aware of the parental controls once a year but will not be obliged to make any choices about them. Ofcom estimates that only 31% of parents have limited their child’s access to the internet on their mobile phone. This Bill would tighten up these situations and sets out statutory duties on internet providers to protect children from pornography.
It is possible to tackle this problem. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, suggested some of the ways and we need to consider others. It means that an external agency will need to be involved in examining the implementation of policy and in monitoring it, possibly Ofcom or the BBFC or the Independent Mobile Classification Body, which has a clear statement on the classification of material and an appeals mechanism.
The recent Ofcom report, Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes, which I referred to earlier, is useful and thorough. It emphasises that children, even those as young as three or four, are confident users of the media. Children of 12 and over are “prolific social networkers”—eight to 11 year-olds have an average of 92 friends, while 12 to 15 year-olds have an amazing 286 friends. I do not know how they keep up. The point of this is the extraordinary number of people they can share things with, and we know what implications that has for child protection.
Multitasking is also popular—for example, texting or browsing the internet while watching TV. This may all sound very daunting for us. I remember once trying to watch a European football cup match, sound turned down, while listening to a dramatisation of Ulysses. That was only two things and I was totally confused. This Bill is important in supporting child protection. I look forward to its progress.
My Lords, I support the Bill and I declare an interest as I speak on behalf of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety. I have worked closely with many of its members. The charities include Barnardo’s, the NSPCC, Action for Children, Beat Bullying, the Children’s Society and Kidscape. They all strongly support the Bill. They want to make it clear and to emphasise that opt-in is needed mostly to protect the most vulnerable children, especially those in care.
However, many parents have informed the charities that when they are working on the internet with their children they have only to google a quite innocent word to go straight to a porn site. This can also happen when their children are doing homework on their own or doing research for a project. Even while playing a kids’ online game inappropriate material may pop up on the screen. This is why the NSPCC and Barnardo’s both particularly support this Online Safety Bill in order to ensure that children have the greatest possible protection from the harm they can inadvertently encounter online. The charities believe that the Bill contains a quite simple proposition, which is that all internet access providers should restrict the availability of adult content on the internet to persons who have been verified as being 18 or above.
As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned earlier, the average child spends 90 minutes a day online. While 91% of five to 15 year-olds have access to the internet at home, new findings show that 37% of three to four year-olds also use the internet at home. The number of calls to ChildLine from children who were upset after having seen adult images online has increased by 34% in the past year. This is one reason why the charities support Clause 1 of the Online Safety Bill which introduces an opt-in content filtering system where internet service providers should provide broadband connections into homes with filters already in place as the default setting to block access to adult content. This should include all age inappropriate material such as self-harm and suicide sites as well as pornography and violent online gaming.
They consider that such a measure would best support parents in offering the greatest possible protection for their children. However, educating parents and children about staying safe online is vital. For this reason, the charities recognise and emphasise that technical tools have to form part of a broader package of measures to address online safety issues. This should take place at every available opportunity, be it at the point of sale of a new piece of hardware, the point of installation of new software, or the renewal of a subscription package. For this reason, the education of retail and customer service staff involved in the sale of online services and devices for accessing the internet is also necessary.
The ideal scenario is for all parents and carers actively to monitor their children’s safety online. However, in practice, a number of barriers prevent them from doing so. The current system of parent-activated controls is not working. Only a minority of parents choose to operate them, and this number is falling. Perhaps it is because it is too complicated. An opt-in system could ensure that the responsibility for protecting children online is shared between parents and ISPs, because both have a role to play and neither one can protect children acting alone.
The best protection for children is their own knowledge and awareness, developed in the context of a supportive and engaged family environment. However, that is not always the case. There is a pressing need in the industry for more education and awareness-raising of online risk for young people, with the industry bearing a major responsibility for funding and running such campaigns.
Of course, if a parent decides to opt-in and allow adult content, and their children use the same computers as they do, children could end up seeing inappropriate material. This is why, by educating and making parents aware of the need to act responsibly, we can all ensure that kids are not getting access to stuff they were never meant to have. At the moment, if parents do nothing, the porn arrives whether they want it or not. It is just too easy. Children will always be inquisitive and try and find ways around the system, but we must not make it too easy for them to do so.
There is also great support for age verification, as outlined in Clause 1 of the Bill, because it is believed that providers of age-sensitive services and products such as social networking sites should utilise robust age-verification systems to protect children and young people from illegal activity. What is needed is a framework for classifying content as adult or universal, as well as a widely used method of age verification so that users can prove that they are old enough to access adult content. Mobile phone companies have already developed such a framework as well as an age verification process, and so we know that this is achievable.
There are a number of different ways in which people could be age verified. First, the account holder could have a password allowing access to adult content. Secondly, a system could be established involving each user having their own age-verified login. The online gambling companies have been doing something like this since 2007. A third way might be to establish portable online IDs which would be age-verified. Systems to do this already exist and could be extended. The charities accept that verifying the age of children under the age of 18 is more difficult, but this should not be used as a reason to delay the widespread rollout of age verification for content which is clearly aimed at adults.
I urge the Government to support the principle of establishing age verification as the basis for allowing access to adult content on the internet, in any and all environments, and to establish a task force to work out the mechanics and the options. Such a policy would not mean that every internet user in the UK would have to have an age-verified account. A person needs to be age verified only if they want to access adult content. The technical arrangements that would facilitate such a policy could be placed either on the ISPs’ or wi-fi providers’ network, or on the routers. Such an approach would remove the need for action to be taken by device manufacturers. The policy can work, because huge databases are available online in fast real-time with a high level of accuracy which allow access providers to confirm that someone is 18 or over. The mobile phone companies and all the online gambling companies use them already.
The focus of the Bill has been overwhelmingly around pornography. But the children’s charities are not saying ban porn from the internet altogether. What they want is for us to try to ensure that kids are not getting access to stuff they were never meant to have. Interestingly, a company is doing just that. It recently brought out a new app that blocks any pornography sites which can be accessed via an iPad. It found that there were more than 640 million pages on the web containing porn. But we also need to be concerned with other sites which can be harmful to children and young people and which parents are equally concerned about.
The charities strongly believe that sites which discuss sexual health, safe sex, sexuality and similar issues are not, and should never be classed as, adult sites or as “porn sites” and so should not be blocked or obstructed in any way within any filtering programme’s default settings. The same applies to sites which allow children to report abuse or to get information about their rights and so on. The children’s charities agree that the internet can be a positive tool for children and young people, who can use the internet to claim or assert their rights in ways which have never been possible previously. The internet can also be an important source of support and help to some young people and children, perhaps often in situations where no other sources are readily available to them.
The Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety recognises that technology is here to stay. But we as a society must ensure safe and equal access to the internet and associated digital technologies for all children and young people everywhere. We are all aware that this Bill cannot be seen as a silver bullet to solve this complex problem, but is part of a bigger package of measures that are desperately needed to protect our children and their pathway into adulthood. I wholeheartedly support the Bill and thank the noble Baroness for bringing it to the House.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Howe on bringing forward the Bill and, at the same time, salute her for the persistence with which she has pursued not just this issue but many others to do with the well-being of children in this country. We owe her a huge debt of gratitude for that.
I want to make one point which links this Bill to many other aspects of the development of our children, one of which was discussed in a debate in this House only yesterday, concerning the early years. One of the scourges of the 20th and 21st centuries is the inability of children to communicate either with each other or with anyone else. Part of this is due to the lifestyle in which they are brought up, much of which seems to consist of dumping them either in front of a television set or arming them with a computer game or some other electronic means of alleged entertainment which does not involve any adult intervention. This is not helped by parents who simply do not understand the damage that is being done to their children’s development by this encouragement and what it will do in terms of preventing them being ready for education when that time comes.
Therefore my appeal to the Government in supporting the Bill—as I hope they will—is that it should be seen not just in isolation but in relation to the long-term development and welfare of children. I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, about introducing the word “welfare” in addition to “protection and safety”. If it is possible to prevent this sort of material reaching children, that must be accompanied by the education of parents so that they understand not only the damage that is being done but how to carry out these proposals on prevention. If that happens, I believe that this will be a very important addition to the armoury of those seeking the long-term well-being of the children of this nation.
My Lords, I welcome the fact that I have the opportunity to speak today in this Second Reading debate on the Online Safety Bill introduced by my noble friend Lady Howe. I am very supportive of the Bill and I commend the noble Baroness for bringing the Bill before the House.
The statistics in this area, to my mind, are a matter of real concern. In 2008, a YouGov survey found that 27% of boys under the age of 18 access pornography each week, with 5% accessing pornography every day. According to Livingstone et al, in a 2005 London School of Economics publication, almost one in eight children have visited a pornographic website showing violent images. These statistics show that a significant proportion of children and young people in the UK today have been exposed to pornographic material at a young age.
We need to ask ourselves what the impact of consuming pornography is on children and young people who are growing to maturity. It seems to me that currently in the UK we are, as Jackie Kemp recently noted in the Scotsman,
“in the midst of a massive, not very well-organised social experiment”,
where we are effectively allowing children and young people easily to access pornography without thought of what the possible consequences might be of letting this happen.
Studies conducted in recent years have illustrated that accessing pornographic material can have a damaging impact on the well-being of children and young people. Michael Flood, in an article published in 2009 in the Child Abuse Review, found that for children and young people exposure to pornography can,
“lead to emotional disturbance, sexual knowledge and liberalised attitudes, shifts in sexual behaviour, and sexist and objectifying understandings. Particularly for boys and young men, the use of pornography may exacerbate violence-supportive social norms and encourage their participation in sexual abuse”.
The Witherspoon Institute, a US charity, published a report in 2010 entitled The Social Costs of Pornography. The report notes that pornography has now “infected modern childhood” and that this is having deeply detrimental effects. The report outlines that consumption of pornography gives children a “very bad model” of how to engage in healthy relationships and that in the US more and more teenagers are having to seek treatment for pornography addictions. I have been informed that this is also the case in the UK.
In 2010, Dr Linda Papadopoulos, in a Home Office report considering the sexualisation of children, stated:
“The evidence gathered in the review suggests a clear link between consumption of sexualized images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm”.
The evidence is clear. It seems apparent to me that exposure to pornographic material can have serious consequences for children and young people. Consequently, I believe that we must take action to protect children and young people online, which is why I am here today speaking in support of this Bill.
I believe that the Online Safety Bill before us puts forward measures which could make a real difference to children and young people right across the UK. I believe that it would put in place a sensible and achievable regulatory framework which would protect children and young people from accessing pornography. I strongly reject the argument that this represents any form of private sector censorship.
I am especially supportive of the “opt-in” system which is outlined in the Bill. This system, as has already been outlined by a number of the previous speakers, would require internet service providers and mobile phone operators to provide a filtering service to ensure that pornographic material cannot be accessed on the internet unless the user has opted-in to view it. This system would ensure that children and young people could not stumble across such material online by accident and would protect them from the consequences of consuming such images.
In closing, I should like to reflect on comments made by the Portman Clinic psychotherapist John Woods in an article in Psychologies magazine in 2010. Dr Woods, like many experts working with children and young people affected by the consequences of exposure to pornography, believes that we need to regulate access to pornographic material online. He outlined the following:
“We still have this ideal of free speech and expression. We think there’s nothing wrong with sex, and we shouldn’t go back to moral hypocrisy. But the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Regulation is the only answer. And it can’t be difficult”.
As Dr Woods says, the pendulum has swung too far the other way. This Bill will redress the balance and provide the effective regulation that we need to protect our children and young people. I commend the Bill to the House.
My Lords, I am pleased and honoured to be speaking on behalf of my party at the end of this important debate, held after a week or so during which the safety of our children, both online and off, has been in the headlines and in all our thoughts. I should begin by declaring an interest as a proud and newly recruited champion of the Internet Watch Foundation, an example of successful UK self-regulation on criminal child sexual abuse content. Happily, that is not our concern here today.
I also need to put on the record that my husband, John Carr, who has already been referred to in this debate, is, among other things, an adviser to the United Nations on exactly these issues. He sits on the UK Government’s principal advisory body, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. On behalf of the UK Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety, for which the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, was speaking, he is pro bono secretary. He spoke at the seminar held by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and gave evidence to Claire Perry MP’s excellent all-party inquiry concerning online protections. It is not often that one has a declaration of interests concerning one’s partner that is larger than one’s own but in this case I felt that it was important to put those things on the record.
Noble Lords have a right to assume that my contribution today should be technically competent but the views I express are on behalf of the Labour Party. We need to see this Bill in the context of a fast-moving world. The first time I spoke in your Lordships’ House about the internet and child safety was over 10 years ago and my speech concerned the then unfamiliar crime of grooming children on the internet, the dangers that that posed and the problems associated with chatrooms. That was long before the days of Facebook. As technology moves on, as well as providing everyone with new and wonderful opportunities in the online world, including our young people, it poses new challenges, particularly regarding their safety. There are many ways that technology is present in our lives.
Like the right reverend Prelate, I am not a techno wizard but, for example, I watched the American presidential election results by taking the BBC coverage on my iPod to bed and having my BlackBerry at hand for those essential texts with a daughter in Cambodia, a son in Brussels and a husband in Azerbaijan at the Internet Governance Forum this week, to keep them in the picture. I was the political information hub for my family for the night. I shared tweets with friends in America who were on the spot and I saw the newly elected President’s tweet announcing his victory.
This was all possible because of one wi-fi connection in my home. As my noble friend Lord Harris said, in a home with children of different ages there will be many devices. There could be a digital TV that is internet-enabled, several laptops, iPads, iTouches, a desktop computer, games consoles, BlackBerrys, smart phones and other mobile devices. I recently saw an article which suggested that in many family homes today it is not at all unusual to find 18 or more appliances connected to the internet.
So while we hope and want every parent to pay attention to what their child or young person is doing online, the reality is that this may not happen for any number of reasons many of which have already been mentioned. Indeed, online safety is not a one-off event. It is not something that a parent does and then forgets about. Whatever the technical solutions, we still need parents to engage on an ongoing basis. But what about the families where no amount of outreach to parents and no amount of media literacy work is ever going to have any impact? What if the parents in question do not even read or understand the English language?
What the noble Baroness’s Bill proposes is to make that process easier, better, surer, because it automatically removes from the equation material that, by common consent, should not be there in the first place for younger users. It demands that a technical solution be found to help with this problem, as well as the important issues mentioned in Clause 3. As many noble Lords have said, this is a huge and growing problem. A company that the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, has already referred to called MetaCert recently produced a free application that blocks only pornography sites that can be accessed via an iPad. The fact that startled me was that they found over 640 million pages to block containing porn, some of which would be hard core.
The Wolak Mitchell and Finekhor research shows that that 42% of 10 to 17 year-olds were exposed to online pornography and 37% of 16 to 17 year-old boys are visiting adult sites. Some of them will become addicted to pornography. I know some will say, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, that this is the natural curiosity of a pubescent young man. In the past, we would all have recognised this as being a top-shelf matter. Indeed, noble Lords smiled as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, mentioned his own curiosity.
It is a very different matter today. It is a very different thing if the top shelf and publications that would not be on the top shelf—that would have to be accessed in brown paper envelopes from places in Soho that would not be easily available— are in your son’s and your daughter’s bedrooms on a screen available to them at any time. They are on the iPad that they may take and share with their friends. If one puts that together with the fact that Ofcom recently reported that a third of 3 and 4 year-olds now have access to internet-enabled devices, what price the media literacy of that age group? We all have a responsibility here. That is why, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, all the children’s organisations strongly support this Bill. I understand that CEOP and many experts support the thrust of this Bill.
I do not intend to explore the different technical ways of achieving the Bill’s objective as outlined in Clause 1, but ask the Minister two questions. Are the Government in favour of the principle of establishing age verification as the basis for allowing access to adult content on the internet in any and all environments? Should such a policy be seen as migrating to the virtual world the practices almost universally accepted and understood in the real world, for example, in relation to sex shops and cinemas?
This Bill contains a simple proposition: all internet access providers should restrict the availability of adult content on the internet to persons who have been verified as being 18 or above. It is now the case, with only one exception, that all the mobile phone companies have been blocking adult content on a voluntary basis since 2004 for all their pay-as-you-go phones because, as noble Lords will be aware, they are the ones most commonly used by children and young people.
If all the UK’s major wi-fi providers intend not to allow any adult content on any of the services they provide to the public—for example, in railway stations, hotels or, as my noble friend Lady Massey explained, in Starbucks coffee houses and other places, many of which will not even allow an age verification option—the adult bar will be fixed. Therefore, it will soon be impossible for anyone out and about to access adult content online on a mobile, either at all or without going through an age verification process. The only place where this will not apply will be the home. The only place where pornography and other adult content will be easily accessible to children and young people will be in their home. I cannot see that that is right. Does the Minister agree with our analysis on this matter?
I invite the Government to join us in welcoming this Bill and the principle it contains. I call on the Minister to declare his support for the principle behind the Bill—that adult content on the internet should be restricted to adults and a way must be found to make that happen. I am surprised by some of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. I respectfully suggest that she may be out of date in the technology that is available and the anecdotes that she told the House. As other noble Lords have said, this is such a problem that I would be surprised if she were saying on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Benches that they think the status quo is adequate, because I do not think that anybody else in the House would agree with them on that matter.
I intervene to clarify things. I did not say that my party thinks the status quo is satisfactory and I made that very clear during my speech. I hope that the noble Baroness will see that when she looks at Hansard tomorrow. I also make clear that some of the anecdotes that I have raised are contemporary, particularly the ones about Stonewall and schools.
That underlines my relief. I am very relieved to hear that that is indeed the case. We all know that there are legitimate questions about how it will be implemented or how it might work, but today I am seeking a commitment about the desirability of the principle, which seems to me crystal clear and correct.
Like others, I am aware that this Government have been concerned about this issue and have not been inactive. I know that the Prime Minister himself has often expressed very firm views about this matter. However, we know that solving this is not straightforward. There are possibly, on my count, at least five or six government departments involved in the policy development. Obviously, the Department for Education is involved as it has responsibility for children and education, possibly the Department of Health, which has an interest in safeguarding nought to five year-olds under the new arrangements in the Health Act; the Home Office, the Justice Department, the DCMS—hence the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, is replying to the debate on behalf of that department—and BIS because of the business interests concerned. If I have left anyone out I apologise, but that, indeed, is why government has to act and why I am going to conclude with the following suggestions and requests.
Like my noble friend Lady Massey, I want specifically to say that I am aware that in Summer 2011 the “big four” ISPs—that is BT, Sky, Virgin and TalkTalk—gave the Prime Minister a specific undertaking to implement active choice before October 2012: that is, before the end of last month. I think that they reiterated their pledge at a special summit which the Prime Minister called in Downing Street. I would like to know whether they have done what they have promised. In particular, I would like to know what each company is doing in relation to active choice for new and existing customers. The House needs to know what each company is doing to assist in relation to wi-fi routers in the homes where their customers live. In other words, will there be any way that their solutions will help to ensure that the controls parents might set on the PC or main device also automatically work in relation to all other devices using the same connection, or do the poor parents have to go through the same routine on every single device in their home? These are important matters germane to the progress of this Bill. If the Minister does not have this information to hand, I would be very happy for him to write to me and copy his answer to all noble Lords who have spoken today. My noble friend Lord Harris is absolutely correct, the Government appear to be dithering on this matter and they need to stop doing so.
We on these Benches call on the Government to get on with making online protection of children happen. If not in this Bill, can I have a cast iron assurance from the Government that they will establish a working party or a task force, as called for by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, to report back within six months on the practicalities and technicalities of how adult content on the internet can be restricted to adults and how that might be implemented?
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and other noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and look forward to working with them on the Bill.
My Lords, I begin by also thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, for introducing this Bill. No one could question what it is seeking to achieve, and the debate has been very worth while. I declare an interest. As a father of three, I understand the concerns of parents when their children disappear upstairs and sit in front of a computer for hours. I wonder what they are doing and with whom they are communicating. I ask myself: “Should I be doing more? Should I go up to their rooms every half hour to check on them?”, because keeping your child safe, online or offline, is one of the most important responsibilities that we have as parents. I echo the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, that these are not straightforward issues.
Ofcom’s recent report into children’s media use found that 82% of all children aged five to 15 access the internet in the home. That figure rises to 95% for children aged 12 to 15. Children are digital natives, growing up in a world where they cannot imagine life before the internet. The internet is hugely beneficial, giving children opportunities to learn, enhancing their social and cultural development and providing them with the life skills that they need in the digital age. Some children are expected to do their homework online. However, as we have heard today, we must also be alive to the risks that children face online.
As has already been mentioned, in 2008 the Government commissioned Professor Tanya Byron to conduct a review into child safety online. Her report set an important basis for work on child internet safety and led to the establishment of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, UKCCIS, bringing government, industry and children’s charities to work together to advance online safety. In 2011, Reg Bailey’s report, Letting Children be Children, endorsed and amplified the work of UKCCIS. Both these reports highlighted the multiple factors at play when considering child safety online: the individual child’s level of development, experience and understanding, the role of parents and guardians and, finally, the role of industry and government. Both reports found that the best way to keep children safe online is to engage parents in their children’s online activity. It is parents who are best placed to assess the risks to their child and parents who can help their children to learn and become resilient online, as they do in the offline world. However, industry and government also have a role to play, giving parents the tools and support that they need to put them in control—a point well made by my noble friend Lord Lucas—and ensuring that vulnerable children are protected. In her report, Professor Byron talked about how:
“At a public swimming pool we have gates, put up signs, have lifeguards and shallow ends, but we also teach children how to swim”.
Importantly, both reports argued against a default position where internet content is automatically filtered, as called for by the Bill. I note the impassioned defence of this approach by some of your Lordships, including the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. What at first appears to be an effective solution may in fact be detrimental to the objective that we are all seeking to achieve, which is to keep children safe online. I shall explain why. First, filters give parents a false sense of security. Many of the harms encountered by children online would not be stopped by blocking pornography. Cyberbullying, pro-suicide material and sexual grooming are serious risks that parents need to be aware of and need to be engaged in tackling. Secondly, filters, while useful for some, may over-block—a point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich—resulting in children not being able to access helpful material about their own education, welfare, well-being and personal development. Thirdly, filters can be got around by those determined to do so. Peter Davies, the chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, CEOP, recently said that bringing in automatic filters is no substitute for,
“sitting down and having proper conversations with our kids”.
Although the noble Baroness’s Bill is admirably simple, what may appear to be a simple solution is actually rather more complicated because what constitutes pornography is not black and white.
The Minister is assuming that this is only about pornography. It is important that we establish that this is not just about pornography; it is about adult content, which is a wider concept than pornography. Will the Minister acknowledge that, when he uses the word “pornography”, he really needs to use the words “adult content”?
My understanding from the Bill is that the definition focuses on pornography, but I note that today’s debate has focused on wider issues. I hope that that answers the question.
As I was saying, what constitutes pornography is not black and white. To coin a phrase, it is fifty shades of grey. I note the definition that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, gave, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich questioned the robustness of the definition of pornography.
There would not be sufficient detail in the existing legislation to enable filtering products to be designed as required by the Bill. ICT industries would need much greater detail in order to comply, and that would need some regulatory footing. With the very broad definition in the Bill, it would be incumbent on government to develop very specific guidelines about what should be blocked. No system would be foolproof and I fear that enforcement would be, at worst, impossible and, at best, exorbitantly costly. Seventy-two hours of YouTube content are uploaded every minute. Who would police this user-generated content?
As I said at the outset, I entirely agree with the outcome that the noble Baroness is seeking: keeping children safe online. Where we disagree is the means by which to achieve that end. I firmly believe that we will achieve better results by working together with industry and children’s organisations than by regulating. By focusing on a wider range of harms than pornography, we can ensure that children are better protected.
The Government are not shirking their responsibility here. Two government Ministers chair the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, and another sits on the executive board with industry, charities and parents’ groups. Together, we believe that we are making a real difference more quickly and more effectively than could be done by regulation—a point made by my noble friend Lord Lucas. For example, in the space of a year, the four main fixed-line internet service providers, notwithstanding Starbucks, which was mentioned—BT, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin Media, representing 96% of the market—have delivered on their commitment to prompt users to activate parental controls on start-up. This has happened without the need for legislation and is already delivering the kinds of controls that parents want to protect their children.
I should like to pick up on a couple of points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, concerning the code of practice—in fact, there were more than a couple of points. She stated that the code does not address existing customers and covers only the four main ISPs. She raised the question of wi-fi and public access, the age verification issue, which I wish to focus on later, and the fact that the code of practice is not statutory. The ISPs have been proactively writing to existing customers, making them aware of free parental controls. UKCCIS Ministers have said that they want all ISPs signed up to the code of practice and they will be working to do this very soon. We expect all public wi-fi providers to announce measures to block adult content by default very soon. Self-regulation measures are making a difference.
I should also like to pick up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, concerning the Ofcom survey. She said that the perception was that parental controls were difficult to use. UKCISS has been working to increase the availability of all types of parental controls at all points of access to the internet, with ease of use a prominent feature. Parents can then choose the solution that best suits their level of knowledge and circumstances.
The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, raised an important point. The Minister is saying that so much of the responsibility for this must rest with parents, but all the data that we have tell us that parents are ill equipped to provide this leadership. They are behind their children in terms of understanding these technologies. Parents are simply not in a position to give that guidance, much as we all might like that to be the case.
I am sorry but the Minister needs to address the issue—and I hope he will do so—of parents who do not know how to take action, who cannot do so or do not speak English, and the issue of children in care. Millions of children are accessing the internet in many different ways, often not with their parents present. The Government have to take this on board. How serious does this have to get before they realise that parents need some assistance?
I understand the points that have been made. I have also made it clear that I understand the importance of keeping children safe online. However, I think we differ in terms of the way in which we go forward. Perhaps noble Lords will allow me to continue because I have some issues to point out concerning the controls.
Industry partners in UKCCIS are committed to putting in place filters which will see adult content blocked on more than 96% of public wi-fi. All UK mobile operators block adult content. Leading laptop and PC manufacturers, including Toshiba, Samsung, Lenovo, Dell, and Tesco, and also high street retailers Argos, John Lewis and Dixons Group are delivering solutions, which prompt the set up of parental controls on start-up or at point of sale, with Argos offering free filtering software. Industry-led solutions, designed with customers in mind, will, I believe, achieve a better outcome for parents and children than legislation could. However, we are not complacent. There is more that can be done and is being done.
I now want to focus on education, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and others. In education, 96% of primary schools and 73% of secondary schools teach e-safety, either as separate lessons or embedded in others. It is part of the statutory ICT curriculum and it also forms part of tutor sessions and personal social and health education—PSHE—lessons. Ofcom’s research shows that 87% of parents agree that their children have been taught to use the internet safely. In upskilling children and parents in partnership with Childnet and the Safer Internet Centre, all ISPs have developed video tutorials, demonstrating how to install and set up parental controls, available on the Safer Internet Centre website from December 2012. Many initiatives are in place. For example, TalkTalk has developed an internet safety badge for the Girl Guides; BT operates internet safety workshops for parents; Sky has built a social networking and cyber-bullying module for school children where they can create their own Sky News reports; and Facebook works with CEOP, the Samaritans, the UK Safer Internet Centre and the Internet Watch Foundation to deliver training and provide support for users, teachers and parents. I was also interested to hear from my noble friend Lady Benjamin her considered views on the importance of education of children and parents in managing online sites, which is the approach that we are taking.
I should also like to focus on the issue of vulnerable children, to which I know the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, alluded in one, if not two, of her questions to me. There is always more to be done. Several noble Lords have raised the issue of vulnerable children and this is an area of concern. Regardless of the options available to them, there are some chaotic homes where parents may be absent, uncaring or simply incapable of taking steps to protect their children online. In those circumstances, children may also be at risk of other forms of neglect or abuse and we must ensure that such children are first protected from these more serious threats through the existing safeguarding mechanisms that schools, health workers and social services so crucially provide.
The specific online risk to children in vulnerable circumstances is an area that UKCCIS is exploring, which the board will need to consider how to take forward. I do not think a blanket regulatory approach to protect a minority of children is the way forward. Ofcom’s research shows that almost 80% of parents of children aged five to 15 have rules in place about their children’s internet usage and almost half—that is 46%—have parental controls installed in the home. Clearly, we need targeted solutions for vulnerable children.
I now turn to some of the issues raised in the debate. In terms of an overarching comment, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said that the Bill was not 100% perfect, but it was a step in the right direction. I have noted that. The work that UKCCIS has been doing goes much further than the Bill. It takes a holistic approach to protecting children, working to implement parental controls at device level as well as at ISP level. It is working to educate children and parents and working with service providers, manufacturers and high street retailers such as Tesco, Argos and John Lewis.
I should like to address some of the issues from the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, who has done so much work on the subject of online violence, focusing on pornography and the importance of protecting the young. I was alarmed to hear her comments about BT and Starbucks, which we will certainly be following up to find out what can be done to resolve that.
The UKCCIS work on increasing the awareness and availability of parental controls has been focused on preventing access to all types of harmful content, not just pornography. It includes violence, drug misuse, cyber bullying, extremism and the promotion of criminal skills, suicide and eating disorders.
I realise that many questions have come out of this interesting debate. If I have not been able to answer any, particularly on age verification, I will certainly make it a point to reply to noble Lords.
The Minister mentioned age verification, and he prayed in aid the totally inadequate self-regulatory proposals that have been proven not to work. They are not working and we have an increasing problem. Will the Minister confirm that both the Byron report and the Bailey report recommended the use of age verification to block adult content on the internet?
I can give the briefest of answers in the time available on age verification. It is an important issue. However, I would make a distinction between age verification in terms of the gambling sites, which the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, mentioned. My understanding is that with gambling sites there is a clear distinction at the age of 18. Material for the over-18s is pin-protected. Taking our view that parents would in effect be in control, parents would want to set a range of controls appropriate for their children, which may be different for a five year-old and a 15 year-old.
I started by thanking the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity to debate these issues today and I close by doing the same.
I am sorry because I realise the Minister is trying to close his remarks. But I am trying to understand the answer that he has just given my noble friend. Is he in essence saying that the Government are disregarding the recommendations from those two reports because the age verification used for gambling sites kicks in only at 18? The point is that they are saying that age verification is an important mechanism. We have the evidence from the gambling sites that age verification is possible and can work. Why is it not possible to put the two things together and introduce age verification structures that may kick in at younger ages?
I note the noble Lord’s comment but the issue of age verification is more complicated than at first it appears. We need more time to discuss this. The best thing for me to do is to get back to the noble Lord and other noble Lords who have raised this particular issue with some answers.
Technology changes rapidly and legislation does not. Industry is better placed than legislators to design the simple and effective tools that parents want, keeping pace with technology and the way that their children access the internet. But there is a role for government in setting an expectation, bringing the right people together and always pushing for more and better—
I am sorry to intervene again, but it is necessary. Everything that the Minister appears to be telling us is unsatisfactory. If it is not possible for legislators to set standards, how will a mishmash of providers across the entire community come up with anything that is consistent and reliable? Will he at least tell us that?
I can reassure the noble Lord that it is in their interests to bring themselves up to scratch in order to be able to produce online safety for children. I know that this will not be a satisfactory answer for him, but our view is that it is the responsibility of parents, ultimately, to take this forward.
My Lords, why does the Minister say that it is in the interests of online suppliers to do this? It costs them money, they are in a highly competitive market and I suspect that a large number of them make money on the basis that they know perfectly well what some of their users want to access online and they simply want to increase the number of users. Why is it in their interests to introduce this without some form of regulation in the background?
We are getting into quite a detailed discussion. My best response is that I look forward to discussing these issues in more depth in Committee.
In conclusion, the Government will continue to ensure that everyone is playing their part in keeping our children safe online.
I am sorry, but before the noble Viscount sits down, I asked very specifically at least twice during my remarks whether the Government support the Bill in principle. The Minister has not answered that question. It is very important. It does not necessarily mean that the Minister wants the Bill, as it stands, to go forward, but the principle behind the Bill, that of protecting children from adult content online, seems obvious and I would really like to hear from the Government that that is the case. I do not wish to be rude to the Minister, but I wonder whether his speech was drafted in California or Whitehall.
My Lords, I have to admit that I am slightly bewildered. I very warmly thank everyone who has taken part in the debate and all noble Lords who have joined in the questioning to try to make clearer exactly what the Government’s position is. I was enormously pleased to receive a huge number of letters in support of this approach, including from colleagues who, sadly, could not be with us today. I am thinking particularly of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, but there were many others. The contributions from all around the House, from not only those who support the Bill but also those who had some queries about it, represented an amazing range of views and perspectives, all focusing on the vital need to keep children safe online. That is the Minister’s stated aim and the idea of an agreed line of 18—that certain areas should not be available to children under the age of 18—is a very important beginning.
We are seeking the best way of going forward, which includes, of course, an emphasis on parental education. It is important to remember that Clause 1 deals with pornography, Clause 2 with all adult content—that is important—and Clause 3 with education. The education side is vital too. I still find it rather peculiar—the Minister may be able to answer this at some stage, maybe, as he rightly says, in Committee—that the Government consulted on opting in if they are against that form of process.
I will return to details from the contributions that have been made. My noble friend Lord Swinfen made an excellent speech on why the opt-in system does not constitute censorship, while the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, highlighted the centrality of better education, a theme that very much came out in speeches by other noble Lords. The personal experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, of an opt-in system in a different way illustrated what a useful method this could be. I thank her and other noble Lords, including my colleagues on this Bench, for their contributions. I still hope that the Government will be able to explain their position, perhaps before Committee stage. It is such an important point.
Going back for a moment to the point about pornography, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich asked a very important question. The definition of a pornographic image was set out in the Act that I referred to. I gave the quote in order to follow through and define what “violent and degrading pornography” actually is. There is a better definition further on that can be referred to.
I am enormously grateful to the Children’s Society, which the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, mentioned in her excellent speech, and which has been a great help. It is so involved in this issue and knows more about it than any noble Lord or even the Government. Its experience is very much to the fore. I also pay tribute to CARE, which has been an enormous help in providing me and colleagues with all sorts of valuable information to move this whole issue on.
I hope we may come to a better understanding. I thank again all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, whatever their views, and end by asking the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.