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Internet: Regulation

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 29 October 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to promote the regulation of the internet, and if so how and by whom regulation should be carried out.

My Lords, where something is illegal under UK legislation, this applies online as well as offline. The Government support a self-regulatory approach and work closely with industry, civil society and other stakeholders to ensure that the internet is a safe and trusted environment, delivering social and economic benefits. In particular, the Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary have made delivering measures to protect children online a priority, rightly reflecting the great importance that the public place on this.

I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. I hope that he will agree that the internet is perhaps the most astonishing force of our era in terms of the pace of its advance and the scope of its reach. It brings many benefits, but it has a very dark side. I would like the Minister to pursue the issue of its impact on children, since very young children can have access to material which they could never have a generation ago. What kind of improved regulatory structures can be put in place? How can either the Government or Governments ensure that children do not suffer lasting harm?

My Lords, I think the truth is that we are living alongside a technological revolution and it is changing very fast. As the noble Lord said, it is very much a force for good but its capabilities have dangers, too. We must protect the young from harmful content online. Through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which is co-chaired by three Ministers across departments, more than 200 organisations come together to identify and address risks to children online. We believe that that is the right approach.

My Lords, in a speech to the NSPCC on 22 July, the Prime Minister noted that the time had come for action to address the corrosion of childhood by online pornography. What progress has been made following the voluntary agreement by the big ISPs to administer default filters for all new customers by the end of 2013? Have the ISPs taken action?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. The Prime Minister, in a very significant speech, made a number of points about how we best deal with the dangers involved, particularly for children and the vulnerable. Domestic internet filtering for new and existing customers was part of that, and not only by the four large internet service providers. We want to go beyond that. We need to ensure that this is a comprehensive package so that children are as safe as possible in this very changing world and environment.

My Lords, why has so little been achieved in getting a robust system of age identification that can be used on the internet, and why have the Government done so little to promote that with those who might make it happen?

I was looking into age verification only this morning. There is a working party on this matter at the moment in which the UK Council for Child Internet Safety is involved. It is drawing up a number of options; it is looking at some Danish examples of solutions and at how UK schools are doing it. I assure your Lordships that this is being taken very seriously indeed, because it is a very serious point.

My Lords, in considering the regulation of the internet, would the Minister bear in mind one law in particular—the law of unintended consequences?

My Lords, yes, this is why we think the self-regulatory approach is best. The situation is so changing that we could go down a legislative path and find ourselves in difficulties thereafter. That is why the approach of everyone working together—industry, parents, civil society—is at this time the best way.

Would the Minister agree with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, that in any regulation of the internet the core principles of openness and transparency must be at its heart?

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness. It is beyond my comprehension how anyone could have invented these technological advances. I have a lot of sympathy with people who have difficulties. They are, however, a force for good but we must make sure that they are open and transparent. That is why the work that the Government are undertaking is precisely to get the best approach.

My Lords, could the noble Lord explain to us, given that so much news is now transmitted on the internet, what the Prime Minister meant yesterday when he called on the Guardian and other newspapers to show social responsibility? How does that square with free speech?

There is a balance in all these things. Free speech is extremely important. It is—I have mentioned this before—something that we very much treasure. At the same time, it must be incumbent on us all, particularly in security matters, to be extremely cautious.

I welcome what the Minister said about schools. Can he say how teachers are being equipped to speak with confidence to children about such issues as the use of the internet?

My Lords, one of the key features of e-safety and schools is that this will be part of the national curriculum. It will be taught at all four stages. Clearly, it is absolutely essential that teachers are aware and feel comfortable with the teaching of it. It is very important that there is proper training for that.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is familiar with the fact that the ISPs are capable of filtering the accessibility of undesirable material in the same way that they are able to stop unauthorised access to people’s accounts. This, of course, is a costly exercise and not part of their business model. Would the noble Lord consider widening the remit of Ofcom and making it a full-blown regulator for the internet—particularly in implementing the aforementioned filtering that I referred to—for the benefit of protecting children and some other disadvantaged consumers?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord is right that Ofcom has a role to play. Indeed, it has been charged with reporting on child internet safety and parental awareness of, and confidence in using, those safety tools. The report will be out next year. We want to see what that brings forward. As I say, the approach is that industry, parents and civil society need to work together to get the right approach because, among other things, things are changing so fast.