Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking in order to achieve compliance with the new European Union net-neutrality Connected Continent requirements in such a way that United Kingdom adult content filtering regimes can be maintained in order to help keep children safe online.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have stayed to this pretty late hour and will be speaking after me. I shall start my comments with some background. The Government held a consultation on parental internet controls between 28 June and 6 September 2012. In December, writing in the Daily Mail, the then Prime Minister announced a policy he described as “default-on” adult content filters. Essentially, customers would be faced with a series of choices about filtering, and any attempt to bypass them would result in the filters being turned on by default.
On 22 July the next year, in his seminal NSPCC speech, the Prime Minister announced:
“By the end of this year, when someone sets up a new broadband account, the settings to install family friendly filters will be automatically selected; if you just click next or enter, then the filters are automatically on”.
That was achieved by January 2014 by three of the four ISPs and by Virgin in February. The basis for this arrangement was, crucially, a voluntary agreement. Provision of default-on and—less effective—unavoidable -choice adult content filters was very welcome, not because filtering is a magic bullet that will help make the internet safe but because it will help make the internet safer. In my book, that is a very important objective.
Of course filters are not the only tool. There are others, such as age-verification checks, and I strongly support the Government’s excellent proposals in this regard in the Digital Economy Bill which this House will debate on 13 December, but there can be no question of saying, “Well, now that we have age-verification checks, we can forget about filters”. One of the most important reasons for this is that, unlike the age-verification proposals which pertain only to pornography, adult content filters catch adult content in the round, including violence, gambling and drug use. The ISPs also offer customised filtering.
Mindful of these considerations, I was very concerned by the response that the then Prime Minister gave in another place to a question on adult content filters during Prime Minister’s Question Time on 28 October 2015. The Member for Derby North, Amanda Solloway, asked about a suggestion made by the Daily Mail that the adult content filtering agreement that the Prime Minister had negotiated with the big four ISPs was in jeopardy as a result of the European Union net neutrality regulations. The Prime Minister’s response confirmed that the Daily Mail was indeed correct that the net neutrality regulations interfered with the agreement, but he made it clear that he had secured an opt-out that was based upon the voluntary agreement being placed on a statutory foundation. He stated:
“we secured an opt-out yesterday so that we can keep our family-friendly filters to protect children. I can tell the House that we will legislate to put our agreement with internet companies on this issue into the law of the land so that our children will be protected”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/10/15; col. 344.]
On 11 December last year, in Committee on my Online Safety Bill, the noble Baroness, Lady Shields—the Minister—reiterated what the Prime Minister had said, and went further in setting out the deadline. Many of us thought that the deadline was April 2016, but the Minister made it clear that it was actually December 2016. Specifically, she said that,
“we must legislate to make our filters regime legal according to the new net neutrality regulations. The date for that is by December 2016. To be clear: we need to do something to keep our existing regime viable and functional under the law”.—[Official Report, 11/12/15; col. 1803.]
In her answer, the Minister did not set out exactly when in December 2016 the deadline was, but clearly, it must be at some point between 1 December and 31 December. Today is 1 December 2016, so if we have not reached the deadline, it is clearly almost upon us.
Many expected that the promised legislation would be in the Digital Economy Bill, but it is not. This issue was raised in another place by Mrs Caroline Ansell, the Member for Eastbourne, during the Commons Second Reading debate on the Digital Economy Bill. It was then brought up again in Committee through a specific amendment tabled by Mrs Claire Perry, the Member for Devizes. In his response, the Minister did not seem aware of the previous government statements on the need for legislation. Over the course of last weekend, however, I was informed that the Minister would be announcing in another place that the legislation would be coming in the form of an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill in your Lordships’ House. This announcement was indeed made on Monday this week.
Having tabled this Question for Short Debate on 19 May, I am delighted that we at last have some clarity on this issue, but questions remain. First, the Government said on Monday that,
“our interpretation of the EU regulations is that filters are allowed”.
That constitutes a dramatic reversal of the assessments made by the then Prime Minister on 28 October 2015 and by the Minister in your Lordships’ House on 11 December 2015—the last public statements on the matter recorded in Hansard—and yet no explanation for the change has been provided. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out in some detail the reasons why the interpretation of the impact of net neutrality has been reversed so significantly from the statements made just a year ago.
Secondly, given that today is 1 December 2016 and the Digital Economy Bill has not even had its Second Reading in this place, it seems unlikely that it will become law before March 2017, and yet the clear deadline set out by the Minister a year ago was December 2016. Is the point that the date no longer matters, given the Government’s new view that EU regulations allow the filters to continue?
Finally, in the statement on Monday, the Minister in the other place also said:
“I know that there is still uncertainty about this matter, as well as concerns that filters could be challenged … to put this issue beyond doubt, we will table an amendment … to the effect that providers may offer such filters”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/11/16; col. 1278.]
Could the Minister set out her assessment of a challenge to our current arrangements with the delay in implementing the statutory framework to March 2017? I very much look forward to the contribution of noble Lords to this debate and, of course, especially to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am very pleased to speak in today’s debate, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on securing it. The question before us is testimony to the noble Baroness’s astuteness in recalling that last year the Minister said there was a December 2016 deadline for introducing the legislation to make our filtering arrangements compliant with the EU net neutrality regulations. The first day of December is an appropriate date for the Minister to update the House, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has already pointed out. If the Government are now saying that they do not think the legislation is essential but they will introduce it just to put the matter beyond doubt, we need an explanation of that new position as it constitutes a significant change from what we were previously advised. I quote the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, who said,
“we must legislate to make our filters regime legal according to the new net neutrality regulations”.—[Official Report, 11/12/15; col. 1803.]
But only a few days ago, the Minister in the other place, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, mentioned, said:
“I am clear that our interpretation of the EU regulations is that filters are allowed when they can be turned off, as they are therefore a matter of user choice”.—[Official Report, Commons, Digital Economy Bill Committee, 28/11/16; col. 1278.]
I hope that if the Government choose to amend their Digital Economy Bill to address this important matter, it will say something about the standards employed in determining what is filtered. We have standards of classification for video works and a classification framework for mobile phones, but none for the filters used by ISPs.
This matter is of course part of a much wider current debate about how best to protect our children. It cannot be right that we live in a society where nearly one in 10 children aged between 12 and 13 worries that they have become addicted to online porn, with 18% having seen shocking or upsetting images, according to a Childline poll. We know the UK is facing a worrying increase in mental health conditions among the young, and the failure to regulate their access and exposure to extreme pornography can only increase this crisis. I welcome the Health Secretary’s call this week to social media giants to block children from sharing explicit images in order to help to curb the pernicious sexting crisis that is damaging too many in this growing online culture of intimidation and sexual imagery.
Of course I fully appreciate that some of these challenges will be addressed by the provisions of the Digital Economy Bill that focus particularly on pornography but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has pointed out, there can be no question of age verification checks on pornographic websites replacing adult content filters, which have the much wider remit of filtering adult content more fully, including, in addition to pornography, violence, drug use and gambling.
I welcome the decision that the British Board of Film Classification has been appointed as the age verification regulator under the Digital Economy Bill, which will shortly receive its Second Reading in this House, and will be judging what is considered pornography using its classification framework. It will be able to issue notices to ISPs to prevent access to material but is not intended to take on the role of issuing financial penalties and enforcement notices to non-compliant websites. The BBFC also runs a classification framework for mobile phones that determines what is considered suitable for adults only and ensures restricted access for children and young people. That framework goes beyond pornography and covers drugs and violence. I raise this because as yet there is no similar framework for internet content filters, and there needs to be further examination of this issue.
I have fully supported the online safety Bills tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. Clause 1 of the current Bill would put ISP and mobile phone filtering on a statutory footing. Clause 2 would require Ofcom to set standards for the filtering of adult-only content and for content filtering by age or subject category. To have a universal set of standards that would apply across devices and all media could be the way forward, and I ask the Government to consider this when bringing amendments to this House. Ofcom has recently reported that tablets and mobile phones are now the most popular devices for going online. Family-friendly should mean the same, however a young person accesses the internet.
Each of the ISPs offers slightly different options on filtering. This can lead to confusion. Information about the differences should be transparent to parents and there should be consistency about what is covered in the different subject categories. If a parent changes ISP, there should be no surprises about what is filtered and what is not. There should be guidelines determined not just by industry but by a publicly appointed and accountable body. The excellent Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, suggests that Ofcom could do this, but as the BBFC will have a role in relation to internet sites, it could also be an option for producing guidance, in the same way that it does for its classification scheme.
I hope that the Minister can give clarity to the UK’s position with regard to EU net-neutrality, and that any amendment will ensure that there is a transparent, consistent approach between all ISPs in the level of filtering provided. I know that there are concerns among industry providers that any amendments on parental filters could adversely affect their ability to provide out-of-home parental filters with content filters applied without consent, but this could be further clarified during Committee on the Bill. If the legislation were to follow the model of the noble Baroness’s Bill and make the provision of default-on adult content filters mandatory, that might help to solve the problem.
I trust that the Government’s intention to bring about better controls on online pornography through the Digital Economy Bill will succeed.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on securing this important and very timely debate.
Like others, I am very interested to hear the Minister’s full explanation for the quite dramatic change in the Government’s understanding of what is required to comply with the net-neutrality regulations which have taken place between 11 December last year and Monday this week. The Statement on Monday in another place causes me some concerns. If the Minister is saying that the law that the Government propose will clarify that it is legal to provide adult content filtering when it can be turned off as a matter of user choice, the legislation that he proposes does not protect our adult content filtering regime. Rather, to my mind, it places it in jeopardy.
I very much hope that the Minister can explain to the House that the words employed by the Minister in another place on Monday should not be taken literally and that she can confirm to us today that the proposed amendment will preserve our adult content filtering regime, including in relation to public wi-fi and internet access from mobile phones owned by under-18s.
The other matter I wanted to address is the rather strange disparity between the willingness of the Government to legislate fully for age-verification checks on pornographic websites through the Digital Economy Bill and their reluctance to legislate fully for adult content filters. Having conceded the point that child protection online is sufficiently important to justify legislation on age verification, even for sites based in other jurisdictions, it seems odd to resist placing adult content filters on an equally robust footing for ISPs based within our jurisdiction.
Mindful of this, I very much hope that, in bringing forward legislation, the Government will make it clear not just that adult content filters are legal but that all ISPs serving homes must provide default-on adult content filters. I am very troubled by the fact that the big four ISPs that sign up to the adult content filtering arrangement amount to only 88% of the market. That leaves a full 12% of the market, therein many children, beyond the reach of the filtering agreement.
In some ways it is easier to live with that kind of arrangement if one is operating on an entirely voluntary basis, but it becomes more difficult once attempts are made to regulate this in law because doing so inevitably has the effect of formalising, and thereby indirectly condoning, discrimination through the creation of two classes of children: on the one hand, those who are lucky enough to have parents who use one of the big four ISPs and are consequently more likely to benefit from adult content filters and, on the other hand, those whose parents do not use the big four and who are invariably left at greater risk of exposure to inappropriate adult content.
Mindful of this I strongly encourage the Government to apply themselves with the same kind of urgency and commitment to protecting children from adult content in the round—violence, drug use, gambling and pornography—through filtering, as they are in relation to pornography through age verification checks. In making this point I am aware of a potential overlap with what I said earlier. I think that I am right in saying that the purpose of the net neutrality regulations is to outlaw informal arrangements, by which I mean ones not expressly sanctioned by law. The idea, as I understand it, is to limit the extent to which states can lean on ISPs and others to block or restrict access to material, which the powers that be simply do not like for political, religious, or even unstated reasons. Mindful of this, the net neutrality ethic contends that any use of filters to manage internet traffic must be not only congruent with wider human rights legislation but mandatory under national law, not discretionary or permissive.
If I am correct this means that moving to a mandatory regime would not only address the concern about covering all ISPs but also take care of any problem relating to maintaining public wi-fi filters and filters on the phones of those under 18. The requirements in this regard would be protected because they would be mandatory. On that basis, we would have a win-win situation. First, we would maintain public wi-fi filters and filters on the phones of those below 18 years of age. Secondly, we would ensure that all households with children benefit from access to default-on filtering.
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister can confirm, first, that the forthcoming legislation really will protect our adult content filtering regimes, including in relation to public wi-fi and children’s phones and, secondly, that it will apply—as does the Online Safety Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—to all ISPs that service homes with children. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, because we have a generation of children who are being stripped of their childhood by viewing graphic sexual images on both mobile phones and tablets.
My Lords, the House should be deeply grateful indeed to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for her persistence in bringing before us the difficult issue of online safety, particularly as it affects our children. I must say, the thickness of the plot as she set it out in her opening speech would be a credit to Agatha Christie herself in this particular aspect of it. We will be returning to the broader aspects when the Digital Economy Bill comes before us shortly. I believe that there is also a forthcoming report by the Communications Select Committee on children and the internet.
Today’s question concerns how, in the UK, we can comply with the EU net neutrality requirements while maintaining our commitment to keeping adult content-filtering arrangements in the internet provision in this country. I am pleased that the Government will indeed be bringing forward an amendment to ensure that any legal uncertainty is set aside.
I associate myself completely with the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, and the noble Lord, Lord Hay, in their speeches. I am also pleased that in the other place the Government accepted amendments promoted by Claire Perry MP and Fiona Bruce MP—one of the Cheshire MPs—to strengthen the child protection aspects of the Digital Economy Bill, which we will be considering very shortly.
The sheer growth of the internet is a source of continued amazement. I understand that 99% of UK households with children now have an internet connection, and that most children now spend more time online than watching television. Given the influence and impact of the internet, we must remain vigilant so that we can access its benefits but avoid its temptations and downside.
The term “net neutrality” sounds easy on the tongue but it is quite clear that the internet is not neutral in its effects. It can bring many blessings but also many corresponding dangers. The two inevitably go together. Advances in meaning, technology and potential of all sorts seem to generate a corresponding downside or shadow side. If you think about it, that is the way the universe seems to be constructed. There was no death in the universe until life itself had evolved. You have to get to the complexity of animals to have “nature red in tooth and claw”. You have to get to the sophistication of human beings able to think about truth, beauty and justice to produce Adolf Hitler, or moral evil in all its forms. It seems to me that the more developed a society becomes, the more we have to be alert to the fact that there are corresponding dangers.
We are all easily seduced by the old myth that there can be pure progress without a downside. I go back 30—perhaps 40—years to a journalist I remember on the radio, Patrick Hutber, who used to talk regularly about business matters. His maxim was always: progress means deterioration—that is, whatever progress is announced, we should look for the accompanying downside. That is so true as regards the growth of the internet. I gladly and warmly acknowledge all its potential blessings but there is always a downside—in this case in relation to privacy, as we discussed during the passage of the Investigatory Powers Bill, and in exposing our children to things over which we have no control without the sort of filtering arrangements that are the subject of this Question.
The noble Lord, Lord Hay, said that the present voluntary arrangements cover nearly 90% of the market. However, there is a further 10% or 12% of smaller internet service providers that are not subject to those arrangements. I understand that many of them adhere to those arrangements in one form or another, but then you have the problem of a lack of consistency, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, referred. It would be good if the Minister could bring us up to date with where the smaller ISPs are as regards endorsing the voluntary arrangements which the big four have taken on board.
All this underlines the need for a proper statutory approach that covers all service providers, large and small, because of the important need to provide the underlying child protection aspect of what we are doing. I hope that the promised government amendment can be framed in these terms. I look forward to hearing more on that from the Minister when she responds to the debate.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for initiating the debate and for her dogged persistence—if I might add to the right reverend Prelate’s description—in never taking no for an answer or taking her eye off the ball for a moment. When the history of online child protection comes to be written, there will be a glorious and well-deserved chapter devoted to the noble Baroness’s determination and efforts over many years to get the UK Government and the internet industry to move on this issue. Indeed, I am convinced that the excellent progress made in the Commons, which we all read about on Tuesday morning, is due in no small measure to the noble Baroness’s terrier-like grip on this subject.
That brings me to my second point—namely, that even with terriers snapping at their heels, Governments have not always been known to move on this issue. In fact, quite often they have been very unmoved by our eloquence on this subject. However, on this occasion, I am very pleased to be able to congratulate the Minister and the Government on the amendments that have already been made to the Digital Economy Bill, which we shall consider shortly, which will introduce age verification for pornography sites.
That, once again, puts the UK in a global leadership position in this space. Many other democratic countries will closely follow how this measure helps to keep children safe, and, when we have shown how well it works, I am confident that they will follow suit. Of course, as other noble Lords said, legitimate issues remain around privacy dimensions, and doubtless we will discuss them more fully in due course.
To return to the question the noble Baroness asked in this debate, I am curious to know three things. First, when will the Government ask Ofcom to carry out another audit of the take-up and use of filters provided by the big four ISPs? This time, will the Government ask Ofcom to verify what the ISP tells them and explain the differences? Secondly, are we truly satisfied that children whose parents are not with one of the big four are adequately protected? That echoes what many noble Lords have said. Should we not find a way to compel or require all ISPs to do what the big four are doing? Finally, can the Minister confirm to the House that, following Brexit, the UK Government will continue to comply with net neutrality and the other collective agreements that there have been across Europe in this space?
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for being so resilient in bringing matters of online safety for children to your Lordships’ House. I am also pleased that the noble Baroness mentioned the Government’s statement on Monday, which suggested that content filtering by internet service providers may not encounter any difficulties as the result of the EU net neutrality rules. This is welcome news. However, I am a little nervous that there still seems to be enough uncertainty that the Government feel that they need to legislate to ensure that the filtering is on a solid legal footing. But I shall wait to see what the Minister has to say.
I have consistently supported the previous Online Safety Bills of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, when they were debated here in the House, with the objective of putting ISP filtering on a statutory footing. As the noble Baroness has set out, throughout the history of the current arrangements with the big four ISPs, we seem to have gone back and forth between discussions of “active choice” and “default-on”. I know that “active choice” was favoured because it was felt that parents would be more engaged if they had actively to decide what to do about the filtering levels, which is a fair point. Given how much time children and young people spend online, it is hard to see how parents can avoid being engaged. It is most encouraging to read the latest statistics, which say that parents are engaging in different ways to keep their children safe. Thank goodness for that.
As we are talking today about content filters, I hope your Lordships will allow me to share with you what Ofcom’s 2016 report on children and the media says about parental awareness and the use of ISP content filters. It tells us that slightly more parents of five to 15 year-olds are using ISP content filters in 2016 than in 2015—31% compared to 26%—95% of whom said they were useful. However, there is no room for complacency, as only 58% of parents of five to 15 year-olds say they are aware of the filters. If that many parents who use the filters say they are useful, surely we should be encouraging more than 31% of parents to use them.
Ofcom published research at the end of 2015 which showed that among the big four there are radically different results on uptake of internet filters. While Sky has used the “default-on” model proposed by the former Prime Minister, BT has elected to use “active choice”. The differences are striking. Ofcom stated that in June 2015 BT reported that 8% of its new customers and 5% of its existing customers had taken up parental controls. Sky, by contrast, reported that 61% of its existing customers had chosen parental controls in the age 13 group. Another 1% had set the protections at PG, and a further 8% chose the 18 category.
Interestingly, on 25 October Sky was asked about its “default-on” policy when it gave oral evidence to the Lords Communications Select Committee, of which I am a member, during its inquiry into children and the internet. Sky told the committee that the evidence on active choice was a take-up of around 8% to 10%. It went on to explain that it had changed its approach. Rather than asking its customers,
“‘Do you want it on, yes/no?’, we said, ‘We have put it on. You can turn it off if you want’ and, lo and behold, the take-up rate has gone up to 60%, so we are pretty convinced it is the right thing to do. We are the only fixed-line broadband company to do that, and we introduced a new broadband service, Now TV broadband, and we launched it completely default-on earlier this year. We have considered both options and we are pretty confident we have got the right outcome, if the objective is high parental engagement and high take-up of controls”.
Looking at the figures showing how many young people go online, I would argue that for many good reasons we want high parental engagement and a high take-up of controls. That is why we should review the options in front of us today.
In oral evidence to the Lords Communications Select Committee on 1 November, Ofcom gave a similar story. It said:
“ISPs that have had the most success with takeup—if success is measured by take-up—are those that have adopted a default-on process. I think it is fairly clear, based on behavioural economics, that people are much less likely to opt out than they are to opt in. Of course, it is a small set of data, but I think the default-on in these circumstances has indicated that it drives take-up”.
Ofcom went on to say:
“Default-on does drive take-up. It is as simple as that. … There is a question for the ISPs themselves whether or not other ISPs want to follow suit with Sky, whether or not they think that the benefits outweigh the risks to their customer base. It is also for policymakers and for Parliament to decide”.
There we have it.
As I have said many times in this House, childhood lasts a lifetime. What children see and experience stays with them for ever, as was graphically revealed recently in the football sex abuse scandal. I hope that the Minister, who I know is also committed to this issue, will consider these points and legislate for so-called default-on to keep our children and young people safe online.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her perseverance and success in highlighting concerns about children’s access to online pornography. Through her Private Member’s Bill and her debates, she has done great service for the children of this country. As treasurer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, I am most grateful to her.
I want to underline to your Lordships why my noble friend’s work is so important. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Brent Centre for Young People—a mental health service for adolescents based in north London that grew out of the Anna Freud centre. In her last paper on adolescence entitled Adolescence as a Developmental Disturbance, Anna Freud laid out the many challenges facing adolescents and regretted that so many responsibilities were placed upon them. Yet we have been very slow to recognise and act upon the threat to young people’s development posed by online pornography. I am therefore grateful for the actions that the Government are now taking.
I feel particularly concerned for looked-after children—children in the care of local authorities. Often they have been let down by the people they loved and trusted the most, and it is only natural that they may be fearful of intimacy. Pornography can provide a spurious intimacy and the illusion of closeness, which, for some of them, may be an attractive alternative to the real thing.
I recall visiting a 15 year-old boy in a children’s home about 12 years ago. I am afraid that it was not a good home. The reason I went to visit was that it was good educationally and the young people did well in that regard. I should emphasise that there are many excellent children’s homes that I have visited, but this one did not cater for the mental health needs of this young man, who came from a very dysfunctional background. It did not address his emotional needs and it did not help him learn to trust others and be able to make and keep relationships. That young man was going on to further education to study computing. My concern was that this intelligent young man, who I fear was unable to make close relationships with people, would have a close relationship with his computer and the internet, and perhaps with pornography and gambling. That would be the way that he compensated for the fact that he had not received the help he needed to recover from his earlier trauma.
On the positive side, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester highlighted some of the very many benefits of the internet. One of the concerns of care leavers is that so often they may feel isolated. Having spoken with care leavers, I know that a very important support for them is their peers—being able to join together with other young people who share their experience of being in care is a great support to them. Those who thrive often have those support networks. Recently, a young person told me about the value of a Facebook group where she could join other care leavers to talk about their experiences and feel supported by one another. There are certainly many benefits to the internet revolution.
Another group about which I feel concerned is the one in five girls in this country who are growing up without a father in the home. They may well still be in touch with their father and they may, in many ways, be far better off not having their father in the home. However, as I think your Lordships may understand, children are narcissistic. Young children believe that the world revolves around them, and so when their father departs, they do not understand the reason why and see it only as a rejection of themselves. For girls to experience their father leaving home, and then to perhaps lose contact with him, means that the first and most important relationship they have with a man is one in which they have experienced rejection. I fear that that group may be particularly vulnerable to the early exposure of pornography.
In a seminar on this issue last year, we heard from a teacher who highlighted the benefits of and need for discussions in schools about pornography and violence—to go hand in hand with the very important work of my noble friend Lady Howe. He felt that this was a very important protective factor for our young people in this difficult area. I agree with so many of your Lordships that we need to have high-quality sex and relationship education in our schools. I encourage the Government to move towards a statutory basis for personal, social and health education. There are many reasons for this, but among them is that it will ensure we get high-quality training for such teachers—if it is in statute, the training will be delivered.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, the former chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, has been a doughty champion for this issue, and the Education Select Committee and other Select Committees in the other place have also called for the Government to introduce this measure. Given what the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, said about her concerns about adolescent and child mental health, it is important that the Government move forward as fast as possible. Will the Minister be good enough to take these concerns to the noble Lord, Lord Nash, and inform him?
I am concerned that the exposure of young children to pornography may tend to make girls, particularly, feel that they can be seen as objects and encourage boys to see them as such. It may encourage a view of sex as just a sensation and young people to avoid real intimacy and commitment. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Howe for bringing this issue to us and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for tabling this debate today and I echo the comments of everyone in this debate in thanking her for her tireless work in championing the need for improved online safety for children. As various noble Lords have said, when the history is written, her name will be written there in lights, I am sure. I am also grateful that she has raised this important concern about whether our proposed UK age verification regime will fall foul of the EU net neutrality rules. I am hoping that the Minister will be able to add some certainty to what seems at the moment a rather murky area of law.
We would not be here today if there were not a sense of growing crisis about the damage caused by children viewing online pornography. I will not repeat everything said by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and others, but the full impact of online pornography on children’s attitudes to sex and relationships is becoming more and more apparent. We know that young people are accessing it at a younger age, many by accident, or because it is sent to them by social media. The NSPCC found that over half of young people between the ages of 11 and 18 had been exposed to online pornography, and nearly all of that group had seen it by the age of 14. The NSPCC also reported that the boys who had seen it felt that it was realistic and the girls who saw it felt pressured by the images they had seen.
There is now also evidence that children in primary schools are being exposed to this material. We have to accept that this is storing up trouble for the future and completely skewing young people’s healthy sexual development. Indeed, it was recently reported that 5,500 sexual offences in schools had been reported to the police and we can imagine that that is the tip of the iceberg and represents only the more serious offences.
Of course, this is why our party has argued consistently for compulsory, age-appropriate sex education in schools—a policy supported by over 70% of teachers, parents and governors and supported very widely in this Chamber. It is why we continue to be dismayed by the Government’s resistance to what seems to us to be an overwhelmingly sensible proposal. Nevertheless, we welcomed the moves by the Government in the Digital Economy Bill to strengthen the age verification process for accessing adult content online. We have supported the steps taken so far to introduce age verification for online content. We have supported the agreement with the British Board of Film Classification that it will become the regulator for online viewing. We accept that it has the knowledge and expertise to carry out this function effectively. However, we remain concerned that the scope of the Bill is limited and will not embrace all online pornography. We are even more concerned that the lack of clear enforcement powers will limit the Bill’s effectiveness. In essence we believe that having two regulators, the BBFC and Ofcom, risks further delays in requiring non-compliant providers to take down material in breach of the law.
This brings us back to the issue before us today, which is the enforceability of the measures in the Bill. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester said quite rightly that it is becoming a rather thick plot. This is because in parallel with the UK’s moves to strengthen child online protection, the EU has been moving in a rather different direction. Through its net neutrality regulations it has developed a set of EU-wide regulations to safeguard open internet access. On the face of it, the UK’s proposals for age-specific filters and controls on the internet are at odds with those EU regulations. This was flagged up by the then Minister, Ed Vaizey, when it first came before the Commons European Scrutiny Committee. At the time he said that further negotiations would need to take place, but that it might be necessary to vote against the EU proposals. However, as noble Lords know, the proposals were also wrapped up in a package to end mobile phone roaming charges, which of course was a very welcome development. As I understand the final outcome of the EU negotiations, the specific exemption of the UK’s child online protection regime was dropped, although the UK was given an extended deadline until this month, December 2016, to comply with the new EU regulations. Subsequent to that decision the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, was quoted as saying that an EU opt-out on the child protection issues had been secured, but that is not my reading of the proceedings at the EU level. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could clarify the status of that decision once and for all.
Since that time, the Digital Economy Bill has been published and debated in the Commons. The Bill included proposals for the regulator to direct internet service providers to block any site that does not have age verification in place. In the Committee debate in the Commons the Minister, Matt Hancock, claimed that Clause 8 reinforced the protection of parental filters where they can be turned off by the end user, which was allowed under the net neutrality rules. However, as we have heard, at the Report stage of the Bill on Monday this week, the Government tabled a significant number of amendments to the age verification process. We are still working through all the implications of those amendments. But the Minister, Matt Hancock, specifically announced that further amendments will be tabled here in the Lords to put the net neutrality issue beyond doubt and to confirm that providers can offer parental control filters.
In the light of the continuing uncertainty, can the Minister clarify what legal advice has been received on whether the new proposals comply with the net neutrality regulations? Can she assure us that any proposals will address the unintended or potentially unintended consequences related to out-of-home use, such as in wi-fi hotspots where it would not be possible for age verification filters to be turned off? Can she also clarify how this obligation on ISPs will apply to websites originating in the rest of the EU which are covered by a different interpretation of the net neutrality rules? Finally, given the new powers that have been passed to the BBFC, can she clarify whether Ofcom or the BBFC will now have the responsibility for checking compliance with the new EU regulations?
I realise that the Minister has been working on this issue for some time, and I also realise that it has been moving apace since the Digital Economy Bill was published. However, I am sure that she realises the sensitivity of this subject and the concern of many campaigners about the need for improved child protection on this important issue. I hope that she will be able to use this opportunity to clarify the legal situation and put parental minds at rest in advance of the more detailed deliberation on the Bill.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for securing this debate and for her unwavering commitment to the safety of children, especially the vulnerable, online. I am also grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken today. We are indeed fellow travellers on the journey to ensure a safe and secure internet for everyone, including children. That is why I am most happy to come to your Lordships’ House and use this opportunity to set out the Government’s position and our broader approach to ensuring children’s safety online in our connected society.
As noble Lords will know by now, I can confirm the developments on Report of the Digital Economy Bill earlier this week, specifically around family-friendly filters with respect to net neutrality, and on our proposals requiring age verification for sites delivering pornographic content. I believe that the noble Baroness will welcome these and I am grateful for the opportunity to explain them.
Before I do so, it is worth reminding ourselves, as many noble Lords have mentioned, of the increasing role and importance to children and young people of their lives online. The most recent Ofcom figures reveal that 87% of children aged five to 15 are now spending more time online than in front of the television. There are no signs of this trend abating. Some 80% of young people have their own personal devices and they are almost always using them unsupervised. A lot of time is spent discovering new information, new people and new points of view. This is a good thing. When this is done in a safe way, the internet is, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, a bicycle for our minds. But riding a bicycle on a country road with a parent nearby is a very different experience from riding it in rush-hour traffic in central London, even if you think you are pretty good at it.
The internet is a vast, open space where children can learn, create and dream, but it also represents a mirror on society, reflecting its ills and dangers. Young people today are the first generation to grow up more technologically literate than their parents and teachers. While they are quite technically astute, as they explore this uncontested space they can be, and are, vulnerable to harms. The noble Baroness eloquently outlined some of those risks and harms. I am here to reassure noble Lords that, for this Government, safety online is a number one imperative.
One of our actions, and the point of the noble Baroness’s concern, is to ensure that parents are provided with internet filters that enable them to decide what material their children can access online. Since the announcement in 2013 that outlined our agreement with the four major ISPs to offer internet filters to parents, good progress has been made. BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media—the big four, which cover 90% of the market, as has been said—have delivered on their commitment to offer an unavoidable choice to their customers. Smaller ISPs have had varying degrees of take-up on this issue. We recommend consistently to those seeking the provision of internet services to choose services that offer filters if they have a concern that their children will be accessing content that is inappropriate online.
Filters are an effective tool for parents, giving them the flexibility to tailor their children’s online experience to protect them across a range of categories, including inappropriate sexual and violent content, self-harm content, access to information about drugs and many things beyond. Latest research from Ofcom on the take-up of filters published in November this year highlights that two-thirds of parents are aware of them and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, approximately a third of parents use them. But we must be aware that filters alone are not a panacea for protecting children from harmful content online. They are but one protection mechanism, supported by a wider programme of education and internet safety awareness raising.
It is not surprising that concerns were raised when it was suggested that such filters could be made illegal under EU open internet access regulations, which cover net neutrality and came into effect on 30 April this year. I apologise for any confusion caused. Since then, we have had detailed legal advice. We have consulted Ofcom and legal advisers. We can now be very clear that the net neutrality regulations do not fall foul of our family-friendly filter scheme. I will explain more in detail.
It may be helpful if I set out some of the background to this EU regulation to explain the legal position we have now come to. The regulation stems from the European Commission’s proposals for legislative measures to achieve a single telecoms market, or a connected continent. It aims to ensure that the rights of consumers to access services of their choice over the internet are protected. It prohibits anti-competitive behaviour by internet service providers in blocking or slowing down rival services.
We have examined the regulation in detail, and the potential for the network-level parental filters currently offered by providers to conflict with it. We have now received clear legal advice that such network filters that can be turned off are compliant with the regulation. Article 3.1 of the regulation states:
“End-users shall have the right to access and distribute information and content ... of their choice”.
Filters that can be turned off are a matter of consumer choice. Therefore, they are allowed under the regulation. We understand the principle of the regulation to be based on the protection of consumers’ rights to access the content and services they wish to. On that basis, and following our legal interpretation of the regulation, we now believe that parental filters are in fact compliant. To be clear, I say that the filter regime is in no way in jeopardy. Indeed, Ofcom, the regulator with responsibility for enforcement of the regulation in the UK, agrees with this interpretation. Tony Close, director of content standards at Ofcom, confirmed this during evidence to the Lords Communications Committee inquiry, Children and the Internet, on 1 November.
Nevertheless, we are very aware that there has been uncertainty on this issue, and indeed there has been some concern that that view could be challenged. As noble Lords know, the previous Prime Minister also said that he would legislate to underpin our family-friendly filter regime. Many noble Lords have noted that my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Digital and Culture announced on 28 November, on Report on the Digital Economy Bill in the other place, that we will legislate on filters. We will bring forward an amendment to the Bill in the Lords, to the effect that providers “may offer” filters. This will remove any doubt on the matter and will ensure our continued support. I hope that this is a welcome confirmation and will reassure both the internet service providers providing the tools and all stakeholders with an interest in child online safety.
As noble Lords know, another key measure to protect children from harmful material online that we are bringing forward in the Digital Economy Bill is age verification for pornographic sites and ancillary services that provide access to pornographic material. Just this past Monday, we also introduced an amendment to the Bill that gives the age verification regulator, the BBFC, the power to direct an ISP to prevent access to pornographic sites that are not in compliance with age verification rules. It is absolutely right that, if a business providing pornographic content to adults refuses to comply with its legal obligations to prevent children from accessing the material, the regulator is afforded powers to ensure that children are not exposed to age-inappropriate material. This is a targeted approach that protects the freedom of adults to watch pornography online but provides adequate protections to ensure that the same safeguards exist online as in published media.
The House might find it useful if I explained the process by which the measures put forward in the Digital Economy Bill would operate. The BBFC, as the age verification regulator, will identify sites accessed in the UK, determining whether they contain pornography and operate on a commercial basis. The BBFC will assess whether AV controls are in place and are sufficient. If a site is determined non-compliant, the BBFC will identify that site and notify its provider. If after notification the site remains non-compliant and uses payment systems, the BBFC will notify the payment provider of non-compliance so that it can withdraw its service from the site. Should the site continue to fail to comply with adequate age verification, the new clause agreed on Monday on Report in the Commons gives the regulator power to require internet service providers to block the non-compliant site.
We have had extensive discussions with industry about this impending legislation and conducted a public consultation. The industry has assured us that it will take responsible action to comply and avoid that final sanction. These provisions are a significant step towards ensuring that children are not exposed to age-inappropriate content online; however, we must be realistic and recognise that no solution, however well defined and implemented, will be 100% effective. These measures are just part of our range of activities to protect children online. Our partnership approach with the internet and technology industries and the charity sector is key to our success.
I want to give two examples of partnership initiatives because they show that when government, industry, law enforcement and NGOs come together, the results are not just incrementally better, they are dramatically improved. The most important area of my work is combating the heinous crime of sexual exploitation of children online. Never before has it been easier for perpetrators to make contact with children, share images of abuse and inspire each other to commit further crimes. As the internet respects no state boundaries, we must combine our national response with a robust global response. This issue cannot be dealt with by any one country, company or organisation working in isolation. It demands a co-ordinated global response by Governments, technology companies and civil society.
The WePROTECT Global Alliance to End the Sexual Exploitation of Children Online is that response. It is a global coalition of more than 70 countries and organisations committed to national and global action to end the online sexual abuse of children. I am proud to be part of this alliance and its founding team, brought together by our Government in 2014 and since then merged with the Global Alliance to End the Sexual Exploitation of Children Online. This has created, for the first time, a single global initiative with the expertise, influence and resources to transform how this crime is dealt with worldwide, resulting in more victims being safeguarded and more perpetrators being apprehended.
Many noble Lords are also familiar with the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which represents more than 200 organisations committed to protecting children from harm online. I am one of its co-chairs, along with ministerial colleagues from the DfE and the Home Office. Through the voluntary efforts of its members, UKCCIS has made a substantial contribution to online safety. The group convenes four times a year and acts as a central point to address all matters relating to keeping children safe online. So I can assure the House that government is joined up at every level to protect young people’s mental health and well-being in this connected society. UKCCIS has supported developers and providers of social media and interactive services, with a guide to encourage the development of products that are safe by design. We are clear that we expect social media and interactive service providers to develop technology solutions that protect users, especially children, from online harm and abuse.
Through its excellent work, UKCCIS has also recently produced advice for schools and colleges to help them respond to incidents of sexting. As the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, said, this is a serious and dangerous activity that requires guidance and support for school governors and teachers everywhere. I am especially excited about the work that UKCCIS has started on digital resilience, which is bringing together individuals from the education sector, parents, industry, expert civil society organisations and children themselves to develop the tools needed to respond to a constantly evolving internet and the threats and harms associated with it. By digital resilience, we mean developing the skills that help young people become digitally independent, so that no matter what they encounter while connected, children and young people can recognise the dangers and deal with those challenges with confidence. This is very ambitious work, but it is through such efforts that UKCCIS is able to respond to new and emerging threats.
Protecting the vulnerable online is a vision shared at the highest levels of this Government, and we are working on many fronts to keep children safe online. I thank the noble Baroness once more for the opportunity to set out the important work that is under way and the measures that this Government are committed to delivering. I hope I have been able to reassure her of our firm commitment. Lastly, irrespective of negotiation outcomes resulting from exiting the European Union, we will ensure that our world-leading child protection measures are preserved.
House adjourned at 5.50 pm.