Report (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 11th, 13th, 16th and 18th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 15: Internet pornography: requirement to prevent access by persons under the age of 18
25B: Clause 15, page 18, line 7, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“(1) A person contravenes this subsection if the person makes pornographic material available on the internet to persons in the United Kingdom on a commercial basis other than in a way that secures that, at any given time, the material is not normally accessible by persons under the age of 18.”
My Lords, we now move in this wide-ranging Bill from the esoteric delights of the universal service obligation, dynamic spectrum access services and the Electronic Communications Code to a crucial area: namely, seeking to protect children online.
As we have said before, the introduction of a new law requiring appropriate age verification measures for online pornography is a bold new step, with many challenges. It ensures that commercial providers of pornographic material are rightly held responsible for what they provide and profit from. Commercial providers of online pornographic content provide an incredibly large amount of easily accessible content to UK users, with little or no protections to ensure that those accessing it are of an appropriate age. It is imperative that we retain controls on such material and, in this terribly sensitive area, aim to strike a balance between freedom of expression and protection of the young.
Perhaps the most sensitive challenge is how we approach material that would not be classified by the BBFC in the offline world. We have heard concerns from some quarters that the current definition of “prohibited material” may be going too far in the type of material that the regulator is able to sanction above and beyond the age verification requirements. We heard in Committee that this,
“would give the regulator extended powers of censorship beyond that originally envisaged in the Bill”,
that it would potentially set,
“new limits on consenting adults accessing pornography that is not harmful to themselves or others”,
“this is not the place to resolve these wider debates on adult consensual pornography”.—[Official Report, 2/2/17; cols. 1355-56.]
We agree. Our policy intent is child protection, not censorship. Our amendment redefines the scope, taking an approach based on the definition of an “extreme pornographic image” in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. This captures grotesque sexual violence, including rape. We have thought long and hard about where we should draw the line. We have adopted two principles. First, as this measure is about protecting children, we do not want to create a new threshold for what adults can or cannot see. This is not the place for that debate. Secondly, we want to ensure that we do not allow the regulator to step on the toes of others involved in policing this territory.
The definition of an “extreme pornographic image” in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act provides a good marker. I know that there are also concerns about sexual violence against women and other acts that do not meet the “extreme pornography” definition. We absolutely do not intend to create a regime that unintentionally legitimises all types of sexually explicit content as long as age verification controls are in place. We are most definitely not saying that material not allowed under other legislation is allowed if age verification is in place.
That is why government Amendment 25YV makes it absolutely clear that content behind age verification controls can still be subject to criminal sanctions provided by existing legislation: for example, the Obscene Publications Act. But we concede that there is unfinished business here. Having protected children, we still need to examine other online safety issues. As we will come to later in the debate, my department is leading cross-government work on an internet safety strategy that aims to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online. We want to understand more about the scope of the problem and identify where there are gaps in our current approach to tackling online harms.
We have heard the calls to provide the age verification regulator with powers to block criminal images involving children, as defined by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. However, at the forefront of cross-government thinking on this was the need not to cut across the excellent work of the Internet Watch Foundation on child sexual abuse content, complicating the landscape and making it harder to effectively and efficiently protect children. It has never been the case that this regime would seek to regulate that child sexual abuse material. Fundamentally, we are dealing with different harms, with different responses, and it is right that they are treated separately.
With child sexual abuse material, the Government seek to ensure that it is eradicated at source: that content is not just blocked but actively taken down from the internet. Providing for the age verification regulator to simply block this material in the course of its work risks this. The BBFC and the IWF are in agreement that they do not wish the BBFC to take on the role of policing child sexual abuse material, or content likely to fall within this classification. The Internet Watch Foundation does a vital and difficult job and we should not seek to complicate that by conflating with age verification.
This is a sensitive subject and we know that we will never satisfy everyone. But I hope that I have convinced noble Lords that the position we have settled on is neither arbitrary nor a sop to one interest group or another. I commend the government amendments in this group.
My Lords, I was wondering which of us would go first, so I apologise to the House for being a little slow.
I strongly support the work that the Government aim to do on age verification. It is admirable work and, as a former family judge, it is exactly what I would have hoped that this Government would do. I have therefore had no general involvement in the Bill until this moment—but I am concerned that their admirable work is likely to have the unintended consequences that the Minister says he does not intend to have.
The government amendments deleting “prohibited material” and putting in its place “extreme pornographic material” are giving a message which is of great concern to me. The Prime Minister has gone public, hugely to her credit, in saying that she wishes to eradicate domestic violence. But the impact on the public of a lack of online protection in relation to prohibited materials, by changing the reference to extreme pornography, will inevitably leave a gap. Although the Government say that it will not, it seems obvious that it will leave a gap—which means that serious violent porn will not, if this legislation goes through, be covered in the way that extreme, violent pornographic material will be.
This is an opportunity for those disposed to violence, particularly in the home against spouses and partners, to see it online before they try it out in their own home. Perhaps I may give your Lordships one rather telling example of how this impacts not only on women. Many women out there, some of whom have already been polled, will be absolutely astonished and some, I believe, are outraged by the idea that this degree of violent porn online will not now be part of what is restricted. But I had a case on one occasion of two children, aged about 10 and 11, who kept the television on as loud as they could so that they could not hear their father beating their mother. Day after day they sheltered in the kitchen, away from what was happening in the front room.
The message is what worries me. Perhaps the message is even more important than the wording because the extreme, violent pornography may be identified as something which would not include a great deal of serious, violent porn—whatever the Government might say. This is the matter that has brought me to table an amendment and to speak to your Lordships today. There is some flawed Crown Prosecution Service guidance, but I do not propose to say anything about it as I hope that other noble Lords will do so.
We are facing a vast number of amendments from the Government on the second day of Report, without any prior consultation or any opportunity in Committee for noble Lords to ask rather more about the likely consequences, intended or unintended, of these amendments. So I have tabled Amendment 25YD—I thank noble Lords for telling me which one it is; there are such a lot of Ys—saying that there should be two aspects: first, that the use of the words “extreme pornographic material” in the place of “prohibited materials” should not last for more than three years; and, secondly, that in two years, by regulation, the Government should be looking at, reviewing and reporting on whether this has had any adverse effect. I have to say that I would be very surprised if it had not.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for a very helpful letter in which he says that the Government are looking at a Green Paper followed by a White Paper. I am also grateful to three Ministers for coming to a meeting. I asked, although it is likely that I already knew the answer, whether, after the White Paper, there would be legislation. However, we have Brexit. I was hearing only this morning how many Bills in addition to the great repeal Bill will need to be brought through this House as well as the other place in the 18 months to two years before we come to the end of Article 50 and leave the EU. The likelihood of getting legislation in the next two years to deal with the sort of violent porn that I am talking about is really remote. I am concerned about the damage that it may do to women and also, inevitably, to children, if the man and the woman have children. However young they are, the children will suffer as well as the women—and, sometimes, the men.
That is the general background to this somewhat elaborate amendment. I hope it may find favour with the House.
My Lords, I am very pleased to hear the Minister say that the remit of the IWF is to be extended and that soon it will be able to remove these images wherever in the world we see child abuse images stored. At present the IWF can take down only UK-stored images. Every day that passes sees the increasing abuse of innocent children because of these images. When can we expect to see the IWF given all the necessary powers to take down any child abuse images that are ever seen on the internet, in line with the offline as well as the online policy that the BBFC has? On this International Day of Happiness, I thank the Government for ensuring that children will be safeguarded and will not be able to see abusive pornographic material anywhere, and that as soon as possible the IWF will be given all the powers it needs to make sure that we do not harm children anywhere in the world.
My Lords, it seems odd in a society such as ours that we are even thinking about how to give access to violent pornography or trying to mitigate it in some way. It seems clear to me that most of us sitting in this House probably have less idea of how online digital communications work than a five year-old. Children—my grandchildren’s generation —are very adept and almost intuit how to do this stuff. The technology is advancing so quickly—more quickly than we can imagine—and you can bet your life that many of our children will find ways around it more quickly than we can set down laws. What is online ought to be held at least to the standard of what is appropriate for offline, because it is online that children, as well as young people and adults, will access this stuff, and it is too easy. If the higher standard applies to offline, surely it ought to be maintained for online communications. Otherwise, we are saying that this is acceptable for the common good and that it represents an acceptable anthropology—our understanding of what a human being is—in which we are happy to normalise violence, the commodification of people and sex, and even the exploitation, not just for sexual purposes but for commercial profit, of something that ought to be held in higher regard.
My Lords, I spoke on the subject of prohibited material in Committee and I rise to do so again. In Committee, I raised concerns that if the Digital Economy Bill was amended so that prohibited material could be supplied if placed behind age-verification checks, children were still likely to see this material because the Government have made clear that they are expecting a “proportionate enforcement” targeting the biggest pornography sites—likely to be the top 50 to start with—so we are not creating a world in which children are safe from accessing prohibited material. They will be safer, yes, but not completely safe.
That is the sad effect of government amendments to Clause 16. If they are accepted, it will become acceptable for a website to supply any material so long as it is behind age verification, unless it falls within the very narrow definition of extreme pornography. By doing so, we are giving violent and abusive material a large boost of respectability, as we do not allow supply of the same material via DVDs or UK-based video on demand.
In this context, the fact that the legislation defining prohibited material remains in place does not make these amendments more acceptable. It simply presents a very awkward question for the Government. Why do they not want to enforce the standards set by these laws? The decision to go to the lengths of asking us to change the Bill so that most of the laws that make up prohibited material will not be enforced cannot but send the message that in some ways we regard this as acceptable. How does changing the Bill today to allow pornographic violence that allows injury to the breasts, anus and genitals so long as it is not serious, and serious injury to any other body part, do anything other than normalise violence against women? How is this consistent with the Government’s other messaging on violence against women?
The other government argument—that the CPS will still retain the discretion to prosecute—borders on the absurd. As everyone knows, the vast majority of online porn accessed in the UK comes from websites based in other jurisdictions that cannot be easily reached by our courts. That is the whole point of creating an age verification regulator with the enforcement powers in Clauses 22 and 23, which do not depend on getting errant websites in Russia into court. I am especially concerned that this material will include some images of children. The origins of this part of the Bill were, after all, to protect children. I know that the Internet Watch Foundation has a very effective role in working with internet service providers on photographs and pseudo-photographs of children. However, I am troubled because there is no agreement around the world about the ethics of animated pornographic images of children. The IWF’s role on animated images is restricted to images hosted in the UK.
The truth is that the IWF, unlike the age verification regulator in the Bill, does not have statutory foundation or statutory powers of enforcement. Its power is based on and limited to international agreement. This works satisfactorily where there is such agreement, namely in relation to photographic images of children. It does not work, however, where there is no international agreement—in relation to computer-generated images.
In the context in which we now find ourselves, with a Bill that makes provision for a regulator with the power to prevent animated child sex abuse images being seen in the UK, courtesy of the enforcement powers in Clauses 22 and 23, it would be manifestly wrong to strip the regulator of that power and to invest the responsibility for dealing with the challenge in a body unable to enforce our legal standards in relation to computer-generated child sex abuse material projected into the UK from websites based abroad. Without a clear enforcement mechanism, we would effectively be endorsing the availability of such content behind age verification and telling foreign websites that it is okay to supply such material into the UK. That is not the outcome I was expecting from the Bill.
I do not support the Government’s extreme pornography proposals and will certainly vote against them if there is a Division. In the unfortunate event that they pass, I will support the very important backstop amendment moved by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, to which I have added my name. It proposes a reasonable and measured approach to the changes the Government have made at a very late stage of the Bill. The amendment requires a review of how the amended clauses that I listed at the start of my speech are working and the impact of the use of the extreme pornography category after two years, with the option of restoring the current enforcement standards, which Amendment 25W would remove, after three years. This at least gives us time for further consideration, and I hope that the House will warmly support that opportunity.
My Lords, I make the same point I made in Committee, which is that offline and online should be aligned. I am relatively agnostic as to exactly where the line is drawn, but it should be consistent across offline and online. Otherwise, I invite the Minister to confirm that under the government amendments, material it is prohibited to see offline, in that it is refused any form of certification by the BBFC, will now be available online. If the answer is that it will not, I cannot see why the Government do not maintain the original position in the Bill. If, on the other hand, it will be available online, does the Minister recognise that—unfortunately and, I fully recognise, unintentionally—the Government may subvert the efficacy of the offline legislation? The internet is recognised not merely as a method of disseminating information. People frequently do not buy music in the form of CDs; they download it. They do not buy videos; they download them. If we do not do something about this, we will unintentionally subvert the offline legislation.
My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 25YD. I find myself very surprised by Amendments 25H, 25W and 25YC. I appreciate that in some technical sense these amendments may not jeopardise the principle that what is illegal offline is also illegal online, but as a matter of practice and enforcement, they most certainly do jeopardise the spirit of the principle.
The Bill is very clear that the age verification regulator must enforce the law with respect to illegal pornography to the same standard that exists offline. These amendments, however, deliberately change this and thereby, albeit without perhaps making significant amounts of illegal pornography legal, certainly ask us to support the proposition that our law should instruct the regulator to make space for all but the most violent, illegal pornography. What kind of message are we sending to society? If we vote for these amendments today we will be giving the wrong message. We cannot go to the length of using valuable parliamentary time to change the Bill as it stands through these amendments, which as a matter of practice make space for violent pornography, without sending a message that violence against women is in at least some sense acceptable.
The definition of extreme pornography and material is an inadequate replacement for the prohibited material category which the amendments seek to remove. It will cover only the explicit and realistic portrayal of violence which is life-threatening or likely to result in serious injury to just a few specific parts of the body—breast, anus and genitals. This leaves a range of violent acts and behaviour which we would be saying, courtesy of amendment to Clause 16, is acceptable to be portrayed in online pornography but which would not be granted an R18 certificate, or indeed any other certificate by the British Board of Film Classification for distribution in other ways.
The British Board of Film Classification guidelines state that material to which it refuses to give a certificate includes depictions of the infliction of pain or acts that may cause lasting physical harm; sexual threats, humiliation or abuse; and material, including dialogue, likely to encourage an interest in sexually abusive activity which may include adults role playing as non-adults. I believe that if such material is to be included in the new standard for the acceptable level of violence and abuse in pornography online, we are setting the standards in the wrong place. It puts a sheen of acceptability on materials portraying violent and abusive actions and, in doing so, communicates to the viewer that such attitudes and behaviour towards women are permissible.
In the light of what is already known about the overlap between the use of violent pornography and the development of attitudes which condone violence against women, and sexual aggression, this is deeply concerning. The government Amendment 25H to the definition of pornographic material, and what material can be blocked by the regulator, also places question marks over the standards applied to other formats, by which I mean DVDs and video-on-demand services. I recognise that the internet is a vast place, but simply because there might be different values reflected in different corners of the web, should we capitulate and reduce our standards? I would say not.
The Government have tried to protect the application of different standards set out in other legislation with Amendment 25YU to Clause 27. While the actual legislation may not be changing today for DVDs and video on demand, the pressure to adjust how that legislation will be enforced will be hard to resist. Furthermore, Amendment 25YV implicitly recognises that there are different standards applying in other formats that will no longer apply to the internet, breaking the premise that what is illegal offline is illegal online. This not only disproportionate but extremely risky.
I understand that there are concerns about the original definition of prohibited material, which is being removed by Amendment 25W because of out-of-date CPS guidance, but surely that is a temporary state that will in time be remedied. Making a permanent change to the definition of what pornography is acceptable to supply behind age verification goes beyond addressing the issues on which the CPS guidance needs updating. On touching on the CPS point, I must engage with the argument made by some that the Government are compelled to make these changes because the CPS guidance on the Obscene Publications Act is out of date. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has pointed out, that argument is absurd. If the CPS guidance is out of date, it should update it; it is ridiculous to argue that Parliament, which is sovereign, should have its freedom to do the right thing fettered by the fact that CPS guidance has been allowed to get out of date.
Anyone voting for Amendments 25H, 25W and 25YC will be voting to make space for violent pornography online which the Bill as currently defined does not do. If there is a Division, I shall be duty bound to vote against, because I could not possibly associate myself with an attempt to make violent pornography more available than this Bill currently suggests that it should be, respecting as it does the offline enforcement standards. A vote for these amendments must inevitably have the effect of conferring some level of approval and some measure of normalisation of violence against women. If there is a Division, I shall vote against.
In the unfortunate event of the amendments passing, I shall vote for the excellent Amendment 25YD proposed by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, to which I have added my name. The amendment allows for the definitions of extreme pornography to revert to the current definition of prohibited material in three years’ time, subject to a review in two years. It future-proofs the Bill and provides a means of dealing with this problem without needing to bring forward new legislation and take up valuable amounts of parliamentary time. The three years will provide ample time for the CPS to update the guidance that it should never have allowed to get out of date and provide time for proper public debate.
The internet is a wonderful invention in many ways, but it can be used for ill. Standards on harmful material and pornography have been honed and developed in relation to videos and DVDs in the offline world over many years. It would be ill advised permanently to establish a separate and lower set of standards for the internet. Amendment 25YD will allow the Government’s amendments to address out-of-date guidance but restore consistency in the approach to pornography across all media after an appropriate time. I commend it to the House.
I support Amendment 25YD in the name of my noble and learned friend, to which she spoke so well earlier on, and the comments of other noble Lords in the debate so far. The problem with coming to this point in legislation, which has proceeded all the way through the other place and is now on Report in your Lordships’ House, on a day when some 174 government amendments have been laid, is that it is very hard to do justice to genuine discussion or indeed scrutiny, which is what this House is supposed to do with these measures. Although I welcome the measured way in which the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Ashton of Hyde, introduced the amendment today and his assurance that there will be a Green Paper, I was also very taken by my noble and learned friend’s comment about the difficulties there would then subsequently be in having legislation. That is all the more reason not to legislate in haste, lest we end up repenting at leisure.
Secondly, and in parenthesis before I turn to my substantive points, I was struck by what my noble and learned friend said about public opinion on this issue. Although some might think this a very narrow view, polling over the weekend showed significant opposition to the Government’s proposal. Indeed, support for it ranged from 5% to 10% in the ComRes poll. Some 82%, rising to 86% in the case of women, thought that online standards should be the same as those offline or stronger—the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Gordon. Only 4% thought that online standards should be weaker but sadly, as we have heard, that is the ultimate, though probably unintended, consequence of the amendments before your Lordships’ House.
I have long had an interest in the subject of children and media safety, after the tragic death in February 1993 of James Bulger, near the constituency in Liverpool which I represented when I was in another place. The 24th anniversary of his murder has just passed. I promoted a cross-party amendment to bring in increased protections for video material. As a result, the Government introduced the amendment, which is now Section 4a of the Video Recordings Act 1984, into this House on 14 June 1994. That section has become known as the “harm test” and I hope noble Lords will indulge me while I quote what was said in this House at the time by Earl Ferrers, who was speaking for the Government:
“There may be some works which the board believes would have such a devastating effect on individuals or on society if they were released that there should be the possibility of their being refused a video classification altogether, and the clause leaves the board free to do that. The criteria mean that the British Board of Film Classification must consider who is in fact likely to see a particular video, regardless of the classification, so that if it knows that a particular video is likely to appeal to children and is likely to be seen by them, despite its classification being for an older group, then the board must consider those children as potential viewers. That does not mean that the board must then ban the video altogether. The board will still have discretion on how, or whether, to classify it; but it must bear in mind the effect which it might have on children who may be potential viewers … our amendment goes wider and is not confined to psychological harm or harm only to children. Harm to adults and to society in general can be taken into account”.—[Official Report, 14/6/1994; col. 1592.]
Earl Ferrers was right then and those words stand the test again today.
This framework has underpinned video regulation since and was adopted into the regulation of video on demand in 2014. It was totally logical that it should be included in this Bill when it was introduced in the other place. In parenthesis, and before saying anything further, I commend the Government for taking on the regulation of pornography on the internet through the Bill. I particularly support what the Minister has been saying about age verification and the effort he has been putting into that issue. Our principal, but not only, concern is the protection of children; hence the emphasis on age verification. However, we should not delude ourselves into believing that this can be enough to meet the significant challenge. The evidence of the damage being done to children and young people through easy access to pornography is deeply disturbing and should give us all pause.
Last November, the Justice Minister, Dr Phillip Lee, the Member for Bracknell, said that the internet is,
“driving greater access to more worrying imagery online. In the extreme, the sexualisation of youth is manifesting itself in younger conviction ages for rape”.
Hopefully, this legislation will make a significant dent in the amount of material seen by children and will lead to a reduction in the concerns that have been so extensively documented over the last couple of years. However, having stepped on this worthy but difficult road, some potholes have appeared, not least whether and how we should regulate what adults see. I am aware that some noble Lords are of the view that it is out there; we do not need to worry about it; it has all been going on for ages; adults should be able to see what they like and we should not interfere. However, we have not taken that view in the offline world, under the Video Recordings Act 1984.
One reason for that is that it became abundantly clear that children were accessing gratuitously violent material because adults simply left it lying around. It also became clear that what we see influences our behaviour, whether we are children or adults. The advertising industry certainly believes that what we see influences us. I looked at figures for advertising over the weekend. In the last 12 months, more than £5 billion was spent on TV advertising—a record amount. Taking UK advertising expenditure as a whole, in 2016 it increased by 7.5% to £20 billion, and internet ad spend increased by 17.3% to £8.6 billion. What we see affects what we eat and wear, how we spend our money and how we behave. What is true for the advertising industry is manifestly true for these other influences too. Indeed, Parliament has rightly rejected a disinterested, laissez-faire approach to the online world of video on demand, as is evident in the Communications Act 2003. We have had to say that some material simply is not appropriate, even behind age verification, with the harm test being a consideration in what the British Board of Film Classification will classify.
The Government are saying that nothing will change with their Amendments 25H, 25W and 25YC: what is illegal offline is, and will remain, illegal online. Yes, but only up to a point. For instance, we are saying, “Don’t possess explicit animated images of children, but it is okay for a website to supply this to you if it is behind age verification as it does not meet the definition of extreme pornography”. We are telling retailers that they cannot supply an unclassified video work without committing an offence, but that if they are a website the regulator will not bother them unless the work is unclassified because it contains extreme pornography. Extreme pornography is a very narrow definition of very violent pornography. It is a much narrower category than prohibited material, against which the law is enforced offline and against which the Digital Economy Bill currently suggests that the regulator should enforce the law. Violent pornography will be caught via the extreme pornography offence only if it is life threatening or likely to result in not just injury but serious injury to specifically named body parts—as we have heard from my noble friend Lady Howe—clarifying that serious injury to other body parts would not be caught, as she mentioned.
Rejecting the current prohibited material standard would also mean making space for sexually violent material that would not fall within one of the criminal offences but which the BBFC would not classify,
“in line with the objective of preventing non-trivial harm risks to potential viewers and, through their behaviour, to society”.
I understand that some may say that even with these amendments the provision of an age verification regulator with the power to enforce the law online would be beneficial to the extent that it means extreme pornography would be caught. For me, however, and I suspect much of the country, the presenting issue is quite different.
We are at Report stage of a Bill that has completed all its stages in the Commons and almost all its stages here. These issues should have been more widely aired and these amendments should have been considered in the House of Commons and in depth in Committee in both Houses. There should be a public debate about the changes the Government are proposing and how they will impact on other media standards, which they inevitably will over the longer term. Unless there is evidence that there is no detrimental impact, the definition of extreme pornographic material will revert to that originally used for prohibited material and the ability to provide all this material via age verification with impunity will be removed. Amendment 25YD would give us all time for reflection and to review what the evidence says on the impact of violent pornography on women, and whether the Government have got the regulatory framework right.
Twenty-four years ago, I was talking about concerns arising from violent videos. Technology and accessibility to media have changed dramatically over that time but human nature has not. The same principles of harm to children, adults and the wider society need to be weighed and confronted. It was this House that introduced the harm test in 1994 and it is this House that should now ask the Government to reflect further, which is precisely what my noble and learned friend’s amendment seeks to do.
My Lords, my name has been mentioned in connection with something that I said on this issue. I had understood that the Government’s reason for widening the scope of permissible pornography from prohibited material to exceptional pornography was to do with standing CPS guidance, which is supposed to be out of date. I said that it certainly does not require an Act of Parliament to bring prosecutorial directions up to date: if the judges have changed the rules, the prescription should be changed immediately. When I was told about this matter, I raised it with the Minister, from whom I understood that that was not the reason for this change, so my point about bringing the guidelines up to date does not really matter. There is a different reason for making this change, but I am not sure that I understand it and it will be for the Minister to explain it now. When he introduced these amendments, I did not understand him to say exactly what the reason was for wanting to make the change, but it is clear that there is a substantial change allowing pornography which is not permitted as prohibited material to be allowed now. I am not sure what the basis for that is and why it is being done.
I am extremely sorry that I have an appointment in connection with another Bill with which I am involved, so I will have to leave. However, as my name was mentioned, I thought that I should say exactly what my position is. I do not understand the justification for this change and it is for your Lordships to say whether it is justified.
My Lords, I find myself very much in the same school as the right reverend Prelate in not understanding how we can justify a form of sexual violence by one group towards another. It is very upsetting. However, I want to raise a slightly different issue that I tried to raise in Committee. I suppose that it is covered by government Amendment 25B in that it refers to commercial providers. I keep feeling that we are missing the point here—missing the business model that is fuelling all this pornography. If the amendment were to refer to those who monetise pornography—that is, those who receive money from pornography—we could make a much cleaner sweep of this issue. I think that many noble Lords will have noticed this morning—
My Lords, would it help the noble Baroness if I mentioned that later in the debate we will be talking about the definition of commercial providers?
It certainly would. I beg the Minister’s pardon.
My Lords, I wish to speak in support of Amendment 25YD, tabled in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. It would have the effect of requiring a review of the use of the term “extreme pornography” after two years and provide the opportunity to replace it after three years with a broader standard of protection enforced offline. I shall also speak against the Government’s amendments to Clauses 22 and 23. They would water down the Bill by deeming only the narrow category of “extreme pornographic material” unacceptable and not the wider category of prohibited material.
I understand that Part 3 of the Bill is primarily about protecting children and that the Opposition Front Benches do not want to provoke a discussion about adult access to porn. However, by asserting that adults should have online access to what is prohibited offline, it is they who have opened up this debate.
I also understand that the Government have legally founded reasons for their amendments. As we have heard, they are concerned, for example, about the mismatch between the Crown Prosecution Service guidance and what is actually prosecutable following developments in case law. Amendment 25YD would create a window of time in which to deal with this.
Standing back for a minute, it seems incomprehensible to a non-lawyer like myself that juries can determine that henceforth something is now acceptable that would, until fairly recently, have been considered obscene under law, and yet they bear no responsibility for meeting the societal costs that accrue when such lines of acceptability are moved.
Many of the practices portrayed in porn scenes and films that would now be deemed acceptable under case law are medically harmful. For example, a very cursory glance at NetDoctor reveals that fisting—putting the whole hand into the rectum—which case law now deems acceptable in porn scenes,
“may be acceptable and enjoyable for some couples. But the diameter of the hand is so much greater than that of the penis that there’s an increased risk of anal injury. For that reason, we do not recommend this practice”.
There is no public recognition whatever of the medical harms, and therefore costs, associated with these sexual practices. We know that around 510,000 new STI diagnoses were made in the UK in 2011, with estimated treatment costs of £620 million. While these are obviously not all directly related to porn use, they are an indicator of the social and medical costs that hyperliberalism in sexual activity is exacting.
There is also scant regard for the well-documented effects on people’s intimate relationships. I have already talked in this Chamber about increasing numbers of young girls being injured, even to the extent of incurring lifelong fistula conditions, by anal sex that has been inspired by their partners’ consumption of porn. Researchers also point to how very dubious it is that men will properly obtain consent from their girlfriends and to the social pressures that girls endure: that they should like it or that the pain will decrease as they get used to it. To me this points straight back to the ubiquity of porn, which is normalising not just potentially harmful sexual practices but also coercion and aggression.
We will never deal with the appalling prevalence of violence against women in our society—our Prime Minister’s laudable ambition—unless we face up to the intense violence in relationships being played out every night on millions of computer screens. Research indicates that extensive exposure to porn can make it impossible to obtain sexual satisfaction without also releasing the aggressive drive. In other words, as tolerance to porn grows, sexual excitement is no longer satisfying and aggression must also have an outlet.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, stated in Committee, with no apparent irony, that her party’s opposition to existing Clauses 22 and 23, which passed in the other place, is based on the fact that:
“We are simply trying to protect the status quo so that adults who currently look at material can carry on looking at it—and this has nothing to do with child protection and children’s access to pornography”.—[Official Report, 2/2/17; cols. 1362-63.]
Again standing back, the status quo is not one that responsible legislators should defend. The prohibited material she wants adults to be able to access, which the BBFC has determined they would not be able to view offline, is sowing violence and relational misery across the nation.
Of course, not all consumers of porn are compulsively so or addicted to the material, but we are beginning to learn from research that the effects of compulsive or addictive responses to porn are harrowing and ultimately avoidable. Experts on porn addiction say that, just like other forms, it is progressive and destructive. I am aware of one individual who started watching adult porn and found it was a gateway into child sex abuse images. He followed a few links and found himself hooked. He was caught after downloading a huge number of pictures and narrowly escaped a custodial sentence. However, he can now only see his own children under supervision and will never work in his profession again.
The internet has made porn more accessible, affordable and anonymous. It has radically changed the terms of society’s engagement with porn. The libertarian argument is that we should cease from regulating anything until we are sure, beyond any doubt, that it is intrinsically harmful. I am surprised that a Conservative Government do not instinctively see the need to act before more harm has been perpetrated as a result of such an enormous change in behavioural norms.
The BBFC offers protection offline, which the Bill could have extended to the online world, but this has been swept away by these amendments. The Government have abrogated their responsibility in order to preserve people’s freedom to walk in a minefield that they could have done something to help clear and make safer. Talking with one young man who has struggled to stop watching porn because he feels compulsively drawn to it but hates the way it affects him—a common paradox in porn consumption—he said it would make a difference if the top 50 sites were effectively blocked. It would cut down on the accessibility of the best- quality porn—they are the top sites for a reason, after all—and undermine porn’s acceptability.
When the Government use their powers to restrict access to something for the public good it sends an important message, and when they choose not to use those powers it sends another message—that the practice is neutral or even positive. Neither are the case. By the time we had irrevocable evidence that smoking was harmful, about 85% of the population smoked. However, the Government acted in the teeth of vested interests and public practice. This Government should also act in this area. If they are intent on passing their amendments in order to get their age verification legislation through, then shame on the Opposition for exacting so high a price. The amendment of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, will at least ensure we revisit this issue in a timely fashion.
The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, is right about the huge dangers in viewing much of this pornography online but I do not think this Bill is the right place to deal with it—that is the challenge—because we are confusing two issues. This Bill is about protecting children—that is what was originally intended—and the idea is to have age verification to stop children watching any sexually explicit material online regardless of how bad or innocent it is. If it is sexually explicit, it has got to be hidden behind age verification.
The challenge is that we have now introduced into the Bill the concept of protecting adults. However, there is other legislation that already does that. If it is not working properly, we should cure that legislation. I agree that we should bring the CPS guidelines into line with what is going on and probably review the Obscene Publications Act. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act also deals with issues around this problem. It is covered in lots of places.
However, inserting a blanket cover in the Bill is dangerous because suddenly the BBFC will act on its own initiative to close down websites, which will then be appealed against and cause chaos to the system while the law courts are possibly doing something else. Once it is appealed to the law courts you will have a problem because two sets of measures will be fighting each other. We need to keep it consistent. Yes, we should have protection for adults, but let us do it properly and in the right place.
I support the Government on these amendments for that reason because it brings the Bill back to where we can protect children against watching anything unsuitable. The government amendments align what is in the Bill with the Visa and MasterCard standards, which helps with the enforcement measures in the Bill. They will apply internationally and this will help the ASPs—the ancillary service providers—to comply with the Bill and help to enforce measures against websites that do not have age verification in place. They will align the Bill with the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act as well, which, again, will mean that there are no other loopholes by using one Act against the other. I have already spoken about the CPS guidance.
I understand that the topical Fifty Shades of Grey—I do not know anything about it because I have never read the book nor seen the film—involves bondage, pain and S&M. Should that book be allowed or should it have been banned? Should the film have been allowed for general release or not? It is those kinds of issues that cause confusion and we need to realise that.
The Bill does not legitimise what is behind the age verification. That is for other Bills to do. This Bill seeks to make sure that children cannot get at anything that is sexualised. Let us not cause confusion. Let us stick to one thing in one place and one thing in another place. I support the Government on this.
My Lords, I cannot support the noble Earl. I follow most of his argument, but when we are considering legislation in one area we have to take into account its effect in other areas. What we have here is a proposal to narrow a definition of maximum control and to place anything that is not within that narrow definition in an area of less control where a larger population is affected by it.
I do not apologise for coming to this very late because Her Majesty’s Government are doing the same. In 1985 I was in the unfortunate position of taking through this House the Bill to abolish the GLC. After it had gone through the Commons and just before the Report stage here, the then Leader of the House, Willie Whitelaw, said, “My friends down the Corridor want me to abolish the Inner London Education Authority as well”. Noble Lords can see what political dynamite that was. To bring forward proposals at the second stage in the second House without wide consultation with those concerned seems to me pretty late in the day, so we are right to look at this closely.
I view it in a simple way. Powerful arguments have been put by the noble and learned Baroness and others in favour of her amendment, which I warmly support. The central issue is a simple one. If you take the least harmful of a bunch of very harmful material out of control, you may make the control of the remainder more effective but you also release more harmful material to less strict control. That must be wrong. Other noble Lords have spoken much more academically and legalistically than I am able to do. I merely wish to say that I have listened with my heart and my head and I stand entirely behind the noble and learned Baroness’s amendment.
My Lords, I support Amendment 25YD. In Committee I set out in detail all the reasons why I thought that the Government should not do what they have done in this series of amendments. They will remove “prohibited material” and replace it with “extreme pornographic material” and put the remainder of the prohibited material category behind age verification. I concluded my speech by saying:
“The Bill takes significant strides in the cause of child protection. It would be a shame if we in this House took steps to undermine this”.—[Official Report, 2/2/17; col. 1359.]
I start my speech today with the same sentiment and by quoting the Minister whose comments at Second Reading agreed with the sentiment that I set out in Committee:
“It is a complicated area. Free speech is vital but we must protect children from harm online as well as offline. We must do more to ensure that children cannot easily access sexual content which will distress them or harm their development, as has been mentioned. We do not allow children to buy pornographic material offline, and this material would not be classified for hard-copy distribution. The BBFC has a well-understood harm test and would not classify material that, for example, depicts non-consensual violent abuse against women, and it may not classify material which is in breach of the Obscene Publications Act, as clarified in guidance by the CPS. Prohibited material has always been within the regulatory framework of this Bill. We consider that having a lesser regime for prohibited material than lawful material would be unsustainable and undermine the age-verification regime”.—[Official Report, 13/12/16; cols. 1228-29.]
I want to repeat that final sentence:
“We consider that having a lesser regime for prohibited material than lawful material would be unsustainable and undermine the age-verification regime”.
The general public agree with that principle. ComRes polling from last weekend and published today shows that 82% of the public think that the online standards for regulating internet pornography should either be the same as those for offline or be stronger. Yet contrary to public opinion, the Government have turned on their head and performed a major U-turn on the basis of mumblings about the Obscene Publications Act.
First, the Government are trying to convince us with an amendment to Clause 27, government Amendment 25YV, that this situation will be sustainable. Just last week the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, said in answer to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Elton:
“I should say to my noble friend that we are clear that what is illegal offline is also illegal online. Legislation is in place to deal with internet trolls, cyberstalking, harassment, revenge porn and the perpetrators of grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour”.—[Official Report, 15/3/17; col. 1861.]
But she did not add, “From next week, when we pass amendments on Report, not for pornography”. We are bringing in different rules about what can be supplied online and offline. If you are a retailer of DVDs you cannot sell an unclassified work. If you are a UK-based video-on-demand service you cannot have a programme service that includes prohibitive material. But if you are a website you can supply all of this material to the UK as long as it is behind age verification, unless it is extreme pornographic material. I cannot see how this position can be sustainable. Therefore, in the longer term we are changing the rules about how we approve or supply this material. I argued in Committee that such sweeping changes to long-standing arrangements should be made only with a full and public consultation. We have not had that. It has been slipped in at the end of the Bill’s parliamentary scrutiny.
Secondly, there is no explanation of how this new plan does not undermine the age verification regime, which is at the heart of this whole part of the Bill. We started in the Bill with 18 and R18 being acceptable behind age verification checks. Now we are saying that it is okay for a website to supply all of this material if it is behind age verification. How do we explain that to our children? I suggested in Committee that the one scenario I could foresee was to place prohibited material behind age verification checks. I warned that we should not fall into the trap of thinking that age verification makes children safe across the board and that therefore adults can access what they like without concern. I quoted at length evidence that the Government and BBFC have been very clear that enforcement will be targeted at the bigger sites. I will not repeat those statements, but I remind noble Lords that the Explanatory Notes say that Clause 24 gives the age verification regulator discretion to,
“exercise its functions in a targeted way, to those providers of pornography who reach the most people or have large turnovers”.
We have no reassurance that age verification will be implemented across the board. I am not saying that children will not be safer. I think they will—that is something I commend the Government for—but they will not be completely safe. Indeed, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, will not mind me quoting her. She said in Committee:
“I do not think that anyone considers that what is being proposed in the Bill is going to be 100% deliverable or enforceable. We are on a journey and, if we can attack 50% or 75%, we are making progress in this area. It is inevitable that we will have to revisit the whole issue in the future, so we are taking steps towards what I hope will be a fully robust system ”.—[Official Report, 2/2/17; col. 1350.]
The point is we know that it will not be fully robust, but the Government seem happy to bring forward proposals that they previously stated, presumably on good advice, would undermine age verification. I very much look forward to hearing what they have to say on this point.
In closing, I make it clear that I appreciate that, even with the proposed amendments, internet regulation will be moved forward by the Bill and the extension of blocking to extreme pornography. It is indeed better than the current scenario, but there is nothing in place to prevent the supply of such damaging material. However, that it is better than nothing is not an adequate argument for adopting a definition that is inconsistent with other legislation regulating pornography and makes certain violent material acceptable.
I urge noble Lords to join me in calling for the retention of equivalent protections on the internet as are in place for the distribution of pornography offline by rejecting these amendments. I shall be pleased to vote for the excellent “review and rethink” amendment, Amendment 25YD, in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss.
My Lords, I offer my strongest support to my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss in her Amendment 25YD. She is of course a former president of the family courts and a chair of the adoption Select Committee which recommended additional support for adoptive families, a recommendation which has now been implemented. She has a long record in protecting vulnerable children.
I apologise for rising for the first time at this late stage in proceedings on the Bill. I felt bound to do so because I am vice-chair of the parliamentary group for young people in local authority care. On my noble and learned friend’s concern that the relaxing of the regime might to some degree encourage an increase in the level of domestic violence, many young people coming into care come from backgrounds where there is domestic violence. I agree with her entirely that we need a review to make sure that such a change does not contribute towards violence towards women.
I thank the Minister for the additional protections in the Bill for children accessing pornography; they are very welcome indeed. I extend my thanks to his colleagues in the other place for introducing a statutory requirement for personal, social, health and economic education, which will ensure that all children receive high-quality sex and relationship education. I heard from Professor Sue Berelowitz last night, an academic who has produced a number of reports on child sexual exploitation. She highlighted to me the correlation between violent pornography and domestic violence. It is only a correlation, but because there is such a correlation, we should give it careful attention. I support my noble and learned friend’s amendment and I hope that your Lordships will choose to do so.
My Lords, I support Amendment 25YD in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. I fully support powers to block the supply of damaging pornography both to support the requirement for age verification and to prevent the distribution of material that is harmful even for adult viewing. I support the Government’s intention announced last month for a,
“major new drive on internet safety”.
I support the Prime Minister’s launch of a plan to,
“transform the way we tackle domestic violence and abuse”.
But the principle of joined-up government seems to be lacking as we review the Government’s amendments to Clauses 16 and 22 and the new clause defining extreme pornographic material.
The Government have recognised that the internet with its many amazing facets can also be extremely detrimental to the well-being of our young people if they are accessing pornography. That fact no longer seems to be in dispute. We recognise its impact on young people’s self-perceptions and relationships. I hope your Lordships will bear with me as I quote from the 2013 report prepared for the Children’s Commissioner for England. It concluded:
“Access and exposure to pornography affect children and young people’s sexual beliefs … maladaptive attitudes about relationships; more sexually permissive attitudes; greater acceptance of casual sex; beliefs that women are sex objects; more frequent thoughts about sex … Pornography has been linked to sexually coercive behaviour among young people, and, for young women, viewing pornography is linked with higher rates of sexual harassment and forced sex”.
This is why we want to protect children and I fully support the Government’s intentions.
I find myself perplexed as to why we think this material has no impact on a person when they turn 18. I accept that being an adult brings certain freedoms, but they are not infinite. I accept that we have laws that make it an offence to possess certain types of material and that that position remains, as set out in government Amendment 25YV, but at the same time government Amendment 25H is saying, “It is okay for a person running a website to supply that very same material into the UK as long as it is behind age verification”, with an exception for a very small number of very realistic images. I hope that the Government will reassure us that there are, indeed, a significant number of prosecutions for those offences, but I have my doubts. Even if there are cases that come to court in the coming years, are we going to be hearing, “This material was behind age verification systems, which the Government have said are what is needed. Therefore I thought material X and Y was within the law”? We are sending very mixed messages to the public about violent pornography.
I am particularly concerned about animated images of child sexual abuse, which would be against the law to possess in the UK and would be considered “prohibited material” under the present definition but will not be caught by the definition of “extreme pornography” the Minister intends to replace it with.
I greatly value the work of the Internet Watch Foundation in taking down online child abuse images, but it does not have the remit to cover animated or drawn images if the websites on which they are found are hosted outside the UK. This limitation is compounded when we understand that 99% of criminal content is hosted outside the UK. It disturbs me greatly that we are being asked to purposefully amend the Bill to remove from the regulator the power to prevent those images being made available in the UK via the internet when there is no other body able to fulfil that role. I cannot agree to changing a definition to one that will class such images as acceptable behind age verification. Therefore I will not be supporting the government amendments in this group.
I am not alone in my concerns about the kind of pornography these amendments would make permissible. Polling undertaken by ComRes over the weekend and published today—my colleague has made reference to it already—asked more than 2,000 adults what sorts of violent acts should be allowed in pornography online. In responding to different forms of content against which the age verification regulator would not have the power to act if the government amendments pass today, public opposition to allowing access to that material varied from 74% to 81%. Not surprisingly, these figures were bigger among women, who clearly feel particularly worried about these changes. Whatever pressure the Government may have been under to make the changes proposed today, the great majority of the general public do not want the material described as “prohibited” to be accessible.
I have consulted John Larkin QC, the Northern Ireland Attorney-General, about how the Bill will impact Northern Ireland and he advises me that he can “see no good reason for a change from the prohibited material category to the extreme pornography category.” Noble Lords will understand that I am inclined to agree with him. I am not convinced by the Government’s arguments that such a wholesale change of approach is needed and do not support the government amendments. As someone who took Northern Ireland’s equivalent of the Modern Slavery Bill through the Northern Ireland Assembly, I am particularly alive to the reality of violence against women. I find it very surprising that a Government led by a female Prime Minister who took the Modern Slavery Bill through Westminster should countenance the amendments before us today. I wonder whether she has been properly briefed on their consequence.
If there is a Division on the government amendments, I will vote against. In the unfortunate event that the amendments pass, I will vote for Amendment 25YD in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and other members of your Lordships’ House. It proposes that there should be a review of the effect of this change and a sunset clause that would revert the effect of the Bill back to that in Committee, because it is time we looked at the evidence for how this material is impacting adults as well as young people. We are a digitally connected people—for good and ill. I am not suggesting that every violent sex crime is fuelled by pornography but it is time we had an open discussion about the impact of this material on violence against women and children, so that there can be reasoned policy responses.
The Relate counselling service has indicated that counsellors are increasingly seeing problems with “relationships and sexual functioning” as a result of internet pornography. In The Way We Are Now: The State of the UK’s Relationships 2015, Relate reported that 23% of 16 to 34 year-olds in a relationship reported an “overall negative impact” on their relationship from use of online pornography. The report said that pornography use is,
“an increasingly common topic in the counselling room”.
Last year, a journal article reported, based on interviews with 55 women in rural Ohio, all of whom were trying to leave their male partner, that,
“pornography is a major component of the problem of rural woman abuse”.
I hope Amendment 25YD will get overwhelming support from your Lordships that there needs to be a careful review of this change and the brakes put on, if necessary.
My Lords, I know we want to get to the Front-Bench speakers so I shall be very brief and, like the contestant on “Just a Minute”, not repeat anything that has been said so far in the debate. I will say just two things.
First, virtually the only defence of the Government was from the noble Earl. He is half right and half wrong, in my view. The problem is that the Bill is not about the regulation of what adults should be watching, but changing the designation of pornographic material does just that. That is the internal problem in the Bill.
Secondly, there seems to be an agreement between the Government Front Bench and the Opposition Front Bench that the government amendments are going to go through. Then we have the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. When he replies, I would like the Minister to speak about the White Paper and the further review that is in prospect. What are its terms of reference? If the Bill goes through in the form in which the Government now want it to go through, it will leave a very unsatisfactory state of affairs in terms of how adult pornography is dealt with in our country, with the distinction between offline and online, and all the questions about the actual impact of what will be accessible. It would be helpful to me if the Minister would say a little more about what the review that the Government have in mind is intended to cover.
My Lords, I, too, shall be extremely brief because this matter has now been dealt with in great detail by a number of speakers. Few issues that come before your Lordships’ House make me quite as angry and distressed as this. Given the role that Parliament plays in the welfare of our nation and our children, it saddens me hugely that we are even debating it as we are. I understand why we have to but it is an enormous comment on the state of our country. It took me a while to realise that we now accept pornography as an industry. It is an acceptable industry—not quite like motor cars or other things but it has become acceptable—and I think that says an awful lot about the state of our nation today.
I have spoken before in this House about how many thousands of primary school children watch hardcore porn on a regular basis. That should be cause for concern for us all. The noble Earl made the point about Fifty Shades of Grey—which I have to say immediately that I have neither read nor seen—but that makes the point for us, does it not? We are talking about a medium into which our young children slip away from us—we do not know where they have gone. It is a world we cannot join them in. I think it is a dreadful world—interesting, fascinating, fun, in some ways; but in other ways, absolutely dreadful. Those primary school children are not going to go out to Waterstones and buy Fifty Shades of Grey or pay for a ticket to go the cinema to watch the film of it. They are going to their bedrooms to slip into this other world and watch all these horrible things we are talking about.
How often have I heard us say in this House that the welfare of the child is paramount? We say it time after time, relating to one Bill after another. If we really mean it when we say it, we should be much tougher on issues such as this. That should be reflected in how we vote today. I do not know what will happen to the government amendments but if we divide on them, I shall vote against them. I shall certainly support Amendment 25YD, in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. I hope very much that the House will show what it really thinks about these issues and support that amendment as well.
My Lords, the debate this afternoon shows the importance of noble Lords participating in every stage of the Bill. My understanding of what has happened here is that the Bill was never intended by the Government to deal with protecting adults from pornography; it was to fulfil a manifesto commitment to protect children from accessing pornography. At a very late stage in the other place, a Conservative Back-Bencher brought protection against adult pornography into the Bill. The mess that we are currently in is completely down to the Government accepting that amendment.
The current law does not allow anybody to take down either prohibited material or extreme pornography from the internet with the exception of child pornography, which is dealt with separately through the Internet Watch Foundation and so forth. The Government’s problem, having accepted that amendment in the other place to do with prohibited material, is that people are losing confidence in such a definition of pornography. While prohibited material is not allowed in films and DVDs classified by the BBFC, that material is not prosecuted as obscene by the Crown Prosecution Service. The law on what is and is not obscene—on what it is lawful to have and not lawful to see and possess—is in a mess. That is why we are in this situation.
The Government have tried to remedy the situation by picking on something that is not disputed: a definition of obscenity that is a concrete foundation on which to build for the future. They have therefore decided to replace this definition of prohibited material that is falling into disrepute—
Can the noble Lord produce a shred of evidence to say that this definition has fallen into disrepute? I see no evidence of it in the yearly polling done by the BBFC on its classifications.
I will try to say it again more clearly. It is the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service is not prosecuting people for possessing prohibited material. That brings the definition of prohibited material into disrepute, as far as the law is concerned. I am not quite sure what it is that the noble Lord does not understand about it being brought into disrepute in that respect.
Why cannot the CPS just change its guidance?
Indeed. What the Minister said backed up what the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, said about the criticism of there being no public consultation. There has been no public consultation about introducing adult pornography into the Bill, in the form of prohibited material. There needs to be a public debate on this to decide whether the British Board of Film Classification’s operation, where it does not issue certificates for prohibited material, is the right standard or whether the CPS standard is right. There has not been a public debate about that, and we need one.
Having said all that, I entirely agree with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, about the impact that gratuitous violent pornography can have in terms of domestic violence and the impact that it then has on children in those families. That needs to be debated and addressed. However, that is not what the Bill was primarily intended to do. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, suggests, this is not some deal that has been done between the opposition parties and the Government over keeping age verification. A Conservative Back-Bench amendment was introduced in the other place at a late stage, which is why there has not been sufficient time to debate the subject in this place either, and certainly not enough public consultation on the issue. In accepting that amendment, the Government introduced this complication.
Many noble Lords around the Chamber today have said, although I do not know if they realised this, that the definition of prohibited material does not go far enough either. You can get the sort of things that they want banned from the internet on a DVD, albeit an R18, bought from a shop. The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, gave examples of the sort of sexual activity that he disapproves of. I do not know whether he knows that some of the activity that he talks about is legal to buy in a shop on a DVD. We are getting into a mess here because there is no agreement generally about what should and should not be allowed to be seen.
I made the point about the medical ramifications of certain practices. That is the point I was making about that.
Forgive me if I misunderstood the noble Lord. I thought he was using that as an argument for why that sort of activity should not be allowed to be seen by anyone, but I could be wrong.
This may assist the noble Lord and the rest of the House—
I remind noble Lords that this is Report.
Very quickly, for clarification, the problem is that some material is regulated by ATVOD, some by the BBFC and some by Ofcom. That is where the noble Lord’s problems are coming from when he talks about “prohibited material”.
I am grateful for the noble Earl’s intervention, but for clarity I will stick to what I was saying. The noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, talked about the harm test that was introduced in 1994. I challenge anyone to suggest that some of the things that are not allowed in R18 videos cause harm to anyone. They might be unpleasant or, in some people’s eyes, morally reprehensible, but certainly there are things that are not allowed because of the definition of prohibited material but cause harm to no one. That is an illustration, without going into specific gory details about what is and what is not allowed. That is why we are in the mess that we are in.
Clearly the question of what is and is not acceptable pornography needs to be reviewed, and my understanding is that that is what the Minister has said will happen as part of an online safety review. Were the House to divide, we on these Benches would prefer Amendment 25YW from the Labour Front Bench, under which a review would take place but without specifying what the outcome of that review should be—that is, a reversion to the discredited definition of prohibited material.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing his amendments today. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for bringing some clarity to what has been quite a complicated and emotional debate this afternoon. I urge noble Lords to look at Amendment 25YW in this group, which is in my name, because I believe that would take us some way through some of the dilemmas that we face this afternoon.
As has been said, these amendments arise from a dialogue we have been having over the last few weeks about the definition of “prohibited material” and “extreme pornography”. That arose as a result of late additions to the enforcement measures in the Commons, which meant that the Bill did not receive the scrutiny it deserved at that stage. Hence we have been scrambling to understand and to consider the new requirement for internet service providers not only to block sites that do not have age verification filters in place for children but also to block access to other illegal pornographic material. I agree with other noble Lords that it is very unfortunate that this has come at such a late stage and that we are trying to deal with this important issue so late in the process. We are all at a loss and have lacked something because of it.
Since then, several variations of wording have been taken from Acts that already exist and put forward as the best way of defining the new obligation. We find ourselves having to take a significant decision on which of these various options would best benefit the law going forward. All of them would benefit from further debate.
In this context, and given the sensitivities involved, we welcome the Government’s attempt to strike the right balance on this issue. Government Amendment 25YV is crucial in this regard. It is a short amendment that says:
“Nothing in this Part affects any prohibition or restriction in relation to pornographic material or extreme pornographic material, or powers in relation to such material, under another enactment or a rule of law”.
In other words, if pornographic material is illegal offline, it would also be illegal online. The amendment underlines that point. This is the parity between offline and online that many people have sought, and it echoes the position that the Minister spelled out when we met him recently. We support this approach because we believe that any definition of illegal material transposed into the Bill at this late stage should be based on current statutory definitions.
We also recognise the added challenge that the current legal definitions are not being applied consistently, and that the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines need to be updated—which is another issue that we have been debating this afternoon. Only then will we achieve that true parity in removing offline and online material. But we are firmly of the view that this disparity should be addressed separately, and thoroughly, in conjunction with the Home Office. We are also firmly of the view that today we should focus on the intent of this Bill, which is to introduce age verification processes to stop children under 18 from accessing pornography. The debate this afternoon has muddied the water, because that is very clearly the intent of this part of the Bill, and the way that the government amendments are set out achieves that very important aim.
This is a huge step forward and a key policy prize. It is something that not just the Government but all the main political parties have been committed to. There is no doubt that if it is implemented successfully—although that is a huge ask—there will not be the opportunities for children to access the illegal material that is concerning noble Lords today. I accept of course the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, that this cannot be 100% watertight—none of these things can be. We are on a journey. I think it was one of the right reverend Prelates who said that children are very tech-savvy and we have to keep up with them. Of course we do, so this will not be 100%. But it is a massive step on a journey that will stop an awful lot of casual viewing by children of internet pornography.
That is why we believe that we should retain our focus on children—to prevent all damage to their relationships, self-esteem and mental health, and all the issues which, we understand, result from underage viewing of pornography, which we have debated repeatedly during the course of the Bill.
Of course, that is not to say that there are not other huge social issues about adults viewing violent or degrading pornography—and we all have our views on the level of acceptability of that. I resent the fact that some people think that I am in favour of a free for all, because that is certainly not my position. Some of the issues have been raised by noble Lords today, and of course it is right that they are debated and resolved in the public realm. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that there needs to be a public debate. It has been lacking until this debate today, which I believe is the beginning rather than the end of a debate which should take place.
We welcome that debate, but we do not feel that amendments to change the definition of illegal pornographic material which adults can access online is appropriate for a part of a Bill that is intended for another purpose. We believe that this should be part of a wider debate which factors in such matters as our traditional tolerance towards consenting adults and the potential consequence of more online material being driven out of reach on to the unregulated dark web if we do not get the regulation right. In this context, we appreciate the opportunity which the Minister has proposed for a wider round-table debate on internet safety and will happily work with colleagues away from the Bill on how we can best deliver solutions to some of the wider concerns that have been expressed today.
In the meantime, we recognise that the definition of extreme pornography now proposed by the Government is not ideal. It may be only a backstop pending a fuller review of more appropriate wording. That is why our Amendment 25YW would require consultation on the definitions used in this part of the Bill and a report from the Secretary of State back to Parliament within 18 months. We think that that would be a real step forward.
Although we have sympathy with the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, we are concerned about the more prescriptive end of her review. We agree that there should be a review, but the very fact that she has already spelled out what the outcome should be causes us concern.
Our view remains that we should be looking for an updated definition based on something deliverable online and offline with equal strength. A number of definitions are out there—not just the definition of extreme pornography that we have been debating today. In other pieces of legislation there are other definitions. We need to do a job of work which is more than we can do today to consider all those definitions, consider what the Crown Prosecution Service can deliver in terms of taking action against people, and work on that basis.
I really hope that we can work together on this, because this has felt like a very divided debate. It is not; there is an enormous amount that we agree on. It is the tactics of how we go forward that we are struggling with.
In conclusion, we support the government amendments, as far as they go, but I hope that the Minister will be able to commit to a wider review with a deadline for reform—in conjunction with his Home Office colleagues, because we recognise that this goes wider than his department’s remit. I hope that noble Lords will look at our amendment and support it. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, this has been a wide-ranging debate and I find myself in a slightly uncomfortable position: I am taking issue with several of my noble friends but I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. If I may, I shall start with the amendments tabled by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and then move on to our amendments and reply to some of the points that noble Lords have made.
Obviously, Amendment 25YD, in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, is dependent on the preceding government amendments being passed. It provides that, three years after the Act passes, the definition of “extreme pornographic material” will cease to have effect and will be replaced by a definition of material which would not be classified—in effect, the current definition of “prohibited material”.
The debate on this has been strong on both sides, and it is an interesting idea that we have considered. However, our aim with this Bill, as has been said by several noble Lords, is to protect children from accessing pornographic material. We are creating parity between the offline and the online worlds in protecting children from being able to access pornographic material. These are different and incomparable places, and this is the closest we can get on parity of content through the age verification regime. Subject to the Bill shortly gaining Royal Assent, to specify that this should happen in spring 2020 unless a review finds otherwise by spring 2019 is in our view unnecessarily restrictive. It presents a binary choice that predetermines the outcome of any review. We know this is a fast-moving environment, and we do not know what the landscape will look like in two years’ time. Forcing the legislation into doing something which restricts the response to how children are protected online could have unintended consequences.
What we are doing now is: through the guidance to the regulator, we are providing for the regulator to report annually on the effectiveness of the regime. This will provide the opportunity to review the regime and take any necessary action. This is a big step forward without precedent, and to focus on this one issue, which is undoubtedly important, risks being able to ensure that the regime as a whole is as effective as possible in the future at preventing children from accessing pornography online.
The amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, seeks to introduce that the Secretary of State must produce a report on the impact and effectiveness of the regulatory framework provided for in this part and must consult on the definitions used within this part. The report must be laid 12 to 18 months after the powers come into force. We must aim to lay the groundwork for success before the powers are introduced, and the regulatory framework we are providing will do that. However, this will be a bold new regime with many challenges and it is right that the effectiveness of the regime is reviewed. That is why, as I have just said, through the guidance to the regulator we are providing for the regulator to report annually to the Secretary of State on the impact and effectiveness of the regime. Placing a formal requirement on the Secretary of State to do this is, in our opinion, unnecessary.
The Bill is neither the end nor the extent of our interest in child internet safety. The implementation of age verification will be watched closely from day one. We have consistently recognised the need to be flexible in our approach and this will remain the case in addressing any issues that may arise. This work forms part of our wider response to online safety, and the work that has begun in the internet safety strategy demonstrates our clear commitment to ensuring that people in the UK have a positive experience online. I shall come to that a bit later. With that explanation I hope noble Lords will not press their amendments in due course.
I turn now to replies to some of the points noble Lords made about the government amendments. I echo very much the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. For those who have not participated before in this Bill’s process, it would be helpful to repeat some of the things he said about how we got here. In some ways it is a mischaracterisation—not malicious, I hasten to add, and maybe “misunderstanding” is a better word—that we are watering down the controls, as my noble friend Lord Farmer said, or that we slipped this in at the last minute.
As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, the position we are in is because we have accepted amendments through the course of the Bill. It is a bit unfair of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, to criticise the fact that this debate is happening so late in the day when the only reason we are having it is because we accepted the amendment in the House of Commons. The issues about where we go on what is effectively internet censorship were raised in Committee in this House. So we are discussing these things because noble Lords and Members of Parliament have changed the Bill as we went on. The one thing on which we all agree—and this has been confirmed all around the House—is that we want to address child online safety. One of the big advantages from this Bill is that, by getting effective age verification in place, we have made a huge step forward.
The problem comes not on age verification but when we talk about ISP blocking, because when we start talking about ISP blocking for reasons other than age verification we are moving into online censorship. That is where, as I said in my opening remarks, the terribly difficult line is—the very sensitive nature of effectively discussing what is right and wrong. Blocking sites that show prohibited material may not cover some areas that some people think should be covered. I am not saying tonight what is right or wrong, but what is clear is that there is no consensus on this, and we should have a proper debate. We have said that using a definition that already exists in law, and has been debated, scrutinised and accepted by Parliament, is better than relying on the CPS guidelines.
The noble and learned Baroness asked a very reasonable question—“Why doesn’t the CPS just change its guidelines?”. Well, it may do in time, but one thing that is certain is that the Government cannot tell the CPS to change its guidelines. That would be quite wrong, and I think that noble Lords would be very upset if we did. So we have moved to an accepted definition of what should be blocked in the line of online censorship, because that is what it is, and that is the definition that we are proposing in our amendments.
The noble and learned Baroness asked some specific questions. We accept that in using the pre-agreed definition in the 2008 Act there are some areas that we might want to think about later. For example, there is violence to women. We are absolutely clear that we do not condone serious violent porn as described by the noble and learned Baroness; violent and obscene acts will continue to be liable to be investigated by the police and other law enforcement bodies. Our amendment has made that absolutely clear—what is criminal offline is criminal online. But age verification will provide stronger protections than currently exist online.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, talked about the IWF. I do not think that I said anywhere in my remarks that we were extending the remit of the IWF, because it covers non-photographic child sexual abuse images hosted in the UK, and we are not going to extend that—but we will continue to work with the IWF to strengthen the response to child sexual abuse material. We do not want to open up the scope of the line between the BBFC and the IWF.
The noble Lord, Lord Gordon, asked why online prohibition was not the same as offline. The fact is that content should be aligned, and our aim has always been to ensure that protections that exist for children offline are also provided online. There is the Obscene Publications Act, for example, under which the CPS can prosecute, but it has discretion whether to do so or not; it still exists, and the CPS will still be able to prosecute in exactly the same way as before. So this Bill should be viewed alongside other work that is done in relation to online material, in particular the work of the IWF.
We have listened carefully to the criticisms that, in defining prohibited material in Part 3 as anything that would not be classified, we were going too far. Some noble Lords may not agree with that, but freedom of choice should be curtailed only after a lot of thought. We have agreed, in our internet safety strategy, to provide the opportunity to think about these things and some noble Lords have already been asked. We are not kicking it into the long grass: we have already planned round tables. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester asked about the White Paper. It is a Green Paper; we have promised to publish it in June and we are having round tables before that. As far as legislative time is concerned, I too heard the “Today” programme this morning. Of course, Brexit is going to take a lot of time, but there is still room for the domestic agenda. I think we can be certain that protecting women against violence, and other things like that, are going to be high on it, but I am giving no promises. I may be new, but I have been around long enough to know that I am not going to commit the Government to that from this Dispatch Box. However, we are taking it seriously and producing a forum, led by my department and in conjunction with the Home Office, to look at the internet safety strategy.
I do not think we have moved from an existing regime which has been around for a long time. We are where we are because we have accepted amendments all the way through the progress of the Bill. We have work to do but, to get child protection online, we hope noble Lords will consider supporting the government amendments in the meantime. I beg to move.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said that the definition of prohibited material had become somewhat “suspect”—I think that was his word. Why is that? Is it a legal definition and why has it become suspect?
It should not really be me answering that.
You accepted his way of putting it.
The reason is that the CPS decides whether to prosecute on offences as it sees them. It has guidance, which has been around for some time. The fact is—and some noble Lords may not agree with this—that views have changed and the CPS does not always prosecute in line with its own guidance.
The reason it does not is because it has discretion in individual cases. Sometimes it thinks it is in the public interest to prosecute and sometimes it does not. When the noble Lord said that it is discredited, I think he means that the CPS does not always prosecute every situation in line with its own guidance. If I have misinterpreted what he said, I am sure he will be able to tell us.
The noble and learned Lord asked a good question. My understanding is that the definition of prohibited material which the British Board of Film Classification uses is supposed to incorporate all the different definitions in different laws about what is obscene and not acceptable. The fact is that, in regard to a number of elements of those laws, the Crown Prosecution Service no longer prosecutes people for possession of that material. The definition of prohibited material therefore includes material for which someone would never be prosecuted. To that extent, the definition of prohibited material has fallen into disrepute.
Amendment 25B agreed.
25C: Clause 15, page 18, line 11, leave out subsection (2)
My Lords, these government amendments are primarily designed to address the concerns of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The committee’s first challenge is defining who exactly is in scope of the new age verification regime. Amendment 25D provides for the Secretary of State to make regulations on the circumstances in which persons should or should not be treated as making pornographic material available on a commercial basis. We have provided these in draft to aid understanding of how this power will be used and welcome views before a final version is subject to affirmative parliamentary procedure. The intention of the regulations is primarily to capture those who make money or benefit from making pornography available online, including making it available free of charge. It is not the intention to capture those sites, for example, that mostly contain non-pornographic content. However, it is the intention to cover those who, for example, market themselves as making available pornographic material and who may benefit from it.
Questions have rightly been asked about pornography on social media and our approach has been to not rule out specific platforms. In the regulations we are suggesting the scope should not include sites where an overwhelming majority of users are clearly not accessing to view pornography or where an overwhelming majority of the content is not pornographic in nature. We do not want to let anyone off the hook and where pornographic material is available but not within scope, it may be that the site will be enabling and facilitating the availability of commercial pornography and subject to an ancillary service provider notification. It will depend on the facts of any given case. Many social media sites already act responsibly. We will also look at the issue further as part of the cross-government work on the internet safety strategy that my department is leading. I will say more about this later.
We accept the committee’s argument for greater parliamentary scrutiny of who the regulator is. Amendment 25R would ensure that the first designation to be made for any given function is by the affirmative parliamentary process. As noble Lords will be aware, we have been working closely with the British Board of Film Classification as the intended regulator for much of the regulatory framework, including directing ISPs to block sites. We will come back to this in a later group, but let me say now that we have absolute confidence in the BBFC and will strongly resist anything that endangers the introduction of these important measures to protect children.
We have also addressed concerns that the regulator has too much flexibility in setting its own guidance. Amendment 25YQ provides for the Secretary of State to issue guidance to which the regulator must have regard, as is standard practice for statutory guidance. The regulator cannot choose to ignore this guidance. It provides direction to the regulator in a number of areas, including the important power of internet service provider level blocking. ISPs will be expected to take all reasonable steps to enact a notice from the regulator. We have circulated this guidance in draft. It is based on the many discussions and debates that have taken place over the previous months, but I stress that this is a draft, and we are now seeking views from parliamentarians and others before a final version is laid in Parliament.
In addition to the guidance to the regulator, we have also strengthened the requirements on the regulator in relation to the guidance it issues in Amendments 25YM and 25YA. The age verification regulator must publish guidance about the types of arrangements for making pornographic material available that the regulator will treat as being compliant and guidance about the circumstances in which it will treat services provided in the course of a business as enabling or facilitating the making available of pornographic material or prohibited material. Government believe that internet sites, including social media, can be classified by the regulator as an ancillary service provider, where they are enabling or facilitating the making available of pornographic or prohibited material. This would mean they could be notified of pornographers to whom they provide a service. This guidance will now be subject to an affirmative parliamentary procedure the first time that it is made, providing further opportunity for scrutiny.
Amendment 25M requires the Secretary of State to be satisfied that the intended appeals arrangements are “sufficiently independent” as part of the designation process and we provide further details on this issue in the draft guidance to the regulator, on which I will say more in a moment. Again, we will come back to this in a later group, but we are confident that further parliamentary scrutiny at the time of designation provides an appropriate time to ensure that the arrangements are right. I beg to move.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and I have Amendment 25N in this group. It is a probing amendment to test whether a “sufficiently independent” appeal mechanism against a decision of the age verification regulator is good enough. Government Amendment 25M, regarding appeals against a decision of the age verification regulator, describes the arrangements as “sufficiently” independent of the age verification regulator. Our amendment would remove the word “sufficiently” so that the amendment read: “any person hearing an appeal under those arrangements will be independent of the age-verification regulator”.
The British Board of Film Classification currently operates its own appeal mechanism against its decisions either to classify a film or DVD with a particular age classification or to refuse to grant a classification at all. That appeal mechanism is operated by the BBFC but by a panel that is independent of those who made the initial classification. To that extent, it is not wholly independent of the BBFC but it is arguably sufficiently independent to command the confidence of those seeking classification for their films and DVDs—that is, the industry can have confidence in the process.
Although this works well in practice with the proposed age regulation regulator, what if that regulator changes? This “sufficiently” independent arrangement appears to be designed around the proposed age verification regulator, the British Board of Film Classification, in a counterintuitive way—that is, not having an appeal mechanism that is totally or completely independent seems counterintuitive—because of the reputation that the BBFC has, which might not be the case were the age verification regulator to change. The wording “sufficiently independent” appears to be BBFC-specific in a way that might not be acceptable were any other regulator to be chosen. Perhaps the Minister can reassure the House on that point.
My Lords, I want to comment on Amendment 25D and to thank the Government for proposing new subsection (2B). One thing that worried those of us who had been thinking about how to make age verification work was the definition of “commercial basis”, which was a potential loophole for some websites to get round the provision. This proposed new subsection seems to close that loophole in that, even if material is free, it can still be provided on a commercial basis. Therefore, I congratulate the Government and support this amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the thinking behind these many amendments. I have read them and think that I understand them but I am sure that he will correct me if my interpretation is wrong. They underline the considerable amount of additional work that is still to be done if we are to get a comprehensive age verification scheme properly up and running.
The Minister will know that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee was of the view that many of the details should be spelled out on the face of the Bill. For example, it expected details such as the definition of “commercial basis” and the identity of the regulator or regulators to be specified at this stage. However, the provision of this information, like many other details, has been put off by the Government to a later date, to be included in the guidelines to which the noble Lord has referred and to be discussed in further debates that will be taken under their auspices.
The DPRRC also requested that guidelines on how the financial penalties should operate should be brought before this House as an affirmative resolution. I remind the House of a particularly stark criticism that it wrote at the time. It said:
“We consider it objectionable as a matter of principle that a regulator, who is to be clothed with extensive powers to impose fines and take other enforcement action, should itself be able to specify how key concepts used in clause 15(1) are to be interpreted”.
I would be grateful if the Minister could justify why what seems to be a rather straightforward piece of advice from that committee has once again been rejected. As I understand the noble Lord’s amendment, it is the offer of a negative procedure that is now being put before us, which of course does not carry the same weight.
The amendments deal also with the provision for appeals, which again were debated at length in Committee. The Minister will know that the DPRRC recommended that a statutory right of appeal should be placed in the Bill. Again this advice seems to have been rejected by the Government and, instead, they are relying on a new formulation of words specifying that those hearing any appeal should be “sufficiently independent” of the age verification regulator. As we have heard, the detail of this “sufficiently independent” regime is spelled out in the draft guidance.
I have to say that we share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, that this really is not good enough. The guidelines specify that the independent appeals panel will effectively be appointed and funded by the regulator. However, we have tabled a separate amendment—Amendment 25P, which will come up in a later group—that specifies our belief that the appeals process should indeed be fully independent of the regulator. We believe that our amendment is more appropriate than that of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain why the DPRRC’s advice on this matter has been rejected.
I return now to the overall package of government amendments in the group. As I have said, they seem to flag up a great deal of further work that will need to carry on outside the Bill. As it is worded, the Secretary of State will issue guidance to the regulator and the regulator will, in turn, issue guidance for approval to the Secretary of State. That seems a rather cosy arrangement of swapping guidelines back and forth, but it is not quite clear to me at what point Parliament will have the final say in all these matters.
Some of the outcomes will come before the House in the form of affirmative regulations but others will not. We do not yet know who the regulators will be, how the age verification regime will work, how the privacy checks will work, what the definition of “commercial activities” will be, how ancillary services will be defined and, crucially, we do not know how the internet service blocking system will work or what kind of fines will be imposed on those who fail to comply. Without wishing to overlay this, it all feels like a rather unsatisfactory piece of legislation. The amendments before us today and the guidelines that have recently been issued do little to reassure us that the Government really have got the detail of this in hand.
Regrettably, we feel that the Government are in danger of delegating far too many powers to the as yet unspecified regulator. This is an issue that we will return to in the next group of amendments. In the meantime, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on the points I have raised.
My Lords, Amendment 25N in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, seeks to remove the word “sufficiently” from the appeals guidance. I will explain why we do not think that that is necessary.
The draft guidance to the regulator specifies that an appointments board engaged by the regulator must appoint an independent appeals board—independent of the regulator, government and the industries that are most likely to submit an appeal. The draft guidance explains that the members of the independent appeals board, appointed by the appointments board, should be appointed on terms and conditions that ensure their independence. Members should represent a broad spectrum of opinion and experience and be respected in their field. They should also be able to demonstrate a commitment to the standards of conduct set out in the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s The 7 Principles of Public Life. We agree that it is important that there is an independent, open, fair and transparent appeals process. Our amendment to the designation and guidance achieves this. It will deliver an appeals process that gives those affected recourse to an independent appeals panel which is not part of the regulatory body, and where the regulator has no say on who is a member and has no role in making the appeal decision.
Further parliamentary scrutiny at the time of designation will provide an opportunity to ensure that the arrangements are right. As part of the designation process, government Amendment 25Q requires the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a statement of the reasons why she is satisfied that, for example, any person hearing an appeal will be sufficiently independent. Parliament will then have an opportunity to scrutinise this. In this case, “sufficiently independent” is an adequate description of a most robust appeals process. On that basis, I invite the noble Lord not to move his amendment.
I was somewhat taken aback by the noble Baroness’s criticism of our response to the DPRRC. We thought we had addressed—
I hope I am right. I think Amendment 25N is in the next group.
I am sorry, that has rather thrown me. I was saying that I was surprised by the noble Baroness. We think that we have agreed to the spirit of nearly all of the DPRRC amendments. We have not done everything to the letter but we have agreed to the spirit of its amendments. However, we have written back to the DPRRC about the classification of a regulator—which we will come to later—but that is purely because we are following other legislation.
I specifically asked about the ability to impose fines and so on. That appears to be under a negative resolution in the government amendments.
We have not designated the financial regulator. We will have to do that. I will check if it is under a negative resolution and undertake to write to the noble Baroness and talk to her about it. I cannot remember what it is, to be quite honest.
The point about the financial regulator—we will come to this in a later amendment—is that we have a disagreement about the extent to which the BBFC should carry out functions. The one thing that we are agreed on is that it should not carry out financial enforcement. We will talk later about what exactly it should and should not do. We have not yet designated who the financial enforcement regulator is—we will do that later—but we want to get the regime up and running before we decide.
The government amendments have addressed many of the points raised today and by other noble Lords during the passage of the Bill. They provide for greater parliamentary scrutiny, include affirmative procedures where there were none and provide greater clarity and direction to the regulator. The direction to the regulator will be laid before Parliament and we have invited noble Lords to contribute to that draft guidance. In all, that will give greater confidence that the measures will be in the best place possible to be successful. I beg to move.
Amendment 25C agreed.
Amendments 25D to 25F
25D: Clause 15, page 18, line 16, at end insert—
“(2A) The Secretary of State may make regulations specifying, for the purposes of this Part, circumstances in which material is or is not to be regarded as made available on a commercial basis.(2B) The regulations may, among other things, prescribe circumstances in which material made available free of charge is, or is not, to be regarded as made available on a commercial basis.(2C) Regulations under subsection (2A) may provide for circumstances to be treated as existing where it is reasonable to assume that they exist.”
25E: Clause 15, page 18, line 17, leave out subsection (3)
25F: Clause 15, page 18, line 36, at end insert—
“( ) Regulations under subsection (2A) may make different provision for different purposes.( ) Regulations under subsection (2A) are to be made by statutory instrument.( ) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (2A) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.( ) But a statutory instrument containing the first regulations under that subsection may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.”
Amendments 25D to 25F agreed.
Clause 16: Meaning of “pornographic material”
Amendments 25G and 25H
25G: Clause 16, page 18, line 38, before “means” insert “(except in the expression “extreme pornographic material”)”
25H: Clause 16, page 19, line 17, at end insert—
“(g) a video work that the video works authority has determined not to be suitable for a classification certificate to be issued in respect of it, if—(i) it includes material (other than extreme pornographic material) that it is reasonable to assume from its nature was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal, and(ii) it is reasonable to assume from the nature of that material that its inclusion was among the reasons why the video works authority made that determination;(h) material (other than extreme pornographic material) that was included in a video work that the video works authority has determined not to be suitable for a classification certificate to be issued in respect of it, if it is reasonable to assume from the nature of the material—(i) that it was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal, and(ii) that its inclusion was among the reasons why the video works authority made that determination;(i) any other material (other than extreme pornographic material) if it is reasonable to assume from the nature of the material—(i) that it was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal, and(ii) that the video works authority would determine that a video work including it was not suitable for a classification certificate to be issued in respect of it.”
Amendments 25G and 25H agreed.
Clause 17: The age-verification regulator: designation and funding
25J: Clause 17, page 19, line 47, leave out “may” and insert “must”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 25J I shall speak also to Amendments 25K and 25P. They tackle three key aspects of the regulation regime as set out in Part 3. First, as we have said, we believe that a great deal more work needs to be done on the detail of the Bill, specifically on the functions of the regulators. It is important to get this right.
For example, potentially huge new powers will be available in Part 3, underpinned by large fines and considerable and as yet untested obligations laid on internet service providers, banks and advertisers. The core expectation is that these large institutions are going to help us to police pornography sites, but for this to work there has to be confidence in the competence of the regulators and that their judgments will be proportionate and legally watertight.
From our discussions so far with these groups, I do not think that we have quite reached that point. Like most people, they have sympathy with the aim of protecting children, but they remain somewhat confused about how this is going to work in practice and what their role will be. This is why we suggest in proposed new subsection (14) set out in Amendment 25P that there should be further widespread consultation about the designated functions and powers of the regulators before they are laid down in statute.
Secondly, there is the issue of who the regulator or regulators might be. As noble Lords will recall, the lack of detail about the roles that they are to perform was discussed at length by both the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Constitution Committee, which fed their comments through during the Committee stage. I will not rehearse all the arguments again because they have been spelled out, but as an example, the DPRCC concluded:
“We think it inappropriate to delegate to the Secretary of State, with only a modest level of Parliamentary scrutiny, the decision on whom to designate as the regulator”.
The truth is that the Government have not been clear on this issue, and indeed they seem to have changed their position as the Bill has progressed without a legitimate explanation for doing so. The original letter of intent, which was sent by DCMS to the BBFC last year, made it clear that it would carry out the front end of the regulatory framework with a different, unnamed regulator of equal status carrying out the enforcement functions set out in Clauses 20 and 21. This position was maintained by the Government throughout the Commons debates on the Bill. Thereafter, in the Lords Committee stage debate, the Minister said:
“We propose that the BBFC should carry out the initial monitoring, assessing and notification work, and we are carefully considering alongside this the option for an enforcement regulator”.—[Official Report, 2/2/17; col. 1297.]
Our amendment is consistent with that position.
However, the Government’s view has changed again. In a more recent letter to the DPRRC, they say that it is intended that the BBFC should carry out all the functions apart from issuing financial penalties. Finally, at a recent meeting the Minister, Matt Hancock, began to speculate that the BBFC could in fact carry out all the functions in the Bill and that a second regulator was not really necessary. This is confirmed in the draft guidance that was produced last week. It is clear that a degree of mission creep is taking place here without an adequate explanation. That underlines our concerns that the Government have not really thought this through. It is not clear why there has been a change of heart. It might be purely pragmatic because, as we understand it, Ofcom has shown a reluctance to take on the enforcement role, but that is not a good enough reason to load all of the powers on to one body with little experience of the scale of enforcement that is spelled out in the Bill.
We continue to be clear that there are two separate regulatory functions, both with considerable responsibilities and heavy resource commitments. They are, first, identifying persons who contravene the requirement to provide age verification filters or who display extreme pornography—it may well be that the BBFC is qualified to do that—and, secondly, taking the widespread range of enforcement actions, including imposing fines, cutting off payments and advertising revenue, and blocking sites as specified in Clauses 20 to 23. This is how the Government originally intended the system to work, and it is a mark of good governance that the two roles should be kept separate.
Our amendment would remove the option of having just one regulator and specifies that there should be two or more. The relationship between the two bodies is set out so that appropriate checks and balances are in place.
The amendment also specifies that the appeals mechanism for decisions by the regulator should be fully independent and not appointed, overseen and funded by the regulator. Again, this is an issue that we have debated previously. We do not believe that the measures set out in the draft guidance address our concerns about appeals, and I hope that even now the Minister will concede that the Government need to revisit the level of independence of the appeals mechanism and to reassure us on that matter.
Finally, our amendment specifies the need for the regulators to have the status of a body corporate, independent of the Government and with all appointments made openly and transparently. Compelling arguments on this matter were put forward in Committee by my noble friend Lord Stevenson, and we continue to believe that they should be addressed before any regulator is appointed. Unlike most regulators, the BBFC is a private company with private arrangements for board appointments. It lacks the transparency and accountability of most organisations operating in this public sphere. It is to be appointed to a role where it will take on considerable extra functions that will be funded by the Government and with complex moral responsibilities at their heart, as we have heard in the earlier debates. We need a reassurance that its governance is of the highest standard, in keeping with the Nolan principles and open to scrutiny.
We believe that our amendments cover the essential factors which underpin a solid and credible regulatory structure. The Government should take time to make the appointments of regulators and they should think again about the drift towards one regulator, which was never originally envisaged. It is important to ensure that all the parties that will play a role in this new regime have confidence in the competence and authority of the regulators, and we believe that this can be achieved only if we consult further and widely about the functions as set out in our amendments. On that basis, I beg to move.
My Lords, I shared some of the concerns that the noble Baroness has just articulated about the role of the BBFC as both the group that will reach these decisions and the one to enforce them. However, having met with representatives of the BBFC, I have to say that I do not agree with the noble Baroness about heavy resource commitments. The BBFC is content that it should be able to carry out these roles with a minimal increase in resources. Also, bearing in mind the confidence that the industry currently has in the BBFC around classification and the awarding of certificates for films and DVDs, we are confident that were the BBFC to become the regulator, it could carry out both roles.
At the end of the day, the BBFC is not at all confident about how effective the financial penalty elements of the Bill will be, bearing in mind that the overwhelming majority of pornographic websites are hosted in other countries. In its view, the enforcement of financial penalties will be almost impossible, but it is confident that it could quickly and easily ask internet service providers to block websites that fail to provide adequate age verification. In these circumstances, we do not believe that we can support the amendments.
My Lords, this is an important point. Without enforcement, nothing will work. If you do not enforce age verification, no one will bother with it. For exactly the same reasons as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, gave, I think that the notice and take-down—the blocking—is the only thing that will work. Fines will not work; it is probably a waste of time even trying them. The only thing that might work is to ask the credit card companies not to take payments for those sites, because they like to observe the law. I am concerned that the BBFC will not have resources to do this properly, but even if it goes elsewhere the BBFC should still be able to notify ISPs to block sites. That bit must certainly be enforced.
My Lords, I am grateful to everyone who has spoken in this brief debate. The introduction of a new law requiring appropriate age verification measures for online pornography will help protect young people and children from potential harms from online pornography. It will also rightly hold commercial providers of online pornography responsible for the material they provide and profit from.
The Government of course take the protection of children and young people very seriously. To provide effective protection it is important that we have a robust regulatory system in place. These amendments seek to limit the scope of the regulatory functions that may be fulfilled by the BBFC by seeking the requirement that the same regulator must not be responsible for both identifying a non-compliant site and taking enforcement action against it. I shall first explain why, in identifying the BBFC as the preferred regulator, we think we have made the right choice.
The Government’s intention is that, subject to parliamentary approval, the BBFC will be the regulator responsible for identifying websites that do not have adequate age verification or are hosting extreme pornography, and then to give notice to the appropriate persons, be they payment service providers, ancillary service providers or ISPs. It is not intended that the BBFC will be designated as the regulator responsible for issuing financial penalties. That will be a role for a separate body, yet to be determined, but which will be approved by Parliament.
We are pleased to be working with the British Board of Film Classification as the intended age verification regulator, again subject to parliamentary approval. To respond to the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on structure, the BBFC is an independent, not-for-profit company that has a proven track record of interpreting and implementing legislation as the statutory authority for age rating videos under the Video Recordings Act. It has unparalleled expertise in classifying content and it is committed to delivering the aims of age verification. It is the expert on editorial judgments over pornographic and other content.
The BBFC has been classifying cinema films since it was set up in 1912 and videos and DVDs since the Video Recordings Act was passed in 1984. It continuously has to make judgments on classification, openly and transparently. These decisions relate to a multimillion-pound industry and are subject to challenge. The BBFC’s work with mobile network operators on the self-regulatory regime for mobile content is a good example of where it successfully sets content standards, implements them and adjudicates transparently and accountably.
The BBFC will not operate without oversight. It must have regard to the statutory guidance from the Secretary of State to the regulator. This will provide a further opportunity to ensure that the regulator fulfils its duties in the way Parliament sees fit. As I said earlier, we are seeking views on this guidance before a final version is laid. Ultimately, the regulator’s decision-making process will be subject to oversight by the courts as there is the possibility of challenge by way of judicial review. This prevents it acting arbitrarily.
In our view, these amendments are unnecessary for the following reasons. First, Clause 17 already enables the Government to designate a person, or any two persons or more jointly, as age verification regulators. The importance of getting this measure right means that the Government remain open-minded and retain flexibility as to how best to respond to changing circumstances. If the BBFC is proven to be unable to deliver certain regulatory functions the legislation has the flexibility to overcome these problems.
Secondly, splitting the regulatory functions in the Bill so that the same regulator cannot identify non-compliant sites and enforce against them unnecessarily creates a middleman in the process. The BBFC will have to give notice to a second regulator, which will then pass that notice on to an ISP or other appropriate body. This is just red tape for no benefit. It makes sense that the body that makes the original determination should also be responsible for notifying relevant parties affected by that determination and for ensuring that that notification action is effective in achieving compliance.
Thirdly, our ambition is to have the age verification regime in place by spring 2018. We are determined to stick to that timetable. The NSPCC has set out the scale of the problem we face and we need to get on with protecting children as quickly as we can. If we need to invent an additional regulator that can only delay the result.
There will always be challenges when working with a pre-existing body on something new such as this. Equally, there are probably bigger challenges and potential delays in starting anew with the new regulator. We have every confidence in the BBFC’s ability to take on this role and the procedure for designation provides a further opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise this.
I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, for talking about the BBFC’s role. I remind noble Lords that it was always our intention that the BBFC would be responsible for notification of ancillary service providers, so notifying ISPs to block is an extension of this role and was introduced following an exchange of letters with the BBFC. The question of who will be the regulator for financial penalties is valid. We will continue to consider the appropriate timing for introducing financial penalties for non-compliant providers and decide who the regulator for this will be. This is the new system. This approach provides the appropriate level of flexibility and provides the right levers to ensure that providers of pornographic material will be incentivised to comply. The Government and the BBFC agree that much can be achieved through the initial stages of the regulatory framework—that is, before we get to financial penalties. This should interfere significantly with the pornography providers’ business model and provide them with a real incentive to comply with the age verification requirements.
I therefore hope that, with that explanation and reassurance, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who contributed to the debate. Of course I accept that the BBFC has considerable experience of dealing with classification. I will not rehearse the arguments that noble Lords put forward: it is of course the case. It is well known and well documented. The part of the Bill that we are concerned with concerns the enforcement role, which goes into uncharted waters.
The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, is quite right that the idea of notice and take-down is a very different way of operating and achieving your end goals. It is quite a novel way, and I am sure we all look forward to finding out whether it will work. The idea that to get pornographers to play ball, if you like, we will cut off their advertising or their money is a great initiative, but we do not know whether it will work. More importantly, I do not know whether the BBFC has any experience of trying to oversee a regime that operates on this basis.
As I said in an earlier debate, I have spoken to some of the internet service providers, and all of the organisations we are talking about here have every sympathy with what we are trying to achieve. However, they have a huge number of questions about how this will work in practice. It is very easy to say that we should block access to the sites, but it is much more difficult technically to implement and to oversee.
We could get carried away with the BBFC being in a position to take all of these functions over. I recall that when the BBFC gave evidence in the Commons before debate on the Bill started there it had much more modest ambitions about what it was able to do. It is interesting that it has been persuaded during the past few months that it should expand its horizons, but I have seen no evidence of it having been tested whether it has the staffing, the expertise or the funding in place, or whether it has the confidence of those whom they will regulate to carry out this role. It is with the back end of all this that we are concerned.
The Minister has implied that the Government’s thinking is the same, but if we look at what was said in the Commons, more latterly in debate here and now in writing, we see that the Government’s position on this has changed as well. I do not know that there has been an adequate explanation. As I said originally, I suspect that they do not have another obvious person lined up, so the people at the BBFC are the only ones volunteering to do it. I am not sure that that is the best basis on which to try out something which I believe could be an exciting way of achieving our aims. I am not convinced that we have yet seen the evidence that the BBFC has the skills to do it.
The Minister may not be surprised that I do not accept what he had to say. There is an issue about subcontracting all this work to a private company that is not properly overseen and regulated in the way that we would want. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 25J but will seek to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 25P.
Amendment 25J withdrawn.
Amendment 25K not moved.
25L: Clause 17, page 19, line 48, leave out “this Part” and insert “—
(a) all of the functions of the age-verification regulator under this Part, or(b) any of those functions specified in the notice by which the designation is made.( ) Different persons may be designated for the purposes of different functions.”
Amendment 25L agreed.
25M: Clause 17, page 20, line 8, leave out from “that” to end of line 9 and insert “—
(a) arrangements will be maintained by the age-verification regulator for appeals to which subsection (4A) applies, and(b) any person hearing an appeal under those arrangements will be sufficiently independent of the age-verification regulator.(4A) This subsection applies to appeals—”
Amendment 25N (to Amendment 25M) not moved.
Amendment 25M agreed.
25P: Clause 17, page 20, line 27, at end insert—
“(8) In designating two or more persons under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must specify that the same persons may not carry out functions under the sections specified in subsection (9), and the functions specified in subsection (10). (9) The functions specified in this subsection are the steps taken by the age verification regulator to identify that a person is—(a) contravening section 15(1);(b) making extreme pornographic material available on the internet to persons in the United Kingdom.(10) The functions specified in this subsection are the enforcement powers under sections 20 to 23.(11) The person or persons carrying out the age verification functions under subsection (9) must notify the person or persons carrying out the enforcement functions under subsection (10) of an identification under subsection (9), to enable that person or persons to take the necessary enforcement action.(12) Appeals procedures must be carried out by a body that is fully independent of the regulator responsible for the functions set out in subsection (9).(13) The regulator assuming the duties specified in subsection (9) is to be a body corporate which is independent from the Government and all appointments to the regulator are to be subject to fair and open competition.(14) No designation shall be made under this section until the Secretary of State consults all such persons as he or she considers appropriate on the role of the age-verification regulator for the purposes of this Part.”
My Lords, for the reasons that I have just outlined, I wish to test the opinion of the House on this amendment.
20 March 2017
Division on Amendment 25P
Amendment 25P disagreed.View Details
Clause 18: Parliamentary procedure for designation of age-verification regulator
Amendments 25Q to 25S
25Q: Clause 18, page 20, line 29, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“(1) Where the Secretary of State proposes to make a designation under section 17, the Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament—(a) particulars of that proposed designation, and(b) a statement of the reasons why the Secretary of State is satisfied about the matters mentioned in section 17(4).”
25R: Clause 18, page 20, line 35, at end insert—
“(3A) But subsection (3B) applies, instead of subsections (2) and (3), where the proposed designation would be—(a) the first to be made under section 17 , or(b) the first to be made under that section for the purposes of a particular function.(3B) The Secretary of State may not make the designation unless it has been approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.”
25S: Clause 18, page 20, line 36, leave out “subsection (3) is” and insert “subsections (3) and (3A) are”
Amendments 25Q to 25S agreed.
Clause 21: Financial penalties
25T: Clause 21, page 23, line 24, at end insert—
“( ) The Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament the guidelines, and any revised guidelines, published under this section.”
Amendment 25T agreed.
Clause 22: Age-verification regulator’s power to give notice of contravention to payment service providers and ancillary service providers
Amendments 25U to 25YB
25U: Clause 22, page 23, line 44, leave out “prohibited” and insert “extreme pornographic”
25V: Clause 22, page 24, line 6, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—
“(b) state whether it is subsection (1)(a) that applies or subsection (1)(b) or both;”
25W: Clause 22, page 24, line 11, leave out subsection (4)
25X: Clause 22, page 24, line 28, leave out “prohibited” and insert “extreme pornographic”
25Y: Clause 22, page 24, line 33, leave out “prohibited” and insert “extreme pornographic”
25YA: Clause 22, page 24, line 39, leave out subsection (7)
25YB: Clause 22, page 24, line 43, leave out subsection (8)
Amendments 25U to 25YB agreed.
25YC: After Clause 22, insert the following new Clause—
“Meaning of extreme pornographic material
(1) In this Part “extreme pornographic material” means (subject to subsection (3)) material—(a) whose nature is such that it is reasonable to assume that it was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal, and(b) which is extreme.(2) For the purposes of subsection (1)(b), material is extreme if—(a) its content is as described in section 63(7) or (7A) of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, and(b) it is grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character.(3) Material to which paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (1) apply is not “extreme pornographic material” if it is or was included in a classified video work, unless it is material to which subsection (4) applies.(4) This subsection applies to material—(a) which has been extracted from a classified video work, and(b) whose nature is such that it is reasonable to assume that it was extracted (with or without other material) solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal.(5) In this section—“classified video work” means a video work in respect of which the video works authority has issued a classification certificate;“video work” means a video work within the meaning of the Video Recordings Act 1984;“the video works authority” has the meaning given in section 16 ;“classification certificate” has the same meaning as in the Video Recordings Act 1984 (see section 7 of that Act);“material” means—(a) a still image or series of still images, with or without sound; or(b) a series of visual images shown as a moving picture, with or without sound.”
Amendment 25YC agreed.
25YD: After Clause 22, insert the following new Clause—
“Extreme pornographic material: review and repeal
(1) Subject to subsections (2) to (6) at the end of the period of three years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed—(a) section 16(1)(g) to (i) ceases to have effect;(b) section (meaning of extreme pornographic material) (1) and (2) ceases to have effect, and is substituted with the following, which comes into force on that day—“(1) In this section “extreme pornographic material” means either of the following—(a) the whole or part of a video work— (i) if it is reasonable to assume from its nature that the video work was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal, and (ii) if the video works authority has determined the video work not to be suitable for a classification certificate to be issued in respect of it;(b) material whose nature is such that it is reasonable to assume—(i) that it was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal, and(ii) that the video works authority would determine that a video work including it was not suitable for a classification certificate to be issued in respect of it.”(2) Following the publication of a report under subsection (3) the Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument provide that the provisions of this Act do not cease to have effect in accordance with this section but are to continue in force indefinitely or for a specified period of time.(3) The Secretary of State must, within a period of two years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, review and prepare a report on the operation of the provisions mentioned in subsection (6).(4) The review and report must consider the effect of the introduction of the definition of “extreme pornographic material” on the regulation of pornographic material under this Act and other enactments.(5) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the report before each House of Parliament.(6) The sections are—(a) section 16,(b) section 22,(c) section (meaning of extreme pornographic material),(d) section 23,(e) section 25,(f) section 27.”(7) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by, a resolution of each House of Parliament.”
My Lords, I shall make a few points, although this was discussed in rather greater detail a little earlier. I start with the use of the word, “suspect” in relation to prohibited materials. It seems to me that it is suspect with the Crown Prosecution Service; it is an odd definition and does not mean that it is generally applicable. The words, “prohibited materials” were removed from the Bill as a result of the Perry amendment in the Commons: they were in the Bill anyway. It is important that that point is known. I have to say to the Minister that the move by the Government from children to adults in the amendments is due to the government amendments, which have been picked up by myself and other noble Lords. We would not have raised these issues without the government amendments. It is important to say that because I have no desire whatever to frustrate or inhibit the excellent work on age verification to be found in the Bill.
I think everybody agrees that this is now a mess. There is need for a proper debate on internet safety strategy, but it needs, if I may say so, a review with some teeth and pressure on the Government because of all the other government work there will be in the light of Brexit. The otherwise admirable amendment of the Labour Front Bench is, in my view, insufficiently strong because it has no teeth.
My amendment is not, despite what has been said, unduly prescriptive. If one looks with some care at the wording, which I am glad to say someone else drafted, subsection (1)(a) of the proposed new clause says that,
“section 16(1)(g) to (i) ceases to have effect”,
but that is a fallback position. It is there to require the Government, under proposed new subsections (2) to (6), to have a review and to draft a report which will be laid before Parliament. It applies only if that is not achieved within two years, and since the Government are offering at least a Green Paper by June it should not be all that difficult to have a review and a report. Consequently, the work that is suggested in this amendment meets what is needed, which is two things: that the mess should be reviewed; and that the Government should be under a degree of pressure to make sure they get on with it and do not put it into the long grass, not because they want to do so but because of the pressure of other government business. I beg to move and, if no one else wishes to speak, I should like to test the opinion of the House.
20 March 2017
Division on Amendment 25YD
Amendment 25YD disagreed.View Details
Clause 23: Age-verification regulator’s power to direct internet service providers to block access to material
Amendments 25YE to 25YL
25YE: Clause 23, page 25, line 6, leave out “prohibited” and insert “extreme pornographic”
25YF: Clause 23, page 25, line 12, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—
“(b) state whether it is subsection (1)(a) that applies or subsection (1)(b) or both;”
25YG: Clause 23, page 25, line 22, leave out “mentioned in section 17(4)(d)” and insert “to which section 17(4A)(d) applies”
25YH: Clause 23, page 26, line 17, leave out “prohibited” and insert “extreme pornographic”
25YJ: Clause 23, page 26, line 22, leave out “mentioned in section 17(4)(e)” and insert “to which section 17(4A)(e) applies”
25YK: Clause 23, page 26, line 29, leave out “prohibited” and insert “extreme pornographic”
25YL: Clause 23, page 26, leave out line 31
Amendments 25YE to 25YL agreed.
25YM: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—
“Guidance to be published by age-verification regulator
(1) Subject to the following provisions of this section, the age-verification regulator must publish, and revise from time to time—(a) guidance about the types of arrangements for making pornographic material available that the regulator will treat as complying with section 15(1); and(b) guidance for the purposes of section 22(1) and (6) about the circumstances in which it will treat services provided in the course of a business as enabling or facilitating the making available of pornographic material or extreme pornographic material.(2) Once the regulator has prepared a draft of guidance it proposes to publish under subsection (1)(a), it must submit the draft to the Secretary of State.(3) When draft guidance is submitted to the Secretary of State under subsection (2), the Secretary of State must lay that draft guidance before both Houses of Parliament.(4) Once the regulator has prepared a draft of guidance it proposes to publish under subsection (1)(b), it must submit the draft to the Secretary of State for approval.(5) When draft guidance is submitted to the Secretary of State under subsection (4), the Secretary of State may approve it either without modification or with such modifications as the Secretary of State decides should be made to it.(6) Once the Secretary of State has approved draft guidance under subsection (5), the Secretary of State must lay the following before both Houses of Parliament—(a) the draft guidance, incorporating any modifications the Secretary of State has decided should be made to it under that subsection, and(b) if the draft incorporates such modifications, a statement of the Secretary of State’s reasons for deciding that those modifications should be made. (7) If, within the period of 40 days beginning with the day on which draft guidance is laid before Parliament under subsection (3) or (6), either House resolves not to approve that draft guidance, the age-verification regulator must not publish guidance in the form of that draft.(8) If no such resolution is made within that period, the age-verification regulator must publish the guidance in the form of the draft laid before Parliament.(9) But subsection (11) applies, instead of subsections (7) and (8), in a case falling within subsection (10).(10) The cases falling within this subsection are—(a) the case where draft guidance is laid before Parliament under subsection (3) and no previous guidance has been published under subsection (1)(a) by the age-verification regulator; and(b) he case where draft guidance is laid before Parliament under subsection (6) and no previous guidance has been published under subsection (1)(b) by the age-verification regulator.(11) The regulator must not publish guidance in the form of the draft laid before Parliament unless the draft has been approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.(12) Subsections (7) and (11) do not prevent new draft guidance from being laid before Parliament.(13) For the purposes of subsection (7)—(a) where draft guidance is laid before each House of Parliament on different days, the later day is to be taken as the day on which it was laid before both Houses, and(b) in reckoning any period of 40 days, no account is to be taken of any time during which Parliament is dissolved or prorogued or during which both Houses are adjourned for more than 4 days.(14) References in this section to guidance and draft guidance include references to revised guidance and draft revised guidance.”
Amendment 25YM agreed.
25YN: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—
(1) Age-verification providers must be approved by the age-verification regulator.(2) In this section an “age-verification provider” means a person who appears to the age-verification regulator to provide, in the course of a business, a service used by a person to ensure that pornographic material is not normally accessible by persons under the age of 18.(3) The age-verification regulator must publish a code of practice to be approved by the Secretary of State and laid before Parliament.(4) The Code must include provisions to ensure that age-verification providers—(a) perform a Data Protection Impact Assessment and make this publicly available,(b) take full and appropriate measures to ensure the accuracy, security and confidentiality of the data of their users,(c) minimise the processing of personal information to that which is necessary for the purposes of age verification,(d) do not disclose the identity of individuals verifying their age to persons making pornography available on the internet, (e) take full and appropriate measures to ensure that their services do not enable persons making pornography available on the internet to identify users of their sites or services across differing sites or services,(f) do not create security risks for third parties or adversely impact security systems or cyber security,(g) comply with a set standard of accuracy in verifying the age of users.(5) The code must include provisions to ensure that publishers of pornographic material take full and appropriate measures to allow their users to choose the age-verification provider of their preference.(6) Age-verification providers and publishers of pornographic material must comply with the code of practice.(7) To the extent that a term of a contract purports to prevent or restrict the doing of any act required to comply with the code, that term is unenforceable.”
My Lords, Amendment 25YN is in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones. This is a retabling of the amendment that we tabled in Committee to ensure that the details of those applying to have their age verified in order to access adult material on the internet remain anonymous.
I will not repeat at length the arguments I made in Committee. The Government are going to force individuals to go through an age verification process which they did not have to engage in before. To do that, they will have to prove their age by providing sensitive personal information to an organisation. Many of those organisations will create databases containing that sensitive personal information, which could become the target for hackers and criminals. As I said in Committee, there have been some high-profile cases of such unauthorised access to sensitive information in relation to porn sites and other similar sites in the past, with devastating consequences for those exposed. This amendment seeks to guarantee that age verification solutions ensure that the identities of those seeking to do the right thing and to have their age verified, rather than getting around the regulations by using for example a VPN, are protected. It would require the age verification regulator to approve age verification solutions and ensure that, as part of that, anonymity is protected.
Rather than accepting the amendment, the Government appear to be moving in the opposite direction. On page 6 of their draft guidance to the age verification regulator, the Government state in paragraph 5:
“There are various ways to age verify online and the industry is developing at pace. Providers are innovating and providing choice to consumers. The Regulator will not be required to approve individual age verification solutions”.
Whatever your Lordships may think of anonymity, the first and most obvious question is: how will the age verification regulator know whether the solution will effectively verify age if it does not have to approve that solution? At paragraph 6, the draft guidance goes on to say:
“The privacy of adult users of pornographic sites should be maintained and the potential for fraud or misuse should be safeguarded”.
The draft guidance talks about not duplicating the role of the Information Commissioner’s Office and says that the focus of the age verification regulator should be on age verification.
In my discussions with the British Board of Film Classification, it has said that it has no particular interest or expertise in the area of data protection in relation to keeping confidential the details of those seeking age verification. We will end up with an age verification regulator that forces users of adult material on the internet to use an age verification solution but has no responsibility for approving such solutions.
In any event, the draft guidance is something to which the regulator has only to have regard to. We believe that if UK users of online adult material are to be forced to verify their age—it is only UK users, as those in other countries will not have to do this—the Government have a particular responsibility to ensure that their sensitive personal data, which they would not otherwise have to put at risk, does not get into the wrong hands. That is what this amendment seeks to achieve and I beg to move.
My Lords, I will say a few words on this very quickly. I thoroughly approve of the premise of the amendment, which is to ensure that some websites do not try to cheat; in fact it would not be a bad idea to put it in the Bill.
I ought to declare an interest: I have been chairing a steering group working on British Standards Institute Publicly Available Specification 1296 on age checking. The whole idea is that this could be used in order to test the procedures and organisations doing age checking. One of the things that it mandates is privacy; it mandates that age checking must be general data protection regulation compliant. The real purpose behind this is that at the point when someone thinks of visiting a pornographic website there should be no requirement for that person to identify themselves to that website. It is perfectly possible at that point to bounce off the website with a token from that website to someone outside who may know about the person and can check their age, and then they can send back an encrypted token that can be stored saying, “This person, whose name I am not going to reveal to you, is over 18”. That is all it does. That can then be data checked and unwound by someone with proper judicial authorisation, if something goes wrong. However, it could be that some websites will try to get around that. That is why the amendment is good: they would have to comply. I do not know whether that is somewhere else in the regulations, but having it in the Bill would be a good thing.
Some people say, “How can you stay anonymous?”. The simple answer is that if you then wish to subscribe to the website and buy some of its product, and you freely give up your credit card, I am afraid that you will not be anonymous. However, that is your choice once you are in. The initial stage of just wanting to view the site should be anonymous, and we should reinforce that.
My Lords, I echo many of the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. We added our name to a similar amendment in Committee and there was a broad degree of support for the principles that were expressed. The amendment returns to the essential need to protect the identity of those who are over 18 and legitimately want to access pornographic sites without having their personal details compromised in the age verification process.
The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, has been very helpful in explaining how the privacy systems would work, using a two-stage process to prove someone’s age and then giving them an encrypted token to use on adult sites. We agree with this model and would like to see it widely adopted. It assumes that age verification would be carried out by a separate age verification provider who has the specific technical skills to carry out these checks securely. However, we also agree that technology is moving on apace and that it would be a mistake to be too prescriptive. We believe that a code of practice, as set out in the amendment, would deliver the protections while allowing that to happen.
That brings us to the draft guidance on the regulator, which the Government published last week and which addresses the issue of privacy. We believe that of all the parts of the draft guidance, the section on privacy is indeed a step forward. It puts the onus on the regulator to work with the Information Commissioner’s Office to ensure that systems are in place to check a user’s privacy while having regard to the Data Protection Act. While we welcome that, we would also like it to address the need for users to have a choice of provider. Again, that is something that we debated at an earlier stage.
In addition, we have a continuing concern that the only provision for data protection breaches is for the ICO to be informed, rather than necessarily for it to act. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that, if there are such breaches, they will indeed be followed up by action.
I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us on these points. However, we feel that progress is being made on this subject. Depending on what the Minister is able to say in response, it may well be that we will ask the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, not to press the issue at this time.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and I thank the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, for his expertise in this area—age verification, I am talking about.
I have some sympathy with the noble Lord and the noble Baroness on this because we, too, have absolute desire for anonymity in these matters. So the Government have sympathy for the intention behind the amendments, but we feel that they go too far and that this amendment is therefore unnecessary. We have already made provisions to cover these concerns under government Amendment 25YQ, which provides that the Secretary of State may issue guidance to the regulator. I assure noble Lords that we approach this issue with the utmost seriousness. We have set out the draft guidance, which noble Lords have mentioned. It is of course draft guidance and, as we say at the beginning of it, we welcome comments—so perhaps some of the comments from today’s debate can be incorporated.
A person making pornographic material available on a commercial basis to persons in the United Kingdom must have an effective process in place to verify that a user is over 18. This age verification already takes place online, from the gambling industry to mobile phone content to purchasing age-protected goods. There are various ways to age-verify online, as the noble Earl explained, and, as the industry is developing rapidly, it is expected that new age verification technologies will develop over time.
Providers are innovating and providing choice to customers. We agree that the process of age verifying for adults should rightly be focused on the need to establish that the user is aged 18 or above, rather than seeking to identify the user. As I have said, age verification controls are already in place without the approval of the age verification providers. For example, licensed gambling sites are required to have age verification controls that are not subject to pre-approval by the regulator but must take account of data protection laws.
We recognise that pornography provides a unique challenge in this space, which is why we are ensuring that the measures in place are stronger than currently exist. As such, the draft guidance to the regulator—I am pleased that in this area at least the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, gave her qualified approval—sets out the detail of how this should be done. Rather than setting out a closed list of age verification arrangements, the regulator’s guidance should specify how it will assess in any given case that the requirements have been met.
The draft guidance, which was published last week, is clear that the process of age verifying for adults should be concerned only with the need to establish that the user is aged 18 or above, rather than seeking to identify the user. The privacy of adult users of pornographic sites must be maintained. We do not want the regulator to duplicate the role of the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK’s independent body set up to uphold information rights. The draft guidance states:
“The process of age verifying for adults should be concerned only with the need to establish that the user is aged 18 or above, rather than seeking to identify the user. The privacy of adult users of pornographic sites should be maintained and the potential for fraud or misuse of personal data should be safeguarded … The role of the Regulator should be to focus on the ability of arrangements to verify whether someone is over 18 and should be assured that age verification arrangements will protect a user’s privacy”.
That is pretty clear, I think.
As also set out in our draft guidance, the age verification regulator should work with the ICO. The regulator should be clear in its guidance on the requirements that age verification services and online pornography providers will have regard to under data protection legislation and, furthermore, that a privacy-by-design approach should be taken, as recommended by the ICO.
It is right that we do not seek here to duplicate the existing legislative and regulatory framework, but we must ensure that they are built into the age verification process in a meaningful way. We have always been clear that adults should be able to access legal pornographic content and individuals should rightly be protected from unintended consequences when doing so. As I said, we have produced a draft of the Secretary of State’s guidance and are certainly happy to have further discussions ahead of the final version being laid.
Could I invite the Minister to be slightly less gentle with those supporting this amendment by saying not that it goes too far but that it is a wrecking amendment? It would drive a coach and horses through this legislation.
I had not thought of that. I am absolutely sure that that was not the intention. However, in the meantime, I would like the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank in particular the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, for his support on this amendment and acknowledge the work that he is doing in this field. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, said she echoed many of our concerns—and in Committee, Labour Peers added their names to the amendment. It proposes a code of practice, the content of which would be specified in the Bill, but it would provide flexibility, in that it sets out only the minimum requirements of such a code.
The Minister said that the Information Commissioner’s Office is responsible for data protection, but the Information Commissioner’s Office is designed to ensure that people who voluntarily put their personal information into the internet are protected—and this is not a voluntary process. This is making it compulsory for anybody who wants to access adult material to give their personal data, which they would not otherwise have to do. We therefore think that the protections should be greater than those provided by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
As the Minister himself said, privacy is more important when it comes to accessing pornography than it is when accessing, for example, gambling sites. We are not reassured. The draft guidance that the Government have issued is only guidance that a regulator should have regard to; it does not have teeth at all. We therefore find both the draft guidance and the explanation given by the Minister inadequate for protecting the identities of those who seek age verification. I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
20 March 2017
Division on Amendment 25YN
Amendment 25YN disagreed.View Details
Clause 25: Exercise of functions by the age-verification regulator
25YP: Clause 25, page 27, line 7, leave out “prohibited” and insert “extreme pornographic”
Amendment 25YP agreed.
25YQ: After Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—
“Guidance by Secretary of State to regulator
(1) The Secretary of State may issue guidance to the age-ve regulator in relation to the exercise of the regulator’s functions, and may from time to time revise that guidance.(2) The guidance may cover (among other things) the following matters—(a) considerations to be applied in determining—(i) whether arrangements for making pornographic material available comply with section 15(1);(ii) whether a person is an ancillary service provider, for the purposes of section 22;(b) the approach to be taken by the regulator to the exercise of its powers to give notices under sections 20 , 22 and 23;(c) the preparation and publication of guidance and reports by the regulator and the content of such guidance and reports;(d) the maintenance by the regulator of arrangements meeting the requirements of section 17(4)(a) and (b).(3) The regulator must have regard to the guidance.(4) The Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament the guidance, and any revised guidance, issued under this section.”
Amendment 25YQ agreed.
25YR: After Clause 26, insert the following new Clause—
“Code of practice for commercial social media platform providers on online abuse
My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 25YR and support Amendment 33A in this group.
We believe that these measures will ensure, finally, that the social media companies begin to take their responsibilities seriously. Action is overdue, which is why we have inserted a relatively tight but achievable timetable—and we make no apologies for that.
We have rehearsed in Committee many of the arguments why this intervention is crucial. I will not repeat them all, but we believe that the case for action to rein in the social media sites is now compelling. The charity Childnet has reported that one in four teenagers suffered hate incidents online last year, and that figure continues to rise. The NSPCC has reported that two-thirds of young people want social media sites to do more to protect them, with exposure to hate messages, pro-anorexia sites, self-harm sites and cyberbullying all on the increase.
Girlguiding revealed in a survey last year that 20% of girls were sent unwanted pornographic films or images without their consent. When I met a delegation of Girl Guides last week, they described how the bombardment of sexualised images was creating huge body-confidence issues and normalising sexist behaviour in schools.
I could go on, but the point is that all these statistics are going in the wrong direction. There is no culture of safeguarding children’s safety and well-being online. As a result, children are being frightened, intimidated, bullied and coerced on social media sites.
Since our last debate in Committee, we have received further evidence of the failure of the social media sites to act when illegal material is brought to their attention. If anyone is in any doubt about the need for our amendment, they have only to recall the example of Facebook, which, on being informed by the BBC that obscene images of children were being posted on its site, failed to remove the vast majority of those posts and then had the audacity to report the BBC to the police when it was sent further examples for it to follow up. Similarly, at the Home Affairs Select Committee, Google’s vice-president admitted that it had allowed a video entitled “Jews admit to organising white genocide” to remain on its site despite admitting that it was anti-Semitic, deeply offensive and shocking. This latest evidence underlines why we feel that action is needed now.
When we debated this issue in Committee, the Minister gave what I felt to be a rather complacent response. He argued that a statutory code was unnecessary and that the onus should be on companies to develop their own in-house processes to deal with the issue. Of course, shortly after that, the Secretary of State decided that leaving it to the companies to sort out on their own was not really good enough after all, and that a new internet safety strategy would be launched, including round tables with the media companies and, as we have heard, a Green Paper in the summer. That is okay as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. We believe that we have left it to the social media companies to change their behaviours on a voluntary basis for far too long. That is why our amendment has a timetable and a requirement for the eventual code to be placed on a statutory basis.
In conclusion, we believe that whatever discussions are now taking place with social media sites—and of course any discussions are welcome—they would be more fruitful if they concentrated on a draft code of practice that would ultimately be binding on them. Surely we owe our children and young people reassurance if we are finally to act on this issue.
My Lords, I support Amendment 25YR and will speak to Amendment 33A, which is in my name. We certainly need to look much more closely at the duty of online providers and their responsibilities. Amendment 25YR refers to the overarching duty of care that agencies must have to children. Both amendments address the need to oblige these online providers to report incidents on content that are likely to contravene existing regulations and likely to come up to the criminal test as used in prosecutions.
The obligations also include that the content should be removed with immediate effect. As we have already heard, this has proved difficult in many cases and very many people say that they have tried to have offensive material removed unsuccessfully. Amendment 25YR refers to a code of practice, and mentions that it needs specific terms that prohibit cyberbullying and provide a mechanism for complaints, as well as for the removal of the offending material. The other thing I particularly welcome about this amendment is the obligation to work with educators, technical professionals and parents to ensure that young people have safe use of the internet.
Amendment 33A would extend this principle rather wider. I am sure we all support measures to prevent cyberbullying of children. It is also fair to say that it is not just children who suffer in this way. Many members of minority groups, disabled people and people with learning difficulties—in fact, people who are in some way different—come in for regular forms of abuse. People just like you and me, having disagreed with somebody, come in for torrents of vile, unpleasant and absolutely unacceptable bullying on the internet. I believe that this would not be allowed in newspapers. Somebody would not be allowed to abuse someone else in a pub. The landlord would be responsible and I believe that it is time we took the online providers to task and made them take some responsibility for what appears and what they allow.
The Minister, in replying to my amendment last time mentioned the fact that existing legislation already provides the means to do this. In fact, I think over 30 statutes refer to these measures and have not yet been consolidated—added to which, there are laws coming online that will make it even more difficult to have a consolidated approach, such as the revenge porn legislation and law on streaming of child abuse. It is becoming increasingly complex and we need a much firmer approach.
It was also mentioned that the Home Office had £4.5 million to address this issue; I understand that this was largely for the measures and resources that the police needed to prosecute criminal acts in this way. The last thing the Minister referred to was that the Law Commission was consulting on this issue. My understanding of that consultation is that it is about improving people’s behaviour on the internet. It does not at all address the online providers. This Bill offers an opportunity to address an appalling practice that is becoming even more prevalent, and I hope that the Minister will agree to incorporate these amendments in the Bill.
My Lords, I am very happy to support the amendment—to which I have added my name—which would bring in a statutory code of practice for media platforms with the important aim of preventing online abuse.
As I said earlier, Part 3 is a child protection measure. Young people use social media. The 2016 Ofcom children and media report devoted an entire chapter to YouTube, social media and online gaming. Around 72% of 12 to 15 year-olds have a social media profile, with Facebook being their main social media profile, and three in 10 of these 12 to 15 year-olds visit their social media account more than 10 times a day. In the last few weeks we have heard about Facebook not taking down child sexual abuse images. Last week, the Home Affairs Select Committee in the other place grilled representatives of Google, Facebook and Twitter on their response to online abuse and hate crime as part of their inquiry into hate crime and its violent consequences.
This amendment is in line with the Government’s objectives to keep children safe. I am expecting the Government to come back and tell us that the UK Council for Child Internet Safety produced guidance for social media sites in 2015, entitled Child Safety Online: A Practical Guide for Providers of Social Media and Interactive Services, and that therefore this code of practice is just not needed. While I commend the good work of UKCCIS, the news of the last few weeks leaves me convinced that without a statutory code we are not doing enough to protect children and to support parents. Parents have to navigate completely new technological terrains. They have no reassurance that there are consistent standards across social media sites, nor what they are. Last year a third of parents said they were concerned about their child being the subject of cyberbullying. Part of the requirements of the code would ensure that social media sites worked with,
“education professionals, parents and charities to give young people the skills to use social media safely”.
I fully support this initiative. Ofcom reports that 52% of parents of eight to 11 year-olds and 66% of parents of 12 to 15 year-olds talked to their children about cyberbullying. This is encouraging, but how much more encouraging if parents know that if they talk to their child about Facebook, the same rules apply on other social media sites and vice versa.
We expect to make our children safe in the physical spaces they occupy every day and have no hesitation in using the law to do so. We need to be doing the same online so I fully support Amendment 25YR to introduce a statutory code of practice for social media platforms.
My Lords, I support the amendment proposed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Janke, but also the remarks of my noble friend Lady Howe. I want to ask the Minister, when he comes to reply, about an issue that I raised in your Lordships’ House previously, and that is the issue of suicide sites on the internet. It concerns me that young people can be encouraged to visit those sites and take their own lives. Only a year ago I attended a school prize giving in a north-west school, and the headmaster told me when I arrived how a child in that school had taken their own life only the day before. As noble Lords can imagine, that was a terrible tragedy not only for the family but for the whole school, and it rather changed the atmosphere on that occasion. That child had been visiting one of the suicide sites on the internet, and the headmaster discovered that several other children had been doing the same.
It can be revenge porn or the kind of trolling to which the noble Baroness referred, the harassment of young women in particular, or the whipping up of xenophobia, racism or anti-Semitism, but it is right that there should be a code of practice, and we should get on with it. I hope that the Minister will tell us more about the Green Paper, what the framework will be for it and when we are going to start to look at these issues seriously.
My Lords, I am grateful to all contributors on this important subject. We take the harm caused by online abuse and harassment very seriously. The measures that we have introduced in this Bill show that the Government are taking this seriously. I hope that I can offer some comfort in this area since we last discussed these two amendments in Committee.
Amendment 25YR seeks to require Ministers to issue a mandatory code of practice to ensure that commercial social media platform providers show a duty of care to ensure the safety of a child or young person using their service; to report and remove illegal posts on social media; prohibit and remove cyberbullying; and to undertake to work with the education profession and charities to provide children with digital safety skills. Amendment 33A seeks to impose a duty on “social media services” to respond to reports posted on their site of material which passes the “criminal test”, being that the content would, if published by other means or communicated in person, cause a criminal offence to be committed. I have two responses to these amendments—first, an explanation of the work that this Government have started to address these issues through our internet safety strategy; and, secondly, some fundamental concerns about their drafting.
The UK is leading the way in online safety, and will continue to do so, with the support of industry, parents, charities, academics, and other experts, and this is a firm priority for this Government. We have been absolutely clear that abusive and threatening behaviour is totally unacceptable in any form, online or offline. On 27 February, my department announced that it is leading cross-government work on an internet safety strategy which aims to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online for children and young people. This work will also address the abuse that women suffer online, as we look at trolling and other aggressive behaviour, including rape threats. We will ask experts, social media companies, tech firms, charities and young people themselves about online safety during a series of round tables later this month, and we will use these discussions to understand more about the scope of the problem and identify where there are gaps in our current approach to tackling online harms.
We will continue to consult closely with interested parties throughout the spring, including Members of this House with expertise in this area. Indeed, we have already invited several noble Lords to take part. A key part of this work will be to clearly set out the responsibilities of social media in respect of online safety as part of a Green Paper which will be published in June. Other priorities will include: how to help young people to avoid risks online; helping parents to face up to the dangers and discuss them with their children; and how technology can help provide solutions.
We have not ruled anything out at this stage, including a code of practice, but this is a complex field and to find the right solution we need to take the time to have a proper conversation with all the leading stakeholders. We would not want anything to prejudge the outcome of these discussions. We believe that this will result in a properly considered, comprehensive approach to online safety which stakeholders are fully signed up to, and one that will deliver the long-lasting protections that these amendments are seeking to secure.
I turn to the amendments. We have some fundamental concerns about how they are drafted. We have three main concerns about the amendment that would require a code of conduct for social media companies. First, while we fully agree that social media companies should be socially responsible to their users, to require them to have an “overarching duty of care” for “any activity or interaction” of young people on their platforms goes too far. It is unclear how this would be measured or what the parameters of such a duty would be.
Secondly, the amendment would require social media companies to inform the police about posts that contravene existing legislation. This would require social media companies to take a judgment role about whether content is legal or not, effectively handing them the power to police the internet. We would be extremely concerned about giving these companies this degree of authority.
Finally, the definition of social media companies is unclear and goes wider than the sorts of sites we think that the amendment seeks to cover. It would include any website or forum where users can interact, including through comments, live chats or reviews, from major retail websites to newspaper sites. That clearly goes far beyond the remit of child protection and would be unworkable, unwelcome and disproportionate.
In relation to the “criminal test” amendment, we have similar concerns about the definition of “social media service”. More fundamentally, the law is very clear that what is illegal offline is illegal online, and we have processes in place to establish this. It should not be left to social media companies, or their users, to take a judgment on whether in their view content is criminal or not.
It is clearly right that we take the most effective action possible to remove vile material from the internet. We strongly believe that the internet safety strategy is the best mechanism to consider what more social media companies can do in this area. In the meantime, government is already working with social media and interactive services to have robust processes in place quickly to address inappropriate content and abusive behaviour on their sites.
We have all read the recent news stories about vile content hosted on social media companies. This Government believe that those companies have a responsibility to make sure their platforms are not used as a place to peddle hate or celebrate horrendous acts of violence. We are already talking to those companies and they are responding to those concerns. In particular, advertising revenue is an effective and salutary lesson for them.
We also expect online service providers to play a key role to protect their users and to ensure they have relevant safeguards and reporting processes in place, including access restrictions for children and young people who use their services. Social media companies already take down content that is violent or incites violence, if it breaches their terms and conditions. However, it is extremely difficult to identify where the threat has come from and whether the threat is serious.
We have referred already this evening to the Internet Watch Foundation, and its data confirm that good progress is being made. It works with companies to identify and remove illegal child sexual abuse material. In 2015, it processed 112,975 reports, and 68,543 were confirmed as child sexual abuse material. Yet only 1% of URLs were on social media sites.
I apologise if I gave the wrong impression in Committee—we are not complacent at all. We know that there is more to do and I give a firm commitment to the House that we will consider all available options through our internet safety strategy. For example, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned the Australian system. We are carefully considering those international best practices, including Australia’s approach, as part of the strategy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Janke, mentioned the problem of the plethora of relevant laws on, for example, cyberbullying. There are laws in place to protect people when bullying behaviour constitutes a criminal offence, for example under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Malicious Communications Act 1988, the Communications Act 2003 and the Public Order Act 1986. I think that proves her point. We will take those things into account in the internet safety strategy.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned suicide sites. That is, of course, something that needs to be looked at and we will include those in our strategy.
We are working on this now. As I said, it will be published in June. We will bring forward the implementation of proposals as quickly as possible thereafter. I hope that noble Lords, especially the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Janke, are reassured that we are taking the necessary strides to keep children and young people safe online. I therefore ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. We support and agree with many of the initiatives that he has outlined. As has been said before, there are opportunities for us to participate in discussions on the Green Paper and the wider issues of internet safety. We welcome all those initiatives, but the list which the Minister gave very much puts the onus on parents, children and everyone else in society to behave well, be better educated and have the proper tools to navigate the internet safely. It did not put so much of an onus on the actual problem, which is that social media sites are encouraging and facilitating this bad behaviour.
Although we do not want to take anything away from the Government, there is still a major problem. The voluntary initiatives that we have so far required social media sites to take have not come up with the goods. The Minister said that things were getting better. I disagree; things are getting worse. We have heard examples from around the Chamber that children are feeling more intimidated and bullied; they are accessing suicide sites in a quite unacceptable way. Sites are not taking down this material when it is drawn to their attention. There continues to be a rather urgent challenge. Without wishing to overplay the Australian model, one can put systems in place to make this happen. It is not beyond their technical capacity to put the measures in place—they just need the proper encouragement. I do not want to take anything away from what the Government have said, but there is a level of urgency with this particular problem about social media sites.
The Minister also said that he had a problem with the wording of the amendment. I do not see what is wrong with an “overarching duty of care” for young people. It is all encompassing and I would hope that any responsible social media site would broadly welcome that initiative. He also said that it was not clear how the sites would make reference to the police. In the Australian system there is an e-safety commissioner through whom complaints are made. If the Government did not like our wording, I would have hoped that they would have come back with something better; we might have withdrawn our wording in favour of theirs if it achieved the same measure.
We still believe that social media sites will change their behaviour only when there is the very particular threat of a statutory obligation being placed on them at a set point in time. I am sorry to say that the Minister’s response has not been sufficient on this occasion, and I would like to test the opinion of the House.
20 March 2017
Division on Amendment 25YR
Amendment 25YR agreed.View Details
Clause 27: Interpretation of this Part
Amendments 25YS to 25YV
25YS: Clause 27, page 28, line 19, at end insert—
““extreme pornographic material” has the meaning given in section (Meaning of “extreme pornographic material”);”
25YT: Clause 27, page 28, line 22, at end insert—
““pornographic material” has the meaning given in section 16 ;”
25YU: Clause 27, page 28, line 23, at end insert—
“(2) Section 22(3) of the Video Recordings Act 1984 (effect of alterations) applies for the purposes of this Part as it applies for the purposes of that Act.”
25YV: Clause 27, page 28, line 23, at end insert—
“( ) Nothing in this Part affects any prohibition or restriction in relation to pornographic material or extreme pornographic material, or powers in relation to such material, under another enactment or a rule of law.”
Amendments 25YS to 25YV agreed.
25YW: After Clause 27, insert the following new Clause—
“Report on this Part
(1) Within 18 months, but not before 12 months, of the coming into force of this Part the Secretary of State must produce a report on the impact and effectiveness of the regulatory framework provided for in this Part.(2) Before publishing this report, the Secretary of State must consult on the definitions used within this Part.(3) The report must be laid before each House of Parliament.”
My Lords, I do not intend to reopen the debate but we were not reassured by what the Minister had to say at the time. Therefore, we wish to test the opinion of the House on this matter.
20 March 2017
Division on Amendment 25YW
Amendment 25YW agreed.View Details
Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.35 pm.