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Online Pornography: Age Verification

Volume 800: debated on Thursday 17 October 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat as a Statement an Answer given in the other place earlier today by my honourable friend the Minister for Digital and Broadband. The text of the Answer was as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I thank my honourable friend for her Question this morning and for the work she did while she was a DCMS Minister on this policy. As she knows, the Secretary of State tabled a Written Ministerial Statement on this issue yesterday. I come to the House further to that Statement.

Protecting children is at the heart of our online harms agenda, and is key to wider government priorities. When she was a Minister, my honourable friend was of course responsible for the publication of the online harms White Paper in April this year. The White Paper proposed the establishment of a duty of care on companies to improve online safety, overseen by an independent regulator with strong enforcement powers to deal with non-compliance.

Since the White Paper’s publication, the Government’s proposals have continued to develop at pace. The Government announced in the Queen’s Speech that we will publish draft legislation. It is important that our policy aims and our overall policy on protecting children from online harms are developed coherently in view of those developments, with the aim of bringing forward the most comprehensive approach possible to protecting children.

The Government have concluded that this objective of coherence will be best achieved through our wider online harms proposals and, as a consequence, will not be commencing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 concerning age verification for online pornography. The Digital Economy Act objectives will therefore be delivered through our proposed online harms regulatory regime.

As currently drafted, the Digital Economy Act does not cover social media platforms, something which my honourable friend and I both know was of concern to this House, and indeed warranted substantial debate in December 2018. It will also give us an opportunity to revisit the definitions of pornographic material, which I know have been a concern of some Members of the House—one which my honourable friend has shared.

I assure my honourable friend that the Government’s commitment to protecting children online is unwavering. Adult content is too easily accessed online and more needs to be done to protect children from harm. We want to deliver the most comprehensive approach to keeping children safe online, and recognised in the online harms White Paper the role that technology can play in keeping all users, particularly children, safe.

We are committed to the UK becoming a world leader in the development of online safety technology and to ensure that companies of all sizes have access to, and adopt, innovative solutions to improve the safety of their users. This includes age-verification tools and we expect them to continue to play a key role in protecting children online.

I would welcome my honourable friend’s engagement, along with that of all Members of this House, while we continue to engage with Members of Parliament on the provisions of the online harms regime, to ensure effective online harms proposals which deliver on the objectives of the Digital Economy Act”.

My Lords, the House will be aware of my long-standing view that it is wrong in principle for the Government to require private companies, such as the BBFC, to carry out statutory functions. We had considerable reservations about the original approach taken by the Government in the Digital Economy Act, with its reliance on age verification as a surrogate for requiring companies to do much more to protect children and other vulnerable people online, but we support the duty of care approach set out in the recent White Paper.

However, yesterday’s announcement will undoubtedly mean that children will be exposed to unsuitable material for two or three years more than originally planned. This is shocking. A few months ago, we were told that the delays were due to an “administrative oversight”. Is that still the reason that the Government use? When will the report on that incident be made available?

I am glad that the noble Lord supports the duty of care approach, as set out in the online harms White Paper. I think all sides of the House can agree that a voluntary approach has not worked to date. In terms of the administrative oversight, that is still the reason for the original delay.

My Lords, there is an old way of testing a Statement—look at who is smiling and who is not. Is the Minister aware that this Statement will bring profound disappointment to many, including many in this House, who worked long and hard to get a system that would work, and work now, into the Bill? We were promised this for next month. Her colleague who answered my question on 30 September said:

“Policymakers around the world are watching the code’s progress and waiting to follow our lead”.—[Official Report, 30/09/19; col. 1556.]

Our lead is to now postpone this protective measure for at least three years. The Government should be ashamed of themselves.

I do not think that anyone is smiling about this. I hope the noble Lord will accept that. Dealing with online pornography is not a smiling matter. Clearly, both the Secretary of State and the Minister in the other place reflected long and hard before making this decision. They genuinely believe that by applying a more comprehensive approach we can end up with a better result for our children and grandchildren.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a real danger here of the best being the enemy of the good? The previous proposals might have been imperfect, but they would at least have come into force quite quickly. By delaying, there is a real risk that children over the next intervening period—I did not think it would be as long as three years, but it could well be—will be exposed to life-changing, harmful online pornography. We simply cannot wait.

The noble Lord is right that children are exposed to harmful pornography every day. I heard a statistic recently that half a million images are uploaded on to social media, I think, on a daily basis. If that is wrong, we will correct it. Shocking things are going on. The noble Lord will be aware that the original Digital Economy Act did not cover social media, so we really hope that this will be more comprehensive. We are doing a number of things in the meantime, such as sex and relationships education—helping children understand the impact of pornography—and we hope to introduce soon the age-appropriate design code, which was included in the Data Protection Act thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron.

Why is DCMS against protecting children from absorbing unsavoury sexual practices at a formative age? I do not understand why it wants to delay so much. Most adult websites are onside for doing something and adopting age-verification controls, as long as rivals are compelled to do so as well. There has been a lot of publicity about this in that world, I am assured. Over a year ago, I chaired BSI Publicly Available Specification 1296 on how to do this anonymously and check anyone’s age online, so it can also be used for other child-protection issues. It also worked with the Home Office online harms issues. It will protect people’s privacy, which is what everyone is worrying about. The Home Office is not charged with our children’s mental health. Equally, DCMS is not charged with data protection, which is what the BBFC has gone and done; that is the job of the ICO. We can sort all this out. The stuff is there; you just need to implement it. The other real problem—

Okay, right. The question was right at the start. Several AV providers have spent a lot of money on implementing this and getting it all ready to go. Who is going to compensate them? A lot of money has been spent to get this ready in time.

I refute as firmly as possible any idea that DCMS is against protecting children; clearly, that could not be further from the truth. On the work that I know the noble Earl has done in relation to introducing more digital ways of establishing age verification, we are working actively with the industry on that and absolutely recognise the potential role that technology can play. Those costs are not wasted, because age verification will clearly be part of any solution going forward.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. In that capacity I also express regret at the delay to the age-verification proposals. It is very good to see the Government’s commitment to comprehensiveness in looking at this but, as has been said, this is a fast-moving field and we will never catch everything and keep up with the technology. Can the Minister complement the emphasis on comprehensiveness in the Statement with a parallel commitment to urgency in the action that will be taken? Can she comment on the likely timetable for the online harms Bill?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question and the work he does in the Centre for Data Ethics, which clearly has an important role in this space. In relation to urgency, I hope I can reassure him that my honourable friend the Minister is absolutely determined to do this as quickly as is feasible. We plan to respond to the consultation before the end of the year and to introduce a draft Bill in the new year. Obviously, as noble Lords are aware, we announced pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill, which we very much hope will make it as future-proof as possible.

My Lords, why do we not protect everyone from pornography? Why cannot the transmission of pornography online—to children and to everyone—be a criminal offence?

My noble friend raises a much wider issue about individual freedoms, which I am aware have been debated on many occasions in your Lordships’ House. The encouragement I offer him in that regard is twofold. First, I make a clear distinction between illegal and legal pornography. The online harms work gives us an opportunity to look again at the definition. Secondly, whether to look at pornography or not is clearly a choice.

My Lords, I am bitterly disappointed by this Statement. We are letting our children down. By the Government’s own statistics, every month that passes without legislation, 1.4 million children access pornography unintentionally. Research by the BBFC found that 80% of parents want robust age-verification controls in place. I understand the BBFC could implement this new regime straightaway, so can the Minister tell me why we have this delay, why we are letting our children down and why we are not putting age gates in place straightaway? Children are being affected and traumatised at this very moment.

I respect the noble Baroness’s concern. I repeat that we believe that a more comprehensive approach will include social media, which, as the noble Baroness knows, is a channel through which children access pornography. It will be in scope and it was not in the original legislation. But she makes the fair point that we have to rebuild trust, and we will demonstrate that by the urgency with which we pursue this.