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Streaming Platforms: Age Ratings

Volume 808: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the partnership between Netflix and the British Board of Film Classification to establish age ratings for streaming platforms; and what plans they have to encourage other streaming platforms to adopt such ratings.

My Lords, while adoption of the British Board of Film Classification’s best-practice age ratings by online platforms is currently voluntary, we welcome their usage by video on-demand platforms. This includes an ongoing partnership with Netflix which, on 1 December, announced that it had become the first platform to achieve complete coverage of its content under the BBFC’s ratings. We will continue to engage with industry to encourage other platforms to do the same and will keep the evidence for legislation in this area under review.

My Lords, given that at present, under the audiovisual media services directive, the UK cannot regulate non-UK-based video on-demand services, does the Minister agree that BBFC ratings are the best way to inform parents and children whether content is appropriate, because they are trusted and reflect our national concerns on issues such as violence and discrimination? Will the Government take action to promote and ensure adoption by VOD platforms whether regulated here or not?

I hope I was clear in my first Answer that the Government are very supportive of the ratings system. Since 2018, we have encouraged voluntary adoption of the BBFC code.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her answer. What will the Government do if other platforms do not follow the Netflix example? According to the BBFC, over 90% of parents said that age-related guidance was helpful, and there is no doubt that voluntary action may be more forthcoming if platforms are very clear that the UK Government expect content consumed here in the UK to be properly signposted with BBFC symbols and content advice. How else do the Government plan to ensure that only age-appropriate content is accessible to young and vulnerable viewers?

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right that the evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of parents—I think 94%—would like to see a consistent ratings system. We are also aware —this has been raised on many occasions by the public service broadcasters—of the inconsistency in the regulatory environment between PSBs and the platforms. We are looking at that, including asking the PSB panel to review it.

My Lords, now that Netflix has arrogantly rejected the Secretary of State’s excellent request to make clear at the start of every programme that “The Crown” is a work of fiction, what action do the Government propose to take to ensure that Netflix is regulated by Ofcom and is not free to present poisonous and mendacious material as fact?

I think my noble friend is aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made his views about the latest series of “The Crown” extremely clear. Perhaps one positive outcome of this is that Netflix has now made a statement in the public domain that acknowledges that this is indeed a fictionalised account. We are hopeful that Netflix will reflect on this for future programmes to make sure that it serves its viewers to best effect.

My Lords, we have the 9 pm watershed, which provides parents and guardians with a good marker of the content and age-appropriateness of programmes. Now that more and more traditional broadcasters are offering on-demand services similar to those offered by the streaming platforms, can the Minister say what the Government are doing to ensure age-appropriate content in this growing area of broad- casting?

The noble Lord raises some wide-ranging points. In addition to what I have already mentioned regarding our approach, we are taking forward a media literacy strategy and developing a one-stop shop which will give companies guidance on how to keep children safe online.

My Lords, is it true that the content guidelines carried by Netflix are primarily derived by applying algorithms? Does that not differ significantly from how the BBFC arrives at its clear and consistent advice on content? If that is true, is it accurate for Netflix to say that it is carrying BBFC age ratings on all its programmes?

My understanding is that the system that has been agreed between Netflix and the BBFC is that Netflix takes a self-rating approach in line with the BBFC’s classification, which is then verified and audited by the BBFC. Both parties appear to be content.

My Lords, far more parents allow their young children to play 18-plus-rated video games than allow them to watch 18-plus-rated films. Indeed, one survey showed that 86% of parents do not follow video game age restrictions. What more can be done to persuade parents and others buying video games as Christmas presents for children to understand the harm that can be done to children by not taking seriously the age rating of video games?

The noble Lord raises an important point. We would like to see the Pan European Game Information—PEGI—age ratings, which are used for physical copies of games, also used for online games, and we are pursuing that actively.

My Lords, algorithm or not, this is a very welcome development because it gives families some guidance with regard to the relevant ages. Is my noble friend surprised that other platforms have not joined in? In particular, Disney does not use the system at all. It uses a ratings system based on a Dutch system, which means that films that the BBFC has classified for cinemas and for DVD release carry a different rating on Disney+. That means that they are not aligned with what UK expectations would be. To take one example, “Mrs Doubtfire”, a film that deals with bereavement, loss and divorce, is sensibly classified as a 12 by the BBFC but is rated as suitable for all on Disney+. This lack of consistency does not help British families. Will my noble friend meet urgently with Disney+, Amazon Prime and Apple to urge them to join the system?

My noble friend raises important points. I know that many of these companies are very focused on a family-friendly approach and that my noble friend the Minister for Digital and Culture meets regularly with the companies working in this area.

My Lords, while I welcome what the Minister has said about keeping the voluntary, rather than mandatory, arrangements under review, can she explain how Ofcom will judge whether an adult service video on demand provider has taken appropriate measures to prevent access by children and young people to our 18-classified material under the new audio-visual regulations that came into effect last month? How does she respond to the warning reported this morning from the Children’s Commissioner that the Government must do more to protect children as messaging apps make more use of encryption?

Ofcom in particular uses the on-demand programme service code in relation to these platforms. With regard to the noble Lord’s second question, the issues raised around encryption are incredibly important; that is a vital part of our digital world and we need to find a solution. We are working with the industry to find a solution which does not risk child safety but which permits security and cybersecurity.

My Lords, is it not already clear that the British Board of Film Classification has tremendous respect from the public, and should not the Government bring the board into closer co-operation with the CMA, Ofcom and the Information Commissioner as we map out the legislation that is promised? As has been shown this morning, we need their expertise.