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Children: Online Protection

Volume 818: debated on Thursday 10 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the new Information Commissioner about the importance of protecting children online.

My Lords, the Government are committed to protecting children online and are in regular contact with the Information Commissioner, whom we welcome to his post. The forthcoming online safety Bill will provide children with world-leading protections from harmful content and activity online, and the Information Commissioner will continue to enforce the safeguards for children’s privacy in the children’s code.

I thank the Minister for that Answer and welcome the recent announcement that the draft online safety Bill will better protect young people from online pornography. Regrettably, the Government have dragged their feet on this, meaning that more young people have been exposed to extreme content than was necessary. A new regime will take several years to come on stream. What consideration is the Minister giving to interim measures to better protect children, including, but not limited to, instructing the Information Commissioner to apply the age-appropriate design code to hosts of adult content?

I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s support for the newer measures the Government announced this week. Of course, we will be responding in full to the work of the Joint Committee and the DCMS Select Committee in the other place. We have looked at the draft online safety Bill to respond to the further recommendations and suggestions they have made. However, we have not been inactive in the meantime. In June last year, for example, we published safety by design guidance and a one-stop shop on child online safety, which provided guidance on steps platforms can take to design safer services and protect children. Last July, we published our Online Media Literacy Strategy, which supports the empowerment of users. So we are taking steps, as well as introducing the Bill, which will be coming soon.

My Lords, I also welcome the new commissioner, John Edwards, to his role, and congratulate the Government on this week’s announcement that the online safety Bill will include statutory guidance for privacy-preserving age assurance. Given that, to date, many of the eye-catching changes brought about by the age-appropriate design code, such as safe search and dismantling direct messaging by unknown adults to children, have been rolled out globally, are the Government working with the new commissioner to encourage the UK’s allies and trading partners to adopt the code in other jurisdictions to better enforce its provisions? Does he agree that regulatory alignment between the online safety Bill and the code is essential if we are to keep children safe?

I am very grateful for the noble Baroness’s welcome for the new measures. There is agreement at an international level and within the UK that much more needs to be done to create a safer online environment for children, and the noble Baroness has played a significant part in fostering that agreement. The Information Commissioner has an international team responsible for engaging with data protection and information regulators all over the world. He is himself a former privacy commissioner in New Zealand, while his predecessor worked in this area in Canada, and I think that is to the great benefit of international dialogue. The international team works to ensure that the ICO’s regulatory and other priorities are appropriately reflected in international discussions. Through its work in organisations such as the OECD, the Council of Europe and the Global Privacy Assembly, the ICO also influences work on the interoperability of global data protection regimes.

My Lords, as chairman of the Proof of Age Standards Scheme board, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, in congratulating the Government on the work they are doing in this area. Can the Minister give us an update on the sandbox trial of technologies and an idea of when those trials might reach a conclusion, so that they can be rolled out? This is something that, for proof of age for buying alcohol and children’s online activities, will be an immensely positive step forward and one that is very welcome.

I am grateful to my noble friend for her support for the new measures. I am afraid I do not have details of the specific trial to which she refers, so, if she will permit me, I will write to her with those details.

My Lords, the Government seem to be bringing out their response in tantalising instalments. I can only speculate why, but, as a former member of the Joint Committee alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, I can only welcome what the Government have already announced. There are crucial elements to the control of commercial pornography: first, the age-assurance measures that were set out in the noble Baroness’s Private Member’s Bill, and, secondly, the age-appropriate design code protections for young children. There is, as yet, no indication that the Government have actually accepted the alignment of the age-appropriate design code with the online safety Bill regarding the commercial pornography elements. That is an important factor if we are really going to make sure that young people are safe.

I hope we can continue to please the noble Lord and others with the work that we are doing in this area. The age-appropriate design code will play a key role in delivering protections for children ahead of and alongside the new online safety regulatory framework. We have aligned our approach with the code, which requires companies to apply its standards to protecting children’s personal data where they have assessed that children are likely to access their services. That will provide consistency for companies that may be required to comply with both the code and the provisions of the online safety Bill.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this Bill, perhaps more than any other, demands post-legislative as well as pre-legislative scrutiny? It is terribly important to see that things are really working. I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness.

I certainly agree that the Bill has already benefited from the work of the Joint Committee and all the representations that have been made about it by parliamentarians in both Houses. One of the pre-legislative recommendations was for post-legislative attention, and we will respond to that and all the other recommendations ahead of publishing the Bill.

My Lords, I think the Minister should beware TS Eliot’s:

“Woe unto me when all men praise me!”

There is clearly a direction of travel which is welcomed in the House. Could he assure me that the British Board of Film Classification will be involved in ensuring that this safety legislation is watertight? It has long experience in age verification and other matters that would make it invaluable to whoever will take responsibility for these matters.

The noble Lord makes an important point. We have been speaking to the BBFC and others. The questions which we are addressing through the online safety Bill are not entirely new. The questions of access and how we can protect children, in particular, are ones that we have addressed in relation to other media. We are learning from those who have experience as we look to future regulation.

My Lords, I do not bring any praise. Age assurance can be driven through easily by a coach and horses. The noble Baroness asked what further work is being done on facial recognition and the other factors which are now developing with technology. When we reflect on the great difficulties we have with so many areas on security, was it not a disaster, in 2011, when the then newly elected coalition Government threw away the Labour Government’s work on identification of individuals, when this is needed in so many areas? What are the Government doing to look back, reflect on that, change direction and produce proper self-identification for everyone, not just children?

I am not sure that a national identity card scheme would be the right approach in this area. In the decade since, technology has moved on in a number of ways to enable both age verification and age assurance in a lighter touch way that affords the protections we need for children online while respecting the privacy of legitimate adult users.

My Lords, the Government’s announcement acknowledges that porn gives children unrealistic expectations about sex and relationships and encourages misogyny. However, it fails to mention the addictiveness of its consumption up the age range. Are the Government concerned about the effect on adults’ relationships, as is revealed by this worrying research? The Bill is urgently needed, and I join others in asking, because the Bill is urgently needed, when it will be introduced.

I thank my noble friend, too, for his welcome. He raises points about the further potential harms of pornography and, although the strongest protections in the Bill are for children, it looks at the harms that online content can pose to people of all ages. On the time- table: it remains our intention to introduce the updated Bill in the coming weeks and to respond formally to the Joint Committee and to the Select Committee in the other place at the same time as the Bill is published.