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Online Pornography: Digital Economy Act 2017

Volume 824: debated on Wednesday 26 October 2022

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 to protect children from online pornography, until Ofcom begins any enforcement of the same under the Online Safety Bill.

The Government have decided to use the Online Safety Bill to protect children from online pornography. This will provide greater protection to children across a wider range of services, and we expect that it will be implemented as quickly as the Digital Economy Act—if not more so. The Government are committed to bringing the Bill back to Parliament and are working closely with Ofcom to ensure that the implementation period following passage of the legislation is as short as possible.

My Lords, 18 months ago I urged Ministers to commence Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, so that we can put protection from harmful pornography in place for children. I was told that that would take two years, so any benefits of an interim measure would be minimal at best. Since then, millions of children, as young as seven, have accessed violent online porn, in some cases causing mental health problems and the urge to sexually assault other children. We now know that Ofcom’s road map for regulation demonstrates that there will be no enforcement of the Online Safety Bill before 2025. Ofcom is taking over three years to begin enforcing laws on video-sharing platforms. Does the Minister now accept that we could have protected children three years sooner, and will the Government now commence Part 3, so that it is enforced until the new Bill is ready to replace it, and protect our vulnerable children?

I thank the noble Baroness for those questions. We must be clear about why the Digital Economy Act was criticised. It was originally criticised because it did not cover social media companies, which host a considerable quantity of pornographic material. There are also other sites that it did not consider. It also considered only ISPs as gatekeepers. A number of flaws have been identified in the Digital Economy Act and we will address those with a stronger Online Safety Bill, targeted more at children.

My Lords, to follow the powerful question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, parents are increasingly desperate for a legal bulwark against the tide of harmful and pornographic content that flows into their children’s minds from the internet. They are deeply unhappy that adult freedoms currently trump their children’s safety. In particular, the Government must be very clear about if and how the Online Safety Bill will prevent future deaths from potentially lethal challenges such as “blackout”, which killed Archie Battersbee. Could the Minister take this opportunity to bring clarity in this area of concern for many parents?

I thank my noble friend for that question. It was a deeply saddening case and our thoughts are with Archie Battersbee’s family. We are focusing on doing everything that we can to prevent cases such as Archie’s happening again. That is why the strongest protections in the Online Safety Bill will be for children. It is important that we sort this out as soon as possible, while putting aside or looking at some of the debates on wider issues of freedom of speech. Clearly, free speech is not a defence for not protecting children. That is why we will focus on children. Tech firms will be forced to protect children from dangerous viral stunts and other illegal or harmful content that will cause significant harm. Where content depicting or promoting online challenges risks causing significant harm to a number of children, companies will have to take steps to protect children from this content on their services. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State, who has just been reappointed, is very clear: she wants to bring the Online Safety Bill back as quickly as possible and we aim to do that.

My Lords, the Government have commissioned research on the prevalence and impact of a wide range of harmful content online, including pornography. Could the Minister indicate when that research will be published, and if a copy will be placed in the Library in your Lordships’ House?

On that particular piece of research, I will have to check with the department and write to the noble Baroness. We are quite clear that, when we bring back the Online Safety Bill, the focus will mostly be on the protection of children from harm. We can have a debate on some of the other issues—the tension between freedom of speech and what adults should have access to—sensibly and calmly, as noble Lords usually do, but we want to get this right for the protection of children.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the evidence that Barnardo’s gave to the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill? It said that the failure to enact the original age-verification legislation over three years ago has meant that thousands of children have continued to easily access pornography sites. Does the Minister agree with that? Given his comments today, will he undertake to tell Ofcom that its road map needs changing and that this needs to be a major priority, in that road map, for implementation?

Indeed. One of the issues my department has been discussing with Ofcom is age verification and age assurance. We have to remember that age verification is one form of age assurance. The other thing we have to be aware of is how technology changes very quickly, so we must make sure that we can be as flexible as possible so that Ofcom can update its guidelines or advice on tackling this. We are clear that we do not want to be technology-specific. We want to make sure that it is future-proofed when it comes to age verification and age assurance.

My Lords, I hope the Minister will agree that keeping children safe online requires more than just age verification. What is illegal or prohibited content offline should also be illegal and prohibited online. Will the Government ensure that the new legislation currently in the other place will indeed ensure that protections offline will be the same for online content?

The noble Lord will be aware of the debate, which was about how we challenge in the Bill things that are legal offline while making sure that there is consistency between the online and offline worlds. One of the challenges is that technology is changing very quickly. We have to be honest: sometimes kids are much smarter than their parents. Whatever processes you put in place, a determined child will access this. We have to take all that into account, but we want to focus on child protection. This is why we want to bring back the Online Safety Bill as quickly as possible.

My Lords, the Minister said that the Government are focusing on the protection of children, but although he listed the reasons why the Digital Economy Act is not perfect and does not cover everything, it is better than nothing. The Government have been faffing around for three years on online safety and not bringing forward the necessary legislation. Why?

I fundamentally disagree with the noble Lord. Many noble Lords will be aware that often in legislation there are unintended consequences and things that were unforeseen. I used to do a lot of writing on technology. In fact, I once wrote a book and the moment it was published it was already out of date. That shows just how quickly technology moves on. We want to make sure that we have flexibility. If we were to implement Part 3 of the Act, it would take longer than bringing in the Online Safety Bill. It would also be far too narrow: it would not take account of social media or non-ISPs. Noble Lords might shake their heads, but they are completely wrong on this.

My Lords, many of us are concerned that the “legal but harmful” clauses of the Online Safety Bill will be a chill for free speech. Can the Minister assure the House that these clauses will not be included in the Bill when it comes to this place?

I thank the noble Viscount for that question. It is very important that we understand the tension that we will see in this debate. Of course we want to protect children and adults from illegal content, unpleasant content and anything that encourages suicide, violence and other such things. At the same time, we live in a free society and we have to get the balance with freedom of speech right. This will be a challenge and I think we will have very interesting debates in this House. Indeed, we have a debate on this issue tomorrow. It will show the range of views but, with noble Lords’ wisdom, we will try to reach that right balance.

My Lords, Ofcom’s new polling shows that 78% of people expect to verify their age when carrying out certain activities online, including gambling or buying alcohol, and 80% believe that users should be required to verify their age when accessing pornography online. Given this level of public support and how easily young people are able to access pornography, why has there been long-running resistance from the Government to act?

I am afraid I disagree with the noble Baroness. There is not a resistance to act; we just want to make sure that the technology is right, and that we understand the issue we are dealing with and the unintended consequences. There is a range of age-assurance issues; age verification is just one. We also have to be careful that we do not mandate not only one technology but just one company and inadvertently create a monopoly on this issue. The other tension is that pornography is not illegal, so there will be adults who watch it who will be worried about their personal data being leaked. We have to give that assurance and get that right balance with data protection. What we really want to do when we bring back the Online Safety Bill is focus on where there is consensus in this House, and that is on the protection of children.