My Lords, I start by acknowledging the many colleagues who were unable to speak today but who wrote to offer their support and I thank those who are present. I know that many noble Lords have made a considerable effort to be here and I look forward to their contributions.
In a moment, I will set out the Age Assurance (Minimum Standards) Bill, what it does and why it is so urgently needed, but before that I wish to say why I am here. In doing so, I declare my interests as set out in the register, particularly as chair of the 5Rights Foundation, which works to build the digital world that children deserve, and most recently as a member of the advisory council for the University of Oxford’s Institute for Ethics in AI and the Draft Online Safety Bill Joint Committee. My work means that, day in, day out, I see children being made the collateral damage of tech industry norms.
During the first lockdown, I was asked to visit a distraught head teacher whose pupil had received and shared a video of child sexual abuse so grotesque that I cannot describe it here. By the time we sat helplessly crying in the freezing playground, the video had been shared across London and was making its way up north. It was a primary school; the children involved were not even 10. I was with a child at the very moment it dawned on her that she had been groomed. Her so-called friend for whom she had performed intimate acts had filmed and shared videos of her with a network of adults thousands of miles away. Her spirit shattered in front of me.
Earlier this year, 5Rights published research showing that accounts registered as children were being targeted with material that no business should recommend to a child: emaciated bodies, violent misogynistic pornography, razor blades and gaping wounds, and even a message saying, “End it all”—and, sadly, some do. My inbox is a testimony to the grief and rage of bereaved parents who do not accept these norms that we are willing to tolerate or even justify as a cost of connectivity and innovation.
I am adamant that we do not use age assurance to dumb down the internet, invade privacy or lock children out of the digital world—it is essential for their growth and participation in our collective future. But it is failure writ large that children are routinely exposed to material and experiences that they do not choose or have the capacity to navigate. It is in the name of these children and their parents that I am here.
Age assurance is a misunderstood term. For the record, it is any system that purports to estimate or verify the age or age range of a user. The Bill is extremely narrow. It requires Ofcom to produce a code of conduct that sets out minimum standards for any system of age assurance. These are not technical standards. The Bill is technology-neutral but requires all services that provide or use age assurance to ensure that it is privacy preserving, proportionate and rights respecting. Specifically, it determines that age assurance be effective. Ofcom figures show that almost half of children in the UK between the ages of five and 12 are on social media, despite most sites having a minimum joining age of 13.
The Bill will ensure that any age-assurance system protects the privacy of users by taking no more information than is needed to establish age and not using that information for any other purpose, and that age assurance will be secure. If it is to be trusted, the storage, traceability and disposal of data must be subject to transparent and measurable standards. It provides that age assurance is proportionate to risk. It would be foolish to require a child to present their passport to explore the world of Peppa Pig, but it remains a travesty that 80% of pornography sites have no form of age barrier at all—not even a tick box.
The Bill will ensure that age assurance is appropriate to the capacity and age of the child, anticipating that some children will lie about their age. Equally, it will provide appropriate mechanisms for users to challenge decisions. If a child’s age is wrongly determined or an adult is mistaken for a child, there must be robust routes to redress. The Bill demands that age assurance be compatible with data legislation. I have spent the last four years working to ensure that the age-appropriate design code offers children a high bar of data protection in the certain knowledge that data protection makes children safer. That is why privacy is at the heart of this Bill. But as technology changes and we enter a world of virtual and alternate realities, as envisaged by Facebook’s punt on the metaverse, data law will change. Any regulation must keep one eye on the future.
Let me be utterly clear: age assurance is not a silver bullet that will fix all the ills of the digital world, but without it we cannot deliver the promises or protections to children that we have already made, neither to those underage nor to those between 13 and 17 who are so poorly protected in a digital world that treats over-13s as adults.
Nor is this a choice between user privacy and child safety. The sector’s enormous wealth is predicated on having a detailed knowledge of its users. As one child said to me, “How do they know I like red Nike trainers, but they don’t know I’m 12?” It is convenient to know that a child likes Nike trainers, because that drives advertising revenue. However, it is inconvenient to know that he is 12, because if you know that, why on earth is your algorithm recommending dating apps or extreme content, or sending him messages that suggest that he kill himself?
The Bill does not prescribe the technology that companies should use. AI, image or speech analysis, parental controls, cross-counter authentication, know your customer checks, capacity testing and age tokens from trusted partners all have a place. What we do not have is rules of the road, resulting in every provider, business or social media company making them up to suit itself.
When the Minister stands up, I anticipate that he will say that the department is working on a voluntary standard for age-assurance providers, but a voluntary standard needs volunteers. It will simply make the good guys better and leave the bad guys as they are. He may also be tempted to suggest that the online safety Bill will deal with this. I have read the Bill many times and there is no mandatory code of conduct for age assurance. Even if Parliament insists, which I believe it will, the earliest that a code could be operational by this route is 2024. The Digital Economy Act brought age verification for commercial pornography into law in 2017, but this is yet to be implemented. A child who was 11 in 2017 will be an adult by 2024.
Perhaps the Minister will say that this modest Bill is too broad as it touches on privacy, which is the domain of the ICO. This profoundly misunderstands the construction of the digital world. Data is the engine of the attention economy. Not only age assurance, but many of the codes in the online safety Bill, will require co-regulation, or they will fail.
I thank the noble Lord the Minister, the Minister for Technology and Innovation and the Secretary of State for their time. I wish to make it clear that I do not doubt that we all agree on the destination. But this is an issue that has concerned us for a decade. Legislation has been in place for four years and promises have been made by six Secretaries of State. Meanwhile, every day, children pay the price of a wilfully careless industry, sometimes with their lives.
If, when the Minister answers, he is able to give the Government’s full support, he has my deepest apologies for anticipating his words wrongly. However, on the basis that he will not, I ask him to answer this challenge. Which one of the 50% of 10 year-olds, approximately 400,000 children, currently on TikTok does not deserve immediate protection? Which one of the children receiving child sexual abuse material so horrific that it cannot be forgotten or unseen in a lifetime does not deserve immediate protection? How many children does he anticipate will be radicalised, grow into violent sexual norms, lose sleep or confidence or be pushed into cycles of self-harm and depression during the two years that the Government are willing to delay, when Ofcom has the staff and money, and could have the mandate, right now? What would he say to the parents of Molly and Frankie and other parents who have lost children about putting at risk even one more child who could be given a service suitable for their age? Which Facebook whistleblower revelations or headlines about Instagram, OnlyFans, YouTube, TikTok and Omegle—to name just a few—have given the Government confidence that industry will meanwhile do the right thing?
I ask the House not to amend the Bill, in order to give mandatory privacy-preserving, trusted age assurance a swift passage. I say to the Government: this Bill deserves more than their sympathy; it deserves their support. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for bringing this Bill and for her characteristic passion and commitment to this extremely important topic. Her work championing these issues has been so important and has undoubtedly led to the UK genuinely leading the world in digital safety. Today is another opportunity for us to do the same again.
Many people think that age assurance is all about pornography, but I think that we have a much broader and therefore potentially even more damaging digital age-assurance problem. It is a problem with the underlying social media and technology platforms themselves. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, go into any primary school year 6 classroom and ask the assembled 10 year-olds who is on social media—on TikTok, YouTube, WhatsApp or Instagram—and almost all of them will say yes. Yet all these providers tell us that their products are not appropriate for 10 year-olds.
The evidence is mounting that the dangers of social media on young minds are substantial, so if the companies themselves tell us that 13—WhatsApp says 16—is the youngest that you should be to use these services, I suspect that that is the bare minimum. Yet we are living in a society where it is completely normal for the majority of children younger than 13 to be regular users of these products.
We do not tolerate this in the physical world; why should we tolerate it in the digital world? I will talk briefly about the physical world. Age assurance already exists there. I worked for much of my life in food retailing and, over the last 20 years, prevention of the sale of alcohol to underage children has changed beyond all recognition. When I was a teenager, sadly much more than 20 years ago, there was no impact on the publican, waiting staff, cashier or store owner if they sold me a beer. Now there is a material financial and criminal impact on them all if they are found selling alcohol to my underage children. As a result, they have developed effective age-assurance processes. We do not have hard age verification for selling alcohol in this country and do not all walk around with our passports in our hands, but we have an age-assurance approach.
Think 21 was, I believe, first launched in Wetherspoons in 2005, when signs were put up and staff were trained to look for people who looked under 21 and ask them for identification. That evolved to Think 25, as it is quite hard to tell the difference between an 18 year-old and a 21 year-old. Working together, food retailers and the hospitality industry have built systems, processes, training and communication that are much more effective than when I was young. That has not meant a loss of privacy or a material change to access to alcohol for adults—quite the opposite.
I would argue that the age-assurance tools available to social media and technology companies are much more sophisticated than those available to food retailers or pubs—at least, that is the premise on which the whole multibillion pound online advertising industry is based. I have every confidence that the truly brilliant behavioural scientists and software engineers currently focused on profiling our behaviour to sell us more things could switch their focus to ensuring that only people of the appropriate age are using their platforms—if they had to. The critical question is: why have they not? Sadly, I fear it is just so much easier not to try. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, it is better not to know how old someone is so you can claim ignorance; or, better still, to argue that it is the parents’ responsibility to prevent their younger children from straying.
Unlike the more mature and established food and hospitality sectors, unforced collaboration on projects with no financial gain does not come easily to the global tech giants. In fact, those of us who have worked on child internet safety over the past 10 years, including me, have all found that it is only when you legislate that you get real, concrete change in this space, as the age-appropriate design code championed by the noble Baroness has so ably demonstrated. What we have also learned from the age-appropriate design code is that it is possible to define standards in the digital space, and that good regulators can do that in such a way that it sparks real innovation and creativity in the sector that they regulate.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, I fear that the Government will be tempted to agree with the principles of the Bill but will argue that it should all be picked up as part of the draft online safety Bill. I do not think that is the right approach. When you build new functionality into digital platforms, you make those changes in a series of releases—bite-size changes that can be developed, tested and implemented in a relatively short space of time and that deliver real benefits to users, one after another. That is why you have a series of releases of software upgrades on your mobile phone, rather than one big change every few years.
We should be taking the same approach to digital safety. Rather than waiting for the single, enormous project that always takes longer than you think it will, costs more and fails to deliver on the overarching vision, where we have clearly identified improvements that can be set out and then built into products and are consistent with our overall direction, we should get on with them. Age assurance is a known and tightly defined issue with known, real harms happening every day. The sooner tech companies have certainty of the minimum standards expected of them, the sooner they can commence the innovation and development needed to comply, and we have seen from the age-appropriate design code that genuine improvements from those tech platforms are forthcoming.
We have been debating digital age verification and age assurance in this House for many, many years now. It is time to stop debating and act. I urge the Government to support this Bill not just in principle but in practice, so that Ofcom and the tech sector can get started now in ensuring that our children use only age-appropriate services, rather than wait longer still. Our children have waited too long as it is.
My Lords, we are deeply indebted to the noble Baroness for bringing this matter before us in this Bill, and doubly in her debt for the extraordinary speech with which she introduced our proceedings. Indeed, on the strength of that alone, I think we could test the mind of the House, and I think I know what the result would be. Once I sit down, I will be praying hard that the Minister will find within him a way of answering her challenges that will satisfy the mind of the House, and I would not be in his place for all the money in the world.
My interest is as chair of the board of the Central Foundation Schools of London, where our children are aged 11 and over, but faced with the most horrendous range of familiarity with material that is without any doubt harmful and leads to outcomes that are to do with not only sexualisation but violence on the streets. It is a problem of gargantuan proportions. The British Board of Film Classification found that more than half of 11 to 13 year-olds had been exposed to pornography.
What are the by-products of this? We know just what it can lead to, and the noble Baroness has pointed to some of those possible outcomes. She has such a wealth of experience and has given the Government the perfect guide for effective regulation. I see no reason why we should reject any element of the Bill. Indeed, the Secretary of State for DCMS told the Joint Committee on the draft online safety Bill that the Government wanted their digital legislation to be “watertight”. The antithesis of this is an online safety Bill that is void of any semblance of age assurance. I have no doubt that the committee's findings on this matter will bring this to the fore. “Watertight” must include adequate provision for age assurance.
Objectors to age assurance ring a tired bell. The issue of privacy is their central concern. This is not to diminish the value of online privacy and data protection. In my role on the Select Committee on Communications and Digital—I am delighted that others from the committee will be speaking later in this debate—I see the clear and present dangers of giving online companies our data freely and without constraints. The minimum standards within Clause 2 should have assuaged any fears anyone could have about unnecessary data gathering under the guise of age assurance. The clause offers appropriate parameters which would protect our privacy.
Some of our online industries intended for adult consumption seem to be aware of the need to regulate in line with the recommendations in the ICO’s age-appropriate design code. The legally recognised gambling industry continues to do a reasonably good job on age assurance and preventing those who are underage from accessing it. But there are problems, and these go unchecked because of the lack of a government line.
We simply cannot trust the internet and the huge companies that dominate it to regulate themselves. There is a toxic culture of acceptance that, to have a certain level of privacy and freedom online, we must sacrifice our children’s innocence and subject them to harmful media. I hope all noble Lords will join together in understanding that, in the light of the proposals in the Bill, a way can be found to avoid such an outcome. It is, perhaps, icing on the cake that, if we take the Bill’s proposals forward, it will help us to achieve a legislative framework that will show other nations the way to protect children, at a time when the internet is gaining an ever-tightening hold on the societies we live in.
Gosh, I wish we could vote now: I would have my coffee after saying “Content”. I will leave those ideas for the consideration of the House.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord and to support my noble friend Lady Kidron, with whom I have the pleasure of sharing an office, so I know quite how hard and consistently she has worked. As other noble Lords have said, that was a blinder of a speech, and I would not want to be in the Minister’s shoes trying to disagree with a single word she said.
I want to speak briefly about the pornography so easily available to young children, especially to young girls. With a few simple taps, you can access pretty much any sex you want. Much of it is rough and involves oral and anal sex. Men pull women around and jerk their head backwards; cameras linger on faces that are always smiling, always saying “Yes!”, always saying “More!”. As one 14 year-old was quoted as saying, “It’s actually amazing how all the women and girls look like they are having a really good time”. The picture that is painted is entirely from the male point of view. This is not loving sex or caring sex; there is no sense of a relationship. This is, all too often, purely about domination and aggression.
It is so prevalent and so easy. It is not actually surprising that many online porn sites have become the primary source of sex education for children. One survey carried out in the US among 2,000 teenagers showed that 720 of them reported that porn sites had taught them everything they thought they needed to know about sex, sexual technique and behaviour—far more knowledge than they ever gained from their friends, schools or parents.
Frankly, good sex education in schools, apart from basic information about contraception, is woefully lacking. For some, there really is nowhere else to go. However, if the internet porn world becomes your go-to point, it acquires glamour and a kind of cool. In the end, it becomes sort of glamorous for a young boy to think of a woman as a slut or a whore, and to show her no respect. Often, a woman pretends to protest in online films but then gives in and maintains that she enjoys it. Even when a man might be seen to be choking a woman, in the end, it is also seen as, “Well, they like a bit of rough, don’t they?” Most parents are in complete denial about this. Many children say after viewing pornography that they find it disturbing and believe that it influences how they behave.
For girls, of course, it has a very negative effect on body image. All the girls in pornography films are pretty, but they are also always thin. This reinforces one of our evil body images—that thinness is the secret to attraction. It also reinforces the notion that, to be attractive to men, you have to be willing—indeed, you have to be so willing that not even a basic chat-up line is involved, with not even a cup of coffee to get you into bed.
I do not believe that we yet know the full extent of the damage that this easily accessible online pornography is doing to our youngsters in the long term as they grow into adults. However, I know that any narrative that suggests to young women that it is right for them to be subservient to men in any respect, but especially in a sexual sense, will have lifelong damaging effects. Despite the brilliance of the women’s movement, women are still less likely to put themselves forward and demand equal pay, and they still do worse in the workplace. If you grow up believing that you have to do everything that the man wants in these extremely intimate circumstances, it will spill over into all corners of your life. I find it sad and frightening.
Online porn, freely available to all young girls, seems to me, from a feminist point of view, probably the most gigantic step backwards that has happened in 50 years. A girl can click on a site at the age of nine or 10 and find a slightly older woman in the throes of being gang-raped and professing that she thinks it is wonderful; she is probably the young girl too embarrassed to discuss it. I think back to my own childhood. I was absorbed by ponies until I was about 14, when I started to think a bit about boys. I wonder whether I would be the same person I am today had I had online porn.
I got my first job when I was 19, on an underground newspaper called Friends on the Portobello Road. It was a sort of hippy hang-out, and we were all meant to be cool and alternative. However, as I quickly discovered, it was not much different, at least from a woman’s point of view. If you wanted to be cool, you also had to be freely available for sex. It was that dislike, and my understanding of that extreme double standard—was this really a new way of living, or just a great way for the guys to have more fun?—that led to me joining a women’s group. We started a magazine called Spare Rib, which came out 50 years ago next July.
If I had been watching internet porn from the age of 11, I wonder where my self-confidence would have been. Where would my feeling that I could stand up and say, “Hang on, I don’t agree with this. I don’t want to be like this”, have been? I am genuinely not saying this just because it is a convenient thing to say in a debate I want to support. I believe in age assurance and very much believe in what the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said: we do it for cigarettes and alcohol, so we have methods to do it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, laid out so brilliantly, it is not that difficult. It is perfectly possible, and the Government have no excuses. However, it seems to me that we have let a very dangerous thing loose in the world; personally, I am incredibly glad that my path did not cross its path. I do not want to see any more girls have to do that.
My Lords, in looking at the Bill, I decided to ask some young people who would be affected by such legislation. I am most grateful to the global citizenship class at Westminster Academy, whose year 8 ran a discussion group on the Bill. These young people use the internet and internet services to access information, research topics of interest, for homework, for entertainment, to socialise with friends and family, for games and more widely, such as for shopping. They are well aware of the risks that they face through easy access to inappropriate content because there is no real way to check that they are accessing age-appropriate content. Pop-ups lead them to inappropriate content or websites, and they encounter language and grossly explicit content that they know is inappropriate.
However, in their discussion, they were worried that age assurance could restrict their access to some social media, and therefore to friends. They feared losing access to some of their favourite platforms and social networks. They thought that some people might use other people’s devices or documents to bypass an age-assurance process, and that some might even protest if they were restricted from accessing things freely. Consent fatigue concerned them, and they questioned whether there are implications for freedom of speech in restricting access to information that might be controversial.
Armed with this information, I challenged the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on behalf of these young people. I realise that they had perceived it as being restrictions on the end user, perhaps because they are so used to internet providers ignoring their needs and putting all the responsibility on their young shoulders. The noble Baroness generously responded to their all concerns in detail, and I know that the class are following this debate in earnest.
We must put the responsibility on the internet providers, not children and young people. These young people need to be accessing a responsible internet that has governance standards and uses the best technological advances to keep content age appropriate across all socioeconomic groups, recognising that there is a range of developmental stages in any group. Internet providers have enormous power; with that power comes great responsibility but, at the moment, responsibility is being sacrificed on the altar of profit, leaving those of malintent encouraged and able to exploit. Information, entertainment, research, socialising, shopping and online games—all activities that young people learn from and enjoy—should be unhindered by pop-ups that steer them to dark, violent places and places that make them feel inadequate if they do not engage in abnormal or dangerous practices, or are not in possession of some sort of status symbol.
Parental controls are completely inadequate. Many children and young people are in homes where age-appropriate needs are not addressed for a wide variety of reasons. Age assurance would ensure age appropriateness of internet content through a framework of governance standards to which internet providers can adhere. Age assurance would protect vulnerable children from predatory targeting and online grooming, and would make use of the internet safer and more enjoyable for young people.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Harding of Winscombe, pointed out, the developing brain is particularly susceptible to addiction messaging. Combined with their changing physical and emotional development, this leaves young people at high risk of being drawn unwittingly into dangerous situations and becoming addicted to them. It distorts their emotional, sexual, personal and relational development. How often do we hear of the antecedents of a tragedy being discovered after the event through seeing the history of the young person’s internet usage and where it led them?
Young people have nothing to fear from minimum standards—standards to which these hugely wealthy internet companies must adhere—being set as age assurance leads to age-appropriate content becoming the norm. However, children and young people have much to fear from the wild jungle of predators who ignore their needs for financial gain, exploitation or obscene satisfaction. The Bill will not stifle young people such as those who so generously shared their thoughts for our debate. It will help them to blossom and enjoy life more, allowing them to explore with a little more safety. The Bill is urgently needed and long overdue.
My Lords, in my 20 years in the House I have heard every possible excuse from Ministers for not doing what they obviously should do: something will cost too much money, there is not the legislative time, or it breaches international obligations. Anybody in this House could recite such a list. However, I have come across very few Bills that seem to be proof against such excuses.
The Bill which the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has worked so hard to lay before us, addresses a real and present harm, not to adults, who, arguably, can look after themselves, but to our children and grandchildren. As I stand here, I think of my beloved grandchild, Marli Rose, who is five-years old. When she is twice the age that she is now, she could be exposed to this kind of stuff, and my blood boils. It has not happened: there is still no single regulatory or statutory code that sets out rules or standards for age assurance in the UK. All we have is a bit of guidance from DCMS and the design code. Previous legislation on age verification is effectively defunct.
If we wanted proof of the Government’s sheer lack of umph on this subject, we got it this week. To a blast of trumpets, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, announced new money to help tech companies combat child exploitation and abuse online. Great, but how much was it? It was £500,000, which does not even buy you the services of Sir Geoffrey Cox for six months. Of course, the noble Baroness’s Bill and the age verification that it seeks has some enemies. There are extreme libertarians such as the Open Rights Group, for whom American-style free speech trumps all other values. More insidiously, there are companies that benefit from the freedom to distribute their material to kids, in particular pornographers.
There is a perfectly reasonable argument, which we will not have now, as to whether pornography for adults should be legal. There surely cannot be even a second’s argument over how it must be prevented, to the maximum possible extent, from reaching children, for the reasons that noble Lords have already explained to the House. Yet 62% of 11 to 13 year-olds who reported having seen pornography described their viewing as mostly unintentional. Never mind stopping them seeing it when they want to, we cannot even stop them seeing it when they do not want to. Given that age verification now often consists of no more than ticking a box, that is hardly surprising.
Those who profit from this fall back on an excuse: namely, the alleged technological difficulty of doing it. I was with the Communications and Digital Committee, so marvellously chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, this week. We went up to Cambridge to see the cutting edge of tech in action. We saw a moving Google project, which had in effect equipped a blind child, so that they had many of the perceptions of a sighted child, being able to catch and throw a ball. This was extraordinarily moving, but it also exposes the excuses put up by those delaying introducing proper age verification for the smokescreen that they are. If you can get a blind child to see a ball, surely you can stop a sighted child from seeing pornography every day. AI is galloping towards age verification from a person’s voice alone.
Let us be honest: it is not really being able to do it that is the problem; it is not really wanting to do it that is the problem. From some companies’ point of view, it would hit their bottom line, and from the Government's point of view—not of course, because they are against it—because they are trying to tuck away every advance in the globe into the online safety Bill box. I may be unfair, but I do not doubt for a moment that Ministers are in favour of age verification to protect our children. Maybe DCMS Ministers, of whom I am sure that the Minister is one, and their trusty civil servants, toss in their beds every night puzzling over how to introduce it, prioritising it in their minds over pet policies such as privatising Channel 4 or defunding the BBC. Maybe it is their top priority. All right, let the Minister today explain the dither and delay that has so far characterised the Government’s approach to this; let him demonstrate that the Government really have their teeth into this one. If he does so, we will be delighted and this Bill will be redundant. Otherwise, let us give this Bill a Second Reading, pass it rapidly into law and get age verification done.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. I have really enjoyed the contributions that we have heard already today. Like other noble Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on introducing this Bill and explaining it so clearly.
The Communications and Digital Committee, which I chair, has been examining digital regulation and I have been quite clear in my own mind, and in talking about the work of our committee, that we must be ultra-vigilant in ensuring that proposals to regulate in the digital space neither put at risk the fundamental right to freedom of expression or undermine privacy. In our recent report on freedom of expression online, we were quite critical of some aspects of the proposed online safety Bill which we believe do just that. However, we also said:
“Children deserve to enjoy the full benefits of being online and still be safe.”
We do not just mean minimising harm; we want the internet to be a positive place for children and adults.
For children, we want the internet to be a place where safety is paramount, a place that we—adults—design for them, so that at every stage of their childhood their lives online are rich, rewarding and educational, where they are supported in their emotional development, helped to learn, play and socialise confidently, and are protected from harm. For adults, we want an environment where content that Parliament has made illegal is swiftly removed, where they have control of what they see, and where they can express themselves freely in an environment designed to encourage civility rather than to heighten conflict. That is what we seek to achieve: an internet that works for everyone, adults, and children.
I am not a doom-monger. The internet and the digital spaces that it has provided have bought huge benefits to society, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, so movingly described regarding that amazing technology which we saw, effectively giving blind children the opportunity to participate in the same world as the rest of us. However, only if we treat adults as adults and children as children can we deal with the darker side of the internet and improve all our lives online.
We can only treat children as children, and provide them with the rich, rewarding, positive place that I have described, if we know who they are. It is astonishing that, as currently drafted, the online safety Bill does not tackle commercial pornographic websites by blocking access to them by children. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can tell us that this omission will be addressed.
However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has so carefully explained, age assurance encompasses a range of systems that services use to estimate the age of its users. The 5Rights Foundation sets out 10 different approaches to age assurance. The system used by services will obviously need to take into account two factors: the likelihood of children having access and the potential for them to be harmed if they do. Therefore, a great degree of certainty would be required by a service providing pornographic content and much less certainty for a website designed for use by children, that might simply want to serve them content that is most appropriate to their age.
Here we come to the most important point about the Bill. Platforms and services are already using age assurance technology. They seem to know our ages and everything else about us when they are flogging us stuff. The same underlying technology is already used to create age appropriate environments and will be used by platforms and other online services to meet the requirements of the age-appropriate design code and other safety requirements in the future. So as my noble friend Lady Harding pointed out, this Bill does not introduce age assurance; it simply introduces a regime to ensure that minimum standards are met and that privacy is preserved.
Time and again, the giants of Silicon Valley have demonstrated that they have very little regard for our right to freedom of expression, removing content based on their own business interests, political preferences and whims, and they most certainly cannot be trusted with our privacy. However, I have no doubt that we can square this and that we can protect children while preserving privacy.
Technology is constantly advancing. The objective I have set out of creating a vibrant, positive place for children, while protecting them from harm, can be achieved without the kind of platform-controlled, privacy-invading, age-verification and identity-checking approach we were considering just a couple of years ago. But we need to get on with it, because age assurance is happening now, and we need these measures to protect our privacy.
A Bill which requires minimum standards for the use of these systems, with safeguarding privacy at the heart of those standards—something I can support—seems to me to be a very simple measure. I hope the Government can support it too.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for initiating this debate and putting the Bill before the House. I pay tribute to 5Rights and the fantastic work it is doing. I should put on record that I am a governor of Coram, which was founded in 1739 and is the oldest children’s charity in the UK—we have been fighting for children’s rights for rather a long time, and, thankfully, for rather a long time before the internet was dreamed up.
Yesterday, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and I had the pleasure of going to Wandsworth and spending three hours at a very large girls’ school there, called Burntwood School. It has about 1,800 pupils. It is incredibly diverse. Believe it or not, no fewer than 70 languages are spoken by the 1,800 pupils. Part of the visit was a question and answer session with around 100 of the girls. One of the questions they asked us was about internet safety and what we felt about it, so we were able to talk a bit about the online safety Bill and I was able to say that I would have the privilege of speaking in today’s debate.
Later on, we were talking with the teachers, who said that, during the pandemic, when everybody was in bubbles and the children were perhaps relying on social media more than usual, they decided that they needed to do a bit of homework. Somewhat to their surprise, they found that the legal age below which you are not meant to use WhatsApp is 13. It turns out that that is an unexpected negative Brexit dividend; if we were still in the EU or the European Economic Area, the minimum age would be 16, but one of the freedoms we have won in leaving the European Union is that the age has dropped to 13.
I thought I would use WhatsApp as an example because, although I know it is against the rules to ask noble Lords to put their hand up if they are on WhatsApp, I anticipate that it is probably the social media or communication app that most of us use—I am sure that most of us are in one or two groups.
I understand that, in Lincolnshire, the reception is particularly bad. I am sure if the noble Lord asks the Government to do something about it they would improve it.
As we are all using WhatsApp, I thought it might be instructive to talk about what it does and, more to the point, the onus it puts on, in this case, the parents of children—first, to find out whether their children are using it, and, secondly, to find out whether they should be using it. If they decide that they should not be using it, the onus is entirely on the parents to contact WhatsApp with a variety of information, such as passports, to demonstrate that their child is underage. It may possibly respond, but it may not.
WhatsApp makes its money primarily through trying to get into the business world, and it makes money by selling emoticon stickers and online games. But it also plans to monetise the app by setting up a WhatsApp payment, rather like Apple Pay. You will see lots of people going on to the London Underground pointing their mobile phone as they enter, which is how they pay. So that is coming down the track.
Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, has just changed its name to Meta. In the law of unexpected consequences, in Hebrew, “meta” means “dead”; in Urdu, it means “delete”; and in certain dialects in my wife’s native Italy, it stands for a “pyramid of dung”. I am sure Mr Zuckerberg was aware of that when he changed the name.
What a lot of people do not realise with WhatsApp is that user groups can go up to 250 users; in Burntwood School, virtually all the children are in quite large groups. People say that WhatsApp is safe because it is end-to-end encrypted. However, any of the 250 in a group could share the details of the group with an outside person, who would immediately have access to every person. A lot of videos and photographs are put on WhatsApp groups, and although, in theory, they cannot be shared outside the group, as I am sure all noble Lords who are very au fait with how mobile phones work will know, you can easily take a screenshot to capture what is on a phone and send that on elsewhere. So WhatsApp is not terribly secure.
The school is particularly worried about its use for cyberbullying. It is worried about the fact that, quite regularly, spyware is used, there are requests for money and its students receive fraudulent job opportunities, even though they are still in school. This is not good, and the fact that the internet companies are, frankly, avoiding the responsibility they have to all of us—most particularly to our children and grandchildren—is simply unacceptable. The Government must do something. They really have no alternative.
My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and indeed every other noble Lord who has spoken in this debate. It has been extraordinary and very moving. I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on securing this Second Reading and on her passionate and brilliant opening speech. With others, I thank and commend her for her tireless commitment to protecting children online. That she does so with such consistent grace and good humour, against the backdrop of glacially slow progress and revelations about both the variety and scale of harms to children, is no small achievement in itself.
One of my interests in this debate is the more than 280 church schools and the more than 50,000 children who are a precious part of my diocese of Oxford. A substantial proportion are at significant risk for want of this Bill. The primary responsibility of the Government is the protection of all their citizens and especially and particularly those unable to protect themselves. Future generations will, I think, look back on the first two decades of this century and our unregulated use of technology with deep pain and regret, as they reflect on the ways in which children are exposed to harmful material online, the damage which has followed, and will follow, and our tardiness in setting effective regulation in place. We will be judged in a similar way to those who exploited child labour in past generations.
Children are precious to God and to society, not as potential adults nor in the future tense but simply and completely in themselves. Each is of immense value. The evidence is clear that many are emerging from a digital childhood wounded and scarred in ways which are tragic but entirely preventable.
The Government make much of being pro-business in support of the emerging technologies of this fourth industrial revolution but, if they are equally serious about making the UK a safe country to be online, they really must do more to be pro-business in ways that protect children. Other noble Lords have movingly pointed out the many risks our children face whenever they venture online.
We now know with increasing certainty how it is not only other users, so-called bad actors, but many online service providers themselves—not least Facebook, or now Meta—that target children, their data extracted, their identities manipulated, their impulses exploited. It should be noted that many of these same service providers say they would welcome clear guidance and regulation from the Government, even while other businesses say they already possess the tools and opportunities to do this both safely and profitably.
The age-appropriate design code is a welcome and genuinely world-leading innovation, and the Government would do well to note—against the siren voices denying technical feasibility or fearing the balkanisation of the internet—that businesses, the service providers, have now found it easier to standardise their processes to the highest regulatory watermark globally in the interests of reducing costs and complexity. This bodes well for the principle-based and proportional approach to age verification that the Bill artfully encapsulates.
As others have asked, what possible reason can there be for further delay? If protecting children is good in and of itself; if business publicly expresses the need for clearer guidance on how to frame that protection; when business itself sees commercial opportunity in the tools for protection; when a regulator is now waiting in the wings; after government delay already threatens a lost generation—why is the Bill from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, not being eagerly and urgently adopted by the Government themselves, if that is indeed the case? I hope we will hear good news today. I eagerly await the Minister’s answer.
I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on introducing this timely and vital Bill. I declare an interest as CEO and founder of Neuro-Bio Ltd, a biotech company pioneering a novel approach to Alzheimer’s disease. However, having taught all aspects of neuroscience at Oxford for many years, I also have a keen interest in the impact of digital technologies on the young mind. My book in 2014, Mind Change, summarised what was known at that time of the unprecedented effects that digital technology could have on how young people think and feel.
There are only so many hours in the day and night, and it is not just the effects of not sleeping, not escaping the crowd and not having time to exercise that might be bad for young people hooked to their mobiles. The digital lifestyle can in and of itself prove deleterious. When you meet someone face to face, only 10% of the total impact is dependent on language. Most depends on tone, volume of voice, eye contact, body language and physical touch, none of which is available via social media. If you do not rehearse these skills, the brain will not be very good at them. Direct social interaction will be ever more aversive, resulting in ever greater preference for the screen as an intermediary and a decline in empathy, increasingly described as “virtual autism”.
Since I wrote Mind Change seven years ago, the situation has become ever more stark. For example, in 2018 a paper in Preventive Medicine Reports demonstrated a negative, and most importantly linear, association between screen time and a decline in psychological well-being: the longer a child spent in front of a screen, the worse the effect. The impact on schoolchildren is particularly worrying. Two seasoned teachers in Washington, Joe Clement and Matt Miles, set out in their 2018 book Screen Schooled the evidence and arguments that too much screen time has now resulted in lack of focus and critical thinking skills.
We are becoming all too familiar with the statistics and stories in the media on the burgeoning screen lifestyle. Particularly worrying, as recently reported to the US Senate by the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, is an addiction to video games and social media deliberately crafted to that end. Neuroscience can help give insights into how this digital environment impacts on the brain, and hence the mind, and how it can be addictive. We humans occupy more ecological niches than any other species on the planet because of the superlative ability of our brains, compared with those of other animals, to adapt to the environment.
Even if you are a clone, an identical twin with the same genes, the individual brain becomes personalised through the development of unique configurations of connections between brain cells. They, in turn, will characterise the growth of the brain after birth, curating it into a highly individual and unprecedented mind that is in constant dialogue with, and updated by, your daily experiences. Everything that happens to you and everything you do will in some way leave its mark on your brain.
Digital technology is offering an environment that is completely new to the human condition. Although the printing press, the car and the TV had profound influence on everyone’s lives, it was after all on our real lives. In the 20th century, people still dated, worked, played and shopped through face-to-face interactions with each other in a three-dimensional space enriched by all five senses. Now, for the first time, you can carry out all these activities via a screen, living effectively in a parallel universe: recreation via video games, friendship via social media and learning via search engines. These activities all could and should be subject to age assurance.
The brain of someone under 18 is not the same as that of an adult. Yes, brain cell connections are growing, atrophying and transforming every moment of our lives in response to experiences, but the older we are, the more these now accumulating unique pre-existing neuronal connections will be able to offer a sales resistance, a greater potential for evaluation, comparison, frames of reference and inner reflection. The effects of life in front of a screen, and perhaps even more so in Zuckerberg’s dream of the all-enveloping metaverse, might well endanger such thought processes in an adult, but such considerations are even more urgent for the welfare of the literally impressionable immature brain. The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics have both categorised addictive internet gaming as a psychiatric disorder. Most recently, China has enforced limits for under-18s of a maximum of three hours a week—surely clear recognition of the power the screen can exert over the young mind.
The neuronal mechanism of addiction is an enhanced release of the chemical messenger dopamine, which underlies the anticipation of reward, raises arousal levels and indeed is the neurochemical hallmark of recreational drugs of addiction. Moreover, we know that dopamine inhibits a part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that is singularly dominant in humans. This region, just behind your forehead, becomes fully operational only in late teenage years and the early twenties. Until then, a characteristic profile of the hypofunctional prefrontal cortex is one of recklessness, short attention span and, most significantly, over- dependency on external stimulation. Therefore, a combination of such an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and surges of inhibitory dopamine released during gaming or social media could result in the perfect storm—a mindset readily driven to have literally a sensational time.
Supporting this prediction, a study in 2011 in the high-impact journal Science showed that many of the participants, college students, rather than just being left alone to think, opted instead to give themselves electric shocks. How much more now, 10 years on, might such a mindset be prevailing?
The Bill does not seek to remedy the perils of digital culture in one fell swoop; that would be a complex, challenging and long journey. Rather, it is a simple first step to embark on that journey and to make it possible for future measures to minimise the threats and maximise the opportunities that the screen world poses. The rationale of the Bill is based on the undeniable fact that age is a key factor in how the brain will respond to, and be affected by, the immediate environment. As such, I urge the Government to assent to the Bill from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron.
My Lords, I add to the many tributes to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. She is basically reminding us all of our duty to protect the most vulnerable in society. I have the great privilege of sitting on the board of 5Rights, her foundation, which does so much work in this area. I stand in awe of her commitment and the incredible changes she is effecting.
I watched with horror and sadness as the revelations from the Facebook whistleblower unfurled. Frances Haugen, with other brave ex-Silicon Valley employees, confirmed what we all already knew: children are being put in harm’s way by big tech companies that place profit before safety. This is systemic negligence by the technology sector, which for too long has turned a blind eye to children and failed to respond to their rights and needs. It is gross negligence, and I have no doubt that lawyers in law firms in the United States, and probably here, are already looking at potential litigation and class actions. But we do not have time to wait for that. The law moves slowly. Even getting a Bill through this House normally takes a very long time, so I hope the Minister is not going to come back and tell us that the online harms Bill will deal with all this, because we need to do something more urgently.
The world is watching as the United Kingdom Government take the first strides into new legal territory with legislation to tackle online harms. I pay tribute to that; we can expect to debate the details of that Bill in this House in the next few months. The new online safety regime will no doubt make a number of positive changes to the experiences of children online, not only in this country but around the world because we will undoubtedly effect change there too. But those changes will not be felt unless and until services recognise the presence of children to a standard of accuracy laid down by the regulator. The age-assurance standards in this modest Bill seek to fix a problem that should have been fixed long ago: that of identifying children in a way that is private, transparent and secure but also trusted. It is required by existing legislation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, documented, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron.
I am a barrister, as your Lordships know. I am concerned with preventing children being exposed to illegal activity—heinous acts of violence, hate speech and child sexual exploitation and abuse. However, I also want an online environment that helps children to flourish: to thrive and be free from the pressures of everyday commercial surveillance; to be free from the pressure to look or behave in certain ways; and to avoid routine exposure to content and activity that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, just described, they do not have the developmental capacity to navigate. We make these provisions for children in the offline world, with lower speed limits outside schools to protect them and opaque packaging on porn magazines on the top shelves of newsagents. We do all that and accept it as normal in the offline world, so we should be doing the same online.
It is not just parents who want a safer, less adult world for children online. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, described, the children themselves want it too. I remind noble Lords of the promises we have made in this House over and over again. It is time to make good on those promises, and do so with speed, not wait. We must ask ourselves how it is that four in five pornography sites have no form of age-gating whatever, not even a box to ask “Are you over 18?”. How can we sit by while over half of 11 to 13 year-olds who come across pornography do so accidentally and unintentionally? It just pops up. How is it that nearly half of five to 15 year-olds have seen content online that they would rather avoid? Older siblings show it to younger ones, not realising how damaging this stuff is.
I make clear to all your Lordships that, as a lawyer, I frequently engage with libertarians who want less law and, when I first read the Bill, I looked at it with those sorts of eyes. I say pointedly to those who insist that we have to protect privacy and so on: age assurance does not mean identifying everyone who goes online. It does not mean that a pornography site will know the full name, address and inside leg measurements of adult users. It does mean, however, that children will be protected. Most importantly, it does not mean that we give up our hard-won rights to privacy. Age assurance, subject to minimum standards, can—indeed, must—be privacy-preserving and rights-respecting. I say that as a lawyer very much involved in those issues. All age assurance does is allow a service to know that a child is there or, perhaps more accurately, to prevent it pretending that a child is not there. Its value lies not in the act of verifying or estimating age but in the enormous opportunity it brings once children have been recognised.
So, I support the Bill brought by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and I hope that the Government will support it too. It is critical for the safety of children and the privacy of adults that the bar is set by Parliament, not left to self-regulation by the big tech companies. We have to be the institutions that set the age-assurance standard. My time is up. I just want to say that this should be done here and now. I urge the House to support the Bill.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and to speak in support of the Bill today. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Kidron, for both her brilliant speech and her tireless efforts to ensure that children can take full advantage of safe and effective participation in our increasingly digital world. The 5Rights Foundation has reported that, in the digital ecosystem, one in every three internet users is a child. Children’s identities and worldviews are shaped through online engagement, their friendships are developed and maintained across geographies, and interactions online can offer alternative perspectives and open windows to different beliefs and values. So much of this should be on the side of the good but, too often, our response to this reality is one of justified fear.
Earlier this week, Rachel Caldecott gave evidence to the Communications Committee of your Lordships’ House and reminded us that, while we hear new stories of harm on a weekly if not daily basis, it is equally important that we think about the role of technology in the world in which we wish to live—that we build, in the words of my noble friend,
“the digital world that children deserve”.—[Official Report, 4/3/21; col.1235]
The Carnegie UK Trust has articulated a triple A requirement—availability, affordability, and appropriate level of skill—which needs to be in place before digital participation can become the great equaliser of opportunities that it ought to be. However, there is a fourth and crucial “A” that the Bill seeks to address: the ability of young people to avoid content that is not only not intended for them but could do them lasting harm.
When children enter the digital world—and, as we have seen, that is all children—they enter a world designed by and for adults. As my noble friend Lady Greenfield explained, it is a world that they do not as yet have the developmental maturity to navigate safely. Noble Lords today have shared often harrowing examples that bring the shocking statistics in the excellent 5Rights briefing to life. We have heard about unfettered access to pornography, about children groomed and abused, coerced into unhealthy behaviours or tricked into making purchases that they or their parents cannot afford.
My particular concern is about the potential for children to access spaces online that promote unrealistic and idealised body types and allow for comparison against those fake ideals. An inquiry by the Commons Women and Equalities Committee highlighted the impact on negative body image of readily available image editing apps that allow users to change the colour of their skin or teeth, lift their cheeks or smooth out wrinkles. The Mental Health Foundation noted that these apps are often labelled as appropriate to people aged four-plus, with no checks whatever, and that two of these apps had already been downloaded over 10 million times.
According to Girlguiding UK, 45% of 11 to 16 year-olds regularly use these apps to change their appearance —and research shows that perception of body image is stable into adulthood. What this means is that, if you develop poor body image during childhood, it will probably be with you for life. This matters because of where poor body image can lead: to low self-esteem, lack of confidence, mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders. So I of course share concerns about the impact of access to content promoting extreme thinness and weight-control measures. The recent testimony from Frances Haugen revealed what many people had long suspected: that online platforms are structured to drive people to extremes; that those who show any interest in health or exercise will be pushed towards pro-diet and ultimately pro-eating disorder content or extreme weight loss imagery.
Some 66% of children already report poor or very poor body image. While children have unconstrained access to content that exploits that already fragile self-image, they are at real risk of lasting damage to both their physical and mental health. As my noble friend points out, this Bill is not a silver bullet. There will still be work for the forthcoming Online Safety Bill to do to keep children safe online and, indeed, to protect vulnerable adults whose interests are currently completely absent from the online safety Bill as drafted. However, this narrow Bill will plug an urgent gap in regulation. I echo my noble friend in asking the Minister: just how many children are the Government willing to see harmed while we wait for action?
My Lords, I rise to speak briefly in the gap because of what I have heard during this past hour or more. It has been a moving and powerful debate, so much so that I have asked my taxi to wait and I will risk the train. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for the way in which she introduced the Bill, and I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, who provoked me into getting to my feet.
I do not do “online” and have no intention of doing so, but I know it cannot be uninvented and is here as a permanent fixture of society. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford talked about the 19th century and referred to those who went down the mines and up the chimneys. Their bodies were broken but often their minds were still intact. What we are talking about here is distorting the brain, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, and destroying the mind.
The biggest crime that any society can commit is the destruction of childhood innocence. We have gone some way towards that, and I have mentioned it before in your Lordships’ House, but we have a chance here to move forward one definite step. There is still much to do, but I say to my noble friend the Minister that we demand action this day.
My Lords, I add my thanks to those from all around the House to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for introducing the Bill with such passion and commitment. We all know what an amazing campaigner she is. We hope that this is another stage in the end of—to adopt the powerful phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack—the destruction of innocence.
It is a privilege to be winding up from these Benches, and to serve on the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill along with the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert. Naturally, Members of the House have focused today on the importance of age assurance to child protection in terms of both safety and data protection. We should not tolerate the collateral damage from the online platforms—another powerful phrase, this time from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron—as the cost of innovation.
A number of noble Lords, such as the noble Lord, Lord Russell, talked about cyberbullying, while the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, talked about the impact on body image and mental health in consequence. All around the House there are different motives for wanting to see proper standards for age assurance. I very much share what the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, had to say about access to pornography having such a pernicious impact on young people’s relationships. At the same time, it was worth celebrating the genesis of Spare Rib. The word “empowerment” sprang to mind, because that underlies quite a lot of what we are trying to do today.
From my point of view, I cannot do better than quote the evidence from Barnardo’s to our Joint Select Committee to explain the frustration about what has been a long, winding and ultimately futile road over Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, for which we waited for two years only to be told in 2019 that it was not going to be implemented. As Barnardo’s says:
“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 and this will continue unless the draft legislation is amended. Evidence shows (detailed later in the response) that accessing harmful pornography has a hugely damaging impact on children.”
As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, says, there should not be a second’s argument about restricting this. The evidence from Barnardo’s continues:
“The British Board of Film Classification survey in 2019 reported that children are stumbling upon pornography online from as young as seven. The survey also suggested that three-quarters of parents felt their child would not have seen porn online but more than half had done so.”
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, talked about a jungle of predators. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, even spoke of a pyramid of dung, which is an expression that was new to me today. The message from the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, is clear: we need to be vigilant. It is astonishing that the online safety Bill itself does not tackle this issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, put the whole impact of digital technology and social media on the brains of young people into perspective for many of us.
However, the crucial aspect is that the Bill is not about the circumstances in which age assurance or age verification is required but about the standards that must be adhered to. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, we are talking about secure and privacy-protecting age assurance, proportionate to risk and with a route to redress. This is further testimony, from the NSPCC evidence to the Joint Select Committee:
“Given the intrinsic role of age assurance to deliver a higher standard of protection for children, the Government should set out further detail about how it envisages age assurance being implemented. Further clarification is required about if and when it intends to set standards for age assurance technologies. While the ICO intends to publish further guidance on age assurance measures later this year, it remains highly unclear what standards and thresholds are likely to apply.”
The process of setting standards started with the BBFC in preparing for the coming into effect of Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. As the designated age-verification regulator, the BBFC published guidance on the kind of age-verification arrangements that would have ensured that pornographic services complied with the law. It rightly opted for a principles-based approach, as indeed does the Bill, rather than specifying a finite number of approved solutions, in order to allow for and encourage technological innovation within the age-verification industry. Sadly, that guidance was not implemented when the Government decided not to implement Part 3 of the DEA. As I say, this Bill adopts a similarly non-technology-prescriptive approach.
It is clearer than ever that, across a variety of news cases, we need a binding set of age-assurance standards. Again, I was taken by another phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert: we need to create a positive place online. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, talked about the digital world that children deserve. Why have the platforms not instituted proper age assessment already, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, asked? This should have been fixed a long time ago. As the noble Baroness, Lady Harding says, it is a multibillion-pound industry and, as the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, said, they already know a huge amount about us. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said, the responsibility lies with the platforms, not young people, who are prone to addiction technology.
We can and should incorporate the requirements of the Bill into the online safety Bill, but we have an urgent need to make sure that these age-assurance standards are clear much earlier than that. The ICO set out in its guidance in October, Age Assurance for the Children’s Code—previously the age-appropriate design code—expectations for age-assurance data protection compliance. Ofcom’s Video-sharing Platform Guidance: Guidance for Providers on Measures to Protect Users from Harmful Material, also published in October, is even weaker. There is not even an expectation; it simply says:
“VSP providers may consider the following factors when establishing and operating age assurance systems”.
That is all they are, considerations and expectations. At present there are no sanctions attached to those requirements. It is clear that we need binding standards for age assurance to make these sets of guidance fully operative and legally enforceable.
The technology is there. The Government should adopt the Bill here and now—and ensure its passage before the end of this term. As the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, says, it lies in our hands. I hope noble Lords will resist the temptation to table amendments during the passage of the Bill. If they do resist that, we could avoid Committee stage and move rapidly towards Report and Third Reading, to make this Bill a reality. As the right reverend Prelate said, children are at risk for the want of this Bill and we have the regulator in the wings.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, we could simply include this in the online safety Bill, but an 11 year-old will be an adult by 2024. As she asked, how many children will be harmed in the interim? The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, said that watertight protection means mandatory standards for age assurance. This is a vital brick in the wall. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said that he had heard every excuse from government for not implementing legislation—I think I am with him on that—and also said that this Bill is absolute proof against that. Let us give it the fairest wind we possibly can.
My Lords, every child has a right to a healthy upbringing, and I therefore congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on her Private Member’s Bill and her tenacity and laser-like focus in pursuing this over so many years. The debate today has brought the attention of your Lordships’ House to the clear moral duty of the Government to protect children, irrespective of whether they are living their lives online or offline. I am grateful to noble Lords for the many common-sense contributions that we have heard today.
Great strides have in fact been made in putting children at the heart of digital regulation, with the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, at the centre of these efforts, But, in my view, too many children and young people still find themselves exposed to content that is inappropriate or harmful. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, said so clearly, hugely damaging online content affects and distorts attitudes to sex and relationships, self-confidence and body image, something also emphasised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. This online content is inappropriate in a powerful yet highly destructive way; it is not what online content should be there to do.
We welcome the entry into force of the age-appropriate design code but there remain a number of outstanding issues around the protection of children and young people, with social media companies themselves acknowledging that some of their systems and safeguards simply do not work. Yet, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and other noble Lords emphasised, internet providers are falling short when it comes to taking responsibility. As my noble friend Lady Kennedy said, putting profit before safety is gross negligence.
Implementing age-assurance systems is an important next step in the fight to keep children and young people safe, and this Private Member’s Bill seeks to ensure that such systems meet a variety of minimum standards. Let us get on, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey said, and make age verification something which can be done today. We are all aware that age-assurance technologies are, compared to others, in their infancy, and that the systems of the future will be unrecognisable when we compare them to those available to platforms in 2021. Nevertheless, there is a clear case for implementing such systems as soon as possible, as well as ensuring their appropriate regulation by Ofcom. However, as we have heard in this debate, even with the fairest of winds, if we rely solely on the online safety Bill, we will be waiting three years before any protection—from, for example, pornography—is in place. Three years is a very long time in the life of a child.
It is shocking to hear from the NSPCC that 62% of 11 to 13 year-olds who reported having seen pornography described their viewing as mostly unintentional. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said, this is entirely preventable. If the Government are sincere about protecting children, they must find a way to fast-track the pornography protection provisions. I would be grateful for the response of the Minister on this point. More generally, if the Government agree with the thrust of the Bill from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, as we certainly hope they do, can the Minister provide an assurance that it will be passed to the other place in a swift manner and taken forward in government time?
Alternatively, assuming that such a move were to be backed by the pre-legislative scrutiny committee, could these very sensible minimum standards be incorporated into the upcoming online safety Bill, which currently has several large gaps in this area, as highlighted by my noble friend Lord Griffiths? For example, as the NSPCC has outlined, the online safety Bill does not go far enough to protect children, in that it covers only companies with a significant number of children on their apps. This means that high-risk sites, such as Telegram and OnlyFans, could be excluded from needing to protect children from harmful content. This requirement could mean that, instead of tackling harmful content, which is the intent, it will simply displace it to smaller sites. How would the Minister seek to act to guard against this?
We back an overarching duty of care, which would cover legal as well as illegal content. I note that the Bill before us prescribes standards, which is welcome, but does not say that age verification or age assurance should be compulsory. This may be because there is little doubt that they will feature in the upcoming online safety Bill, so it would be helpful to today’s debate if the Minister could confirm that this will be the case.
These issues have been debated over very many years and, as organisations such as the NSPCC, the Samaritans and others stress, the lack of joined-up action is leaving a significant proportion of young people exposed to damaging material, whether pornography or harmful content that promotes suicide, self-harm or eating disorders. We may have moved from denial about the impact of online content but the Government still seem stuck in delay.
The Government’s stated intention of making the UK the safest place to access the internet is undoubtedly an admirable one, but this is ultimately about deeds rather than words. I hope that the Minister will use today to take meaningful action to protect young people and children, rather than just have us talking about it.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for bringing forward this Bill, as I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this morning’s debate. We have heard from campaigners, lawyers, educators, scientists, parents and grandparents. We all share the same goal: protecting children online and ensuring that the tools used to do so are effective and can be trusted. The Government share that goal; child online safety is a priority for Her Majesty’s Government and our online safety legislation is designed to make the UK the safest place in the world to be a child online. Protecting children is at the heart of that legislation and the strongest protections in the regulatory framework that we wish to set up will be for children.
Let me speak first about the scope of the noble Baroness’s Bill, which proposes setting mandatory standards for age-assurance technologies, if or when they are used by companies. It particularly focuses on user privacy and data security. As my noble friends Lady Harding of Winscombe and Lord Gilbert of Panteg, and others, have rightly highlighted, it does not introduce new requirements on companies to use age assurance for the purposes of child safety or for other age-gating purposes. I think we are all in agreement that children should be protected from experiencing harm online and provided with age-appropriate environments. This will be delivered through the Government’s new online safety legislation, which is currently going through pre-legislative scrutiny and benefits from the expertise of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, my noble friend Lord Gilbert, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and others.
We fully agree with the objectives of the noble Baroness’s Bill. Age-assurance technologies must be privacy preserving, secure, effective and inclusive. This is needed to ensure that children are appropriately protected and that the public have trust in the solutions that protect them. Standards are key to this. Importantly, they will provide regulators with agreed benchmarks so that they can regulate with confidence. However, as the noble Baroness rightly anticipated, the Government are not supporting her Bill. As I have said, while we strongly agree with its aims, we have reservations about whether this is the right vehicle to deliver them, and I will set out why.
The Government believe that the online safety Bill is the better route to deliver these objectives, through the regulator’s codes of practice. As the online safety regulator, Ofcom will set out in codes of practice the steps that companies can take to deliver their safety duties. Given the importance of age-assurance technologies to the Bill’s higher level of protection for children, we expect Ofcom to include steps on age assurance in its regulatory codes, as part of which Ofcom can include specific standards and name them. Companies will be required to follow the code or demonstrate that they have achieved equivalent outcomes, or they will face enforcement action.
The noble Baroness and others asked why age verification is not required in the online safety Bill. I am mindful that this draft Bill is undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny at the moment, but I will say a little bit about it, as drafted, and the approach that we have taken to it. It is important that it is future-proofed, because what is most effective today may not be so effective in the future. To ensure the future-proofing approach, the Bill will not mandate that companies use specific technologies for protecting children online. However, in its codes of practice, Ofcom will set out the steps that companies need to take to comply with their duties, which will include the use of age-assurance technologies. Companies would need to put in place these technologies or demonstrate that the approach they are taking delivers the same level of protection for children. Ofcom will also be able to take action against companies that fail to take action to protect children from online pornography.
My noble friend Lord Gilbert and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, asked about protecting children from online pornography on services that do not currently fall within the scope of the draft online safety Bill. Again, I am mindful of the work that the Joint Committee is doing to scrutinise it, and we are grateful for its work on this issue. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State mentioned during her evidence session to the Joint Committee, we are exploring ways to provide wider protections for children from accessing online pornography through the Bill, including on sites not currently within the draft Bill’s scope.
DCMS already has a programme of work under way to develop an international standard for age-assurance solutions. This includes the development of an international standard, through work with the British Standards Institution and the International Organization for Standardization. A specific objective of this work is to provide regulators with a robust standard to refer to in their codes of practice and guidance.
I return to the noble Baroness’s Bill, which is our focus today. It rightly highlights the importance of data protection and safeguarding users’ privacy. I certainly do not criticise her for including that in her Bill. This was an issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and others picked up on. The Government also take privacy very seriously.
Under the online safety Bill, companies will be required to have regard to the importance of protecting users’ privacy when putting in place measures, including age-assurance technologies. In addition, Ofcom will be required to set out safeguards for privacy in the codes of practice. Where relevant, we expect Ofcom to draw on the ICO’s existing expertise in developing its codes. Here I highlight that companies are already required to protect users’ data privacy via regulations under the remit of the Information Commissioner’s Office.
A number of standards in the noble Baroness’s Bill duplicate existing data-protection regulations. For example, providing “sufficient and meaningful information” for users in an accessible way is already addressed in the age-appropriate design code. Existing data-protection regulation also sets out how data should be securely used. The Government are keen to work closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office to ensure that this is clear to companies. Ofcom and the ICO are working closely on the issues of user privacy and age-assurance technologies to deliver clarity to companies.
So it is understandable that the noble Baroness’s Bill focuses on user privacy, but it duplicates existing regulation and gives Ofcom responsibility for regulation in areas already overseen by the Information Commissioner’s Office. We think that this risks creating a confusing regulatory landscape for companies and regulators and may undermine the Bill’s central intention.
It is also important that Ofcom is able confidently and robustly to enforce expectations relating to age assurance, regardless of where a company is based. I am sure that that is something with which all noble Lords would agree. The Government believe that the online safety Bill will achieve this more effectively than the Bill before us. First, it gives Ofcom the power to develop mandatory risk assessments for companies, which is essential for supporting the proportionate use of age assurance. Secondly, the online safety Bill considers the global nature of the internet and the companies in scope. It provides Ofcom with additional business-disruption powers, which will allow it to prevent services based abroad from disregarding UK requirements in relation to age assurance.
So we fear that seeking to deliver those objectives through the noble Baroness’s Bill risks being less effective than delivering them through the online safety Bill, which will ensure that all companies in scope adhere to high standards and are held to account when using age-assurance technologies.
I hear the anxiety of noble Lords and the urgency that many underlined. I also hear the challenge that the noble Baroness set me in her opening speech about what we are doing today. The Government are clear that companies should take steps now to improve user safety, particularly for children, and not wait for legislation to protect them. That is why we as a Government are taking action now, in advance of the online safety Bill, to help bring about change.
I will give some examples of that. The Government have published the interim codes of practice on terrorist content and child sexual exploitation and abuse online, which companies can follow now to remove illegal content and behaviour from their services. Earlier this year, we also published safety by design guidance, which sets out clearly for companies how to design and build safer online platforms. As the noble Baroness said, age assurance is not a silver bullet; it is just as critical that companies design safe and age-appropriate online environments for their users.
Published alongside this was a one-stop shop for companies on protecting children online that sets out their current legal requirements, making it easier for them to understand precisely what is expected of them. In July this year, the Government published the Online Media Literacy Strategy, which sets out our approach for supporting the empowerment of users of all ages with the key skills and knowledge that they need to make informed and safe choices online. So we are acting, even as we await the report of the Joint Committee on the draft online safety Bill.
That is why the Government believe that the approach that I have outlined today, delivering robust standards for age-assurance technologies through the online safety Bill, is the right one. We think that this will achieve the same objectives as the noble Baroness’s Bill and be appropriate for Ofcom’s regulatory remit. So, while I know that this will be disappointing to the noble Baroness today and to all the noble Lords who have spoken, I echo the tributes that have been paid to her for her industry, urgency and passion in this hugely important area.
My honourable friend the Minister for Technology and the Digital Economy and I have spoken to the noble Baroness about our shared objectives in this area and, importantly, our shared desire to move quickly, and we are very grateful for her time and engagement. At their appearance before the Joint Committee on the draft online safety Bill, my honourable friend and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said that they were interested in exploring whether it would be possible to expedite key parts of the online safety Bill, including work relating to age assurance.
I stress that the Government welcome open discussion and are keen to continue our conversations with the noble Baroness and all noble Lords who have raised issues today on this vital subject. The Government have been clear that they do not hold all the answers, which is why the online safety Bill is currently going through pre-legislative scrutiny. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness and others for their work on that. I look forward to the debates that we will have on it—it is a very important piece of legislation—but I am afraid that we cannot support the noble Baroness’s Bill today.
I hope that noble Lords will forgive me. I had a very generous speech thanking them individually for all their contributions—and, indeed, they were wonderful—but I would like to cut to the chase and say that this is not good enough. The time has run out. I reserve my thanks for one group: the children from Westminster Academy. I thank them for looking at the Bill and for giving a more positive response than the Government.
I thank the Minister and believe that he will engage with me. He has made the vast mistake of letting me have his mobile phone number, so he will indeed be engaging with me on this matter, as his predecessors have found out to their cost. I simply say this: time has run out for voluntary standards, for fractured regulatory arrangements or for Governments trying to take a technical role. The Bill is ready-baked to put age assurance at the top of the tech sector’s in-tray, and it will be that sector that solves the problem once we tell it what we want. It would mean that a child getting their first smartphone today would have the protections in place by the time they started big school next year.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.