Edward Vaizey (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Culture, Communications and Creative Industries), Business, Innovation and Skills; Wantage, Conservative)
May I say how grateful I am to my hon. Friend Claire Perry for raising this important subject and giving the House the opportunity to debate it? She put her case incredibly forcefully. We are used to saying that we are middle-aged when policemen start to look younger. Perhaps we can add a new phrase to the lexicon: when we start saying Mary Whitehouse was right, we might be approaching middle age. My hon. Friend's points were very well made, and chime very much with my thinking.
The subject of this debate has been misleadingly referred to as the regulation of access to pornography on the internet; what we are really talking about is ensuring that we can protect not only children from accessing unsuitable adult material, but adults from the extreme versions of pornography-to which, I am glad to say, my hon. Friend only alluded. As she said in her opening remarks, the internet is fast becoming the dominant medium not just in this country but all over the world. Moreover, as she noted at the end of her speech, when it converges with television it will become all pervasive. The struggle to deal with what one might loosely call internet regulation is something that we are having to come to grips with very rapidly as the internet advances so speedily.
I found out to my cost only last week, after making a speech on net neutrality, that anyone who ventures into the vexed subject of internet regulation, in the broadest sense, can set a number of hares running. There are many people who believe that the internet should not be regulated at all. This Government's position is that the internet should be lightly regulated, so that we benefit from many of the advances that have come about from a lightly regulated internet. Although we are focusing in this debate on the internet's negative aspects, it is important to remember that a lightly regulated internet has brought transformative companies to the web. As we learned from a piece of research published a couple of weeks ago, in just 15 to 20 years, internet commerce has come to represent something in the order of 9% to 10% of our economy.
This remains a very serious subject, which deserves very serious consideration. As with any area of life, it is vital that children and the vulnerable be protected. Where there is harm and safeguards are not heeded, we need effective sanctions to prosecute illegal acts.
Before addressing my hon. Friend's specific points, it might be helpful to set out the issue in the broader context of the Government's approach to the regulation of adult material in general. It is important to remember that we regulate adult material, regardless of the medium through which it is transmitted or published. The Government's policy is that controls on published material, including material published online, should strike a balance between freedom of expression and protection of the public. It should also be proportionate to the potential harm caused.
Clearly, there is material that should not be published at all. This is covered by the criminal law. All material published or broadcast in the UK is subject to the Obscene Publications Act 1959, under which it is a criminal offence to publish any article or image considered to be obscene. The Act also applies to the distribution of material on the internet or by mobile phone. It is important to note the general principle that an action that is illegal if committed offline is also illegal if committed online. Just because it is on the web, that does not make it all right. This applies both to the distribution of illegal material and to harmful behaviour.