Edward Vaizey (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Culture, Communications and Creative Industries), Business, Innovation and Skills; Wantage, Conservative)
I am coming to self-regulation, which is what I understand my hon. Friend to be calling for on the part of our internet service providers, to prevent access to inappropriate content. It is obviously not for this country to change the obscenity or pornographic laws in other jurisdictions, but it is important to recognise that we are dealing with content from beyond our own jurisdiction. Let me press on. I shall make my argument before accepting further interventions, so that hon. Members will be in a position to see the argument in the round.
There is also a law against the distribution of indecent images of children. Section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 makes the simple possession of indecent photographs of children an offence, and it carries a maximum sentence of five years' imprisonment. In this context I am delighted to be able to welcome the appointment of Peter Davies, the new chief executive of CEOP-the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. I want to pay tribute to the work of his predecessor, Jim Gamble, as well as to the outstanding work of CEOP in tackling the sexual exploitation of children.
My hon. Friend also referred to the work of the Internet Watch Foundation, which I am due to meet shortly to discuss self-regulation of the internet. As she pointed out, the IWF was set up in 1996 by UK ISPs to enable members of the public to report child abuse content in newsgroups or websites hosted anywhere in the world, as well as obscene content hosted in the UK. If that content is considered potentially illegal, the IWF passes the details to the UK police to start action against the originators, and will seek to get the material taken down at source or ask ISPs to deny access to the websites concerned.
I am very interested in the work of the Internet Watch Foundation, because I believe that it provides a model that is now well established and working effectively. The issue I particularly want to discuss with the IWF is whether its work, which has hitherto focused on child abuse content, can be widened to cover some of the other issues that my hon. Friend has raised this evening.
As Jim Shannon pointed out, access to online pornography is not a problem for the UK alone. We have to recognise that the internet is a global network. This brings with it real challenges to the effective regulation of access to pornography. The overwhelming bulk of obscene material published on the internet originates abroad, sometimes in countries that do not share our approach to such material. It is simply the case, and has been for many years, that much pornographic material that it would be illegal to publish in the UK remains legal to publish in many other European countries, and even in the United States.
The UK ISPs take a responsible approach to the content that they host, both of their own volition and in co-operation with law enforcement and Government agencies. Where they are advised that content that they host in the UK contravenes UK legislation, they will readily remove it.
My hon. Friend talked about an age-verified opt-in procedure for internet access to pornography hosted in the UK. This is already the case, although my hon. Friend made her own forceful argument that it might not be effective enough. The managers of websites featuring mature content have a legal responsibility to indicate clearly on their front page that those sites are unsuitable for anybody under the age of 18. Additionally, when websites charge for access, they must place their adult content behind a credit card barrier, to reduce further the risk of children and young people accessing it. We will continue to consider how that protection might be made more effective.