Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:52 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:52 pm, 13th September 2016

I shall speak on part 3 of the Bill, but I should like to put on record my support for the recommendations made by Mrs Miller. We need to use the Bill as an opportunity to examine all online abuse, because although the Government say that the police have powers under existing legislation, they are not using them. To have that on the face of the Bill would be a powerful statement. Online abuse is eroding the lives of many people.

A key role of this House must be to prevent harm and tackle the threats faced by children, both online and offline. The scale of online abuse and exploitation, and the proliferation of pornography and violent sexualised imagery among children, has reached endemic levels. This Bill presents us with an opportunity to offer protection to all children, and I urge this House to do so. Children are at risk every day from predatory abusers who seek to exploit and manipulate their vulnerability. According to the Internet Watch Foundation, in 2015 over 68,000 URLs were confirmed as containing child sexual abuse imagery. That figure is up 118% since 2014. We have to recognise, however, that child abuse and exploitation perpetrated by adults is only one aspect of the many threats faced by children online.

Children make up a third of internet users, and they have never had better access to the internet, with 65% of 12 to 15-year-olds owning smartphones. Their access is often unfettered and unrestricted. A study from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Children’s Commissioner for England found that, of the 1,000 children aged 11 to 18 questioned, over half had accessed pornography, with 94% doing that by the age of 14. Those children were not necessarily seeking out pornography online. Their access was often inadvertent, through a pop-up or while searching for other content.

The growing body of evidence proves to us what we already know. Pornography impacts on the development of children, particularly their understanding of what constitutes healthy relationships, consent and sex. The NSPCC and Children’s Commissioner study found that more than half of the boys questioned believed that the porn that they had seen was realistic. In a Girlguiding attitudinal survey, 71% of girls aged 17 to 21 agreed that online pornography makes aggressive and violent behaviour towards women seem normal.

The consequences of this online material is reflected back as a reality offline. Violence against girls starts at an early age. The Home Office’s 2010 “This is Abuse” campaign found that sexual violence happened to one in three girls and one in six boys.

Through exposure to online pornography from an increasingly young age, and messages conveyed in the media, children are growing up believing that violence and non-consensual sex is not just normal, but to be expected.

The proposals laid out in part 3 to limit children’s access to commercial pornographic websites are welcome, but they do not go far enough. The Government are to be commended for recognising that the internet needs regulation to protect children. Just as children are protected offline—through restrictions on access to sex shops, for example—the provisions in this Bill are an important first step in creating a world in which children are also protected online. They are, however, only a first step. Parity of protection for children between the online and offline world can be better achieved if the Government strengthen these provisions in Committee.