Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:26 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough 3:26 pm, 13th September 2016

I am sad that the Secretary of State has just left the Chamber. I have spent the last year causing her problems on the issue of modern slavery, but I have to say that she was really dedicated to trying to eradicate modern slavery in Britain. She did her best to make a difference. She has left behind the Minister for Digital and Culture, with whom I worked on the Public Accounts Committee and who is distinguished by his brains, so I hope that, having heard the debate, to which there have been many significant contributions, he will agree to make shifts in the Bill.

On digital access, I represent a town in the Thames valley and it is one of the most productive towns in Britain. Slough makes more profits per resident than all bar two other places in the whole of the United Kingdom. Yet new developments in my constituency do not have access to superfast broadband, and the residents in those developments just do not understand why that is the case. It would have been simple for this Bill to require a requirement that any new build development should have superfast broadband connectivity.

That is one big gap, but I want to spend my time reflecting on the provisions in part 3 of the Bill, which I welcome. I was pleased to work with Claire Perry, who, when she was first elected, took up with a passion the protection of children from online pornography. We had a series of hearings, and we came up with some really useful proposals, some of which have clearly fed into the Bill.

I also welcome the report by the Women and Equalities Committee which came out today, on children’s access to pornography. I helped to persuade the House authorities to establish that Committee, and it is proving its usefulness well. The report provides clear evidence that watching online pornography is significantly associated with higher rates of self-reported sexual violence perpetration. Young boys get a completely distorted view of sexual relationships because of online pornography. It is a shocking thought that a young man or woman’s first introduction to sexual relations is via pornography, which makes young men think, for example, that women’s body hair is unusual. As Laura Bates said in evidence to the Select Committee, it gives them very strange ideas. She told the Committee:

“I was in a school where a teacher told me they had recently had a rape case involving a 14-year old male perpetrator. One of the teachers had asked him ‘why didn’t you stop when she was crying?’
and he had replied: ‘because it’s normal for girls to cry during sex’.”

That is why getting this right is so important, and I am very glad that the Government have taken these initiatives.

I was impressed by the Tory manifesto, which contained a commitment to

“stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online,” and this measure is clearly the way in which the Government seek to do so. The Government’s impact assessment of the Bill states that the purpose is merely to nudge online pornography providers to comply and introduce age verification, however, which is far more limited than what was offered in the manifesto. One of the things we know about nudging is that well set up and properly structured companies based here in the UK will be nudged, but the problem is that online pornography providers are very often not like that. They are often based overseas, they are often not well set up and they are often used to trying to evade the kinds of controls that we are discussing.

I am concerned that the age verification provisions, which I warmly welcome, do not include a requirement that ISPs should block access to non-compliant or illegal sites. I had a useful meeting with the Minister and his officials, for which I am grateful, where I was told that when the regulator published a list of non-compliant sites, payment companies would withdraw payment facilities and advertisers would withdraw advertising, and that that would do the trick and convince the sites to introduce age verification. I agree that it will, in some cases, but in some cases it might not.

What happens then? The Bill is silent on what happens then. Clause 22 provides only that the regulator can notify that a site is not compliant, and not that he can require companies to refuse payment or ensure that those sites are blocked. I am sure that the credit card companies and others will do the right thing, and in most cases that will be enough. But what about the sites that do not depend on any UK-based credit card companies, or that use Bitcoin or other non-UK-based financing systems? That is where it can all break down.

The Government are just wrong to believe that the ISPs will block access to such sites on a voluntary basis. They do so in relation to child pornography, but the point is that child pornography is, on the face of it, illegal and an abuse of a child, whereas we are talking about content that is not illegal for adults to view, but that children should be protected from. That is why the power to require blocking is needed. Leaving such matters on a voluntary basis is dangerous, and is contrary to good government. We know that, although some companies will comply, those based overseas that do not want to—they are the least likely ones to comply—will be able to avoid doing so. There should be a mechanism that is justiciable, in which people can appeal and cases can be sorted out properly, not on the basis of informal agreements.

I hope that the Minister—as I have said, he is a clever and thoughtful man—will make sure, as the Bill goes through the House, that the regulator is given a residual power, if companies are not compliant, to force payment bodies to refuse payments. That could deliver what we are talking about, and there could also be an appeal mechanism. The Government could actually do their job, rather than hope that people not working in a pro-social way can be encouraged to do the job for us.