Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:52 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry Conservative, Devizes 3:52 pm, 13th September 2016

My hon. Friend makes an important point. During that long process of conversation, legislation and lobbying, we all discovered that it was very hard to get internet service providers, content providers and search engines to think in this way, because they took a different view. Their view was that they would serve up whatever people wanted, everywhere. If things are made illegal, it is a different matter, so it all came down to a question of legality rather than morality. However, I think we have made enormous progress, and I am proud that we can call Britain one of the most family-friendly places in the world to access the internet. All this has been done, by the way, without any materialisation of the doom-and-gloom scenarios of internet shutdown. My hon. Friend Damian Collins, who chairs the Select Committee—he is no longer in the Chamber—spoke of our dynamic digital economy, which is perceived to be a high-growth, high-innovation area; and while all that has been achieved, we have also established some family-friendly guidelines.

Let me now urge the Minister and his officials to pay particular attention to two aspects of the Bill which concern me, and which others have also raised. The first is the definition of content that is captured by the age verification mechanism. I know that the Bill is quite loosely drafted, and I know that the intention is to capture both commercial material and material that is provided free on commercial sites, but there is a real question about peer-to-peer sites and live streaming. As we all know, the internet is not accessed through the mainstream hub sites, and there is now far more peer-to-peer and free content exchange. I should be interested to know how further drafting would address that problem.

It is encouraging that commercial providers of pornography support these proposals. They think it absolutely right for there to be some degree of age verification, because they are not interested in children viewing their material, and they recognise the commercial benefits of the Bill. That is very notable.

The second aspect that I want to raise is the role of the regulator, and what teeth the regulator can have. Concerns have been expressed today about enforcement. In the light of my association with the British Board of Film Classification, it occurs to me that there may be a role for that organisation in a regulatory structure. It is a trusted brand when it comes to regulating content; its definitions are widely accepted, and it is considered to be highly robust. I have met BBFC representatives and talked to them about the possibility, and they have agreed that there could be a role for them. However, the BBFC’s current enforcement is carried out not through its own powers, but through trading standards or the police, so the question of enforcement still needs to be addressed. However, it does concern me that, as we have heard, while the intention is there to have a level of enforcement—a civil enforcement, perhaps, relating to fines—it is difficult to establish a qualifying turnover and indeed bank account details for many of these overseas sites that are generating and posting content. I would be interested to have further details, perhaps in Committee, as to how those sites could be captured and, of course, what happens if nothing happens. What happens if a site flagrantly disregards this, and refuses to put in place a robust verification mechanism? We should explore the possibility of ISPs being asked to block sites that are effectively contravening UK law.

I urge the Minister to look at what happened with the gambling industry. The right hon. Member for Slough—I like to call her my hon. Friend—and I could not understand why there was such a disparity. Of course, the gambling industry set up very early on robust age verification mechanisms that blocked under-18s from accessing their sites. There is a mechanism in place, and it has been achieved without any howls of privacy invasion.