Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:14 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality) 5:14 pm, 13th September 2016

It is always a pleasure to follow Fiona Bruce, who made some important points. In the short time that is available to me, I shall make similar points, but I think that they should be put on the record. They relate to access to pornography, protection for children and protection from websites in other countries. We have an opportunity to get the legislation right, and I know that Ministers will take that on board in Committee.

In 2014, the Authority for Television On Demand reported that

“23 of the top 25 adult websites visited by UK internet users... provide instant, free and unrestricted access to hardcore pornographic videos and still images featuring explicit images of real sex.”

It also reported:

“Only one of the 1,266 adult websites identified…as having been visited from the UK in December 2013 was a service regulated in the UK.”

There is clearly a problem and a need for legislative change, and I hope that that can happen. The key question is, how do we enforce part 3 in relation to foreign sites? There are two basic tools enabling us to rise to the challenge, financial transaction blocking and IP blocking—that is, the blocking of individual websites.

First, the Bill does not provide for any statutory obligation to require financial transaction providers to block transactions with sites operating in violation of UK law, with the imposition of penalties if they do not do so. When pressed on the point, Ministers have suggested that that is not necessary because financial transaction providers are already subject to a general requirement not to process transactions that are in violation of domestic legislation. I am not persuaded by that logic, and I think that many other Members are not persuaded by it either. On that basis, it could be said that there was no need for a Bill to give the regulator any responsibilities regarding financial transaction providers.

Clause 22 does give the regulator the power to tell a financial transaction provider if a website is operating illegally by not providing age verification checks for the UK market. However, having given the financial transaction providers the information about non-compliance, the Government then fail to address enforcement properly by leaving the financial transaction providers and the existing terms and conditions to get on with it by themselves. We need to sharpen the Bill and make it more effective. At present, there is a curious, half-baked approach that is neither one thing nor the other. The Government are giving the regulator a statutory role in telling financial transaction providers when a company is operating illegally, but then leaving the matter hanging in the air without the provision of a statutory power to follow through and ensure that providers act accordingly to block transactions.

I am convinced that if this policy is to be a success, robust enforcement is key, and I think that many other Members share my view. In that context, it is vital to note important research conducted by Victoria Nash, of Oxford University, on the enforcement of age verification checks in relation to gambling sites in different European states. It concludes that where there are

“strict audit and enforcement requirements”,

there is an incentive to invest in

“high-assurance identity and age-verification processes”,

but

“where enforcement is patchy and uncertain, the incentives to invest in expensive authentication systems are less clear”.

According to Nash, that is

“especially true for smaller or less well-known companies who are also less likely to receive reputational damage if any illegal selling is revealed.”

Let me put that in context. When we are dealing with something as important as child safety, when the evidence suggests that certainty about enforcement is critical, and when the decision to give the regulator power to inform financial transaction providers of sites that are in contravention clearly suggests that the Government have already conceded that simply leaving things to the financial transaction providers is not enough, it is clear that the Bill needs to give the regulator a stronger role in relation to enforcement by requiring the financial transaction providers to act.

Secondly, the Bill makes no provision for statutory IP blocking, which is a critical second line of defence, and which is vital if we are to get this right. In the context of an increasing amount of free pornography, it is important that the UK regulator is seen to be a powerful body, with teeth, whose warnings are heeded because the operators of the sites in question know that it has the power to cut them off from the UK market entirely if they try to ignore the need for age verification processes. That power can be there. There may be a need for this sort of power if websites start trading in so-called cryptocurrencies which cannot be blocked by Visa or Mastercard, or in situations where a free website is funded by advertising but, in the language of the Bill, the ancillary service providing the advertising is not based in the UK and does not withdraw its services from a site.

In these contexts, if the regulator is denied the power to block IPs, it will have no leverage on the pornography site whatsoever, which is unacceptable. Of course the Government have sought to justify their decision on the basis that they believe it would be disproportionate and there are no statutory provisions in this regard for child sex abuse images. This, however, completely misses the point. The reason why there is no need for statutory IP blocking is because child sex abuse images are illegal in most jurisdictions. There is a very strong international consensus that they are wrong—I am not aware of any countries that will say otherwise. The pornography that we are talking about protecting children from is, by contrast, perfectly legal for adults. Despite the evidence that much of it is seriously damaging to children, there is a much greater need for legal compulsion if we are to take significant strides in persuading sites that they need to protect them from accessing material that it is legal for adults to see.

Moreover, current statute does allow for the courts to order ISPs to block websites that are breaching copyright, and that is good news. I understand that in July the Court of Appeal ordered ISPs to block websites that offer counterfeit goods for sale. How can it be right that ISPs can be required by law to block websites harming businesses but not those that harm children? That is incredible—perhaps the Minister will tell us whether that is the case. Let us take the action, get the legislation in place, and make sure we get it right and protect children.

I am not suggesting that if this Bill makes provision for statutory IP blocking that the regulator would use it regularly. The fact, however, that it could use it will cause sites based outside the UK to take it seriously. Mr Speaker, given that we are talking about pornography, I very much hope that you will forgive the pun, but it seems to me that the Government’s regulator, without the power to require mandatory financial transaction blocking and IP blocking powers, is a king with no clothes. I request, and hope, that as this Bill passes through its Committee and Report stages, the Government will make good these deficiencies.