My Lords, I am very pleased to introduce my latest Online Safety Bill, which is my fourth over four Sessions. I am particularly pleased that the Government have taken some important steps over that period to engage with this issue. The voluntary filtering agreement, announced by the Prime Minister in his seminal July 2013 NSPCC speech, between the big four internet service providers—which I shall refer to as ISPs for the rest of my speech—was of course very welcome. I am also particularly encouraged by the key developments this year, namely the headline “Conservative manifesto commitment to introduce age verification for all sites showing pornographic material”. The Prime Minister must be congratulated on his strong personal leadership on this issue.
However, despite this very welcome progress, the problems remain. In March 2014 the ATVOD report For Adults Only? Underage Access to Online Porn showed that at least 44,000 primary school children had access to adult websites in December 2013, as well as 200,000 under-16 year-olds. A European-wide piece of research into violence and abuse in teenage relationships published in February 2015 found that 39% of boys in England aged 14 to 17 regularly viewed pornography. An IPPR report published in August 2014 revealed that eight out of 10 18 year-olds thought that it was too easy for young people to accidentally see pornography online, and a March 2015 poll commissioned by the NSPCC of 2,000 11 to 17 year-olds found that one in 10 children aged 12 to 13 was worried that they might have become addicted to pornography.
For all the progress over the last few years, very significant problems remain which require equally significant changes in our online child protection arrangements. The purpose of my Bill is to rise to this critical challenge. My speech today is divided into three central components, which reflect the three central components of the Bill. I begin with adult content filters.
While the Government’s self-regulatory solution regarding adult content filters is a welcome step forward, it suffers from two critical limitations. First, the agreement only pertains to the big four ISPs and leaves a good 10% of the internet market, and therein many thousands of children, beyond its reach. I do not suggest that none of the remaining smaller ISPs offers good filtering options. However, according to my research, of the 14 smaller ISPs that service homes rather than businesses, only four were found to offer something comparable to default-on. One of them even boasted of the fact that it deliberately did not filter. Unless we are prepared to say that the rights of some children who have the opportunity of protection through adult content filters are less than those of others, that arrangement cannot be regarded as satisfactory.
Secondly, and more importantly, the voluntary agreement does not provide age verification to establish that someone seeking to lift adult content filters that were put in place at the set-up is indeed an adult. The ISPs could unwittingly be allowing children to access adult content. When pressed on this matter, the industry suggested that they would send an email to the account holder to let them know that the settings had been changed. However, even if the account holder was exceptionally diligent, checking their emails every hour and opening and reading every new email as it came through, that arrangement would still allow children to have access to adult content for a good hour or more.
In the real world, however, we know that that would not work. ComRes, polling for the charity CARE, demonstrated that a total of 34% of British adults—16.3 million people—said that they would not read an email from their ISP immediately, 11% said that they would probably leave the email unread for up to a week, 9% would be likely to leave it for more than a week, and a staggering 14% said that they were unlikely to read any email from their ISP at all. The common sense understanding of age verification is that it is conducted before an age-restricted activity is permitted. The idea that this very half-hearted excuse for child protection can be regarded as age verification is simply not credible. My Bill addresses both these shortcomings.
Clause 1 requires that all ISPs ensure that households, schools and businesses with public wi-fi must face an unavoidable choice about adult content filters. Clauses 1 and 2 introduce proper age verification, requiring that anyone electing not to have adult content filters should confirm that they are 18 years old or over before being permitted to access adult content. Despite the voluntary code of practice adopted by some, I have included mobile phone operators—MPOs—in my Bill because, as well as the ISPs, the code does not cover all mobile providers. Moreover, it has not been as effective as a statutory approach. In 2010 it became apparent that BlackBerry had been ignoring the code, and in 2013 precisely the same happened in relation to Tesco Mobile. Both companies subsequently put their houses in order, but it is inconceivable that there would have been such widespread flouting of the code had it been statutory.
Since 2013, the British Board of Film Classification has acted as an independent regulator of content delivered via the mobile networks of EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. Clause 2(7) is included in the Bill so that the BBFC can—and, indeed, I hope that it will be able to—continue in this very important role. The provision for this statutory approach to filtering with robust age verification for all ISPs and MPOs is entirely possible and, I stress, vital if we are to make the internet as safe as possible for our children.
I now move to wider issues of age verification in relation to adult content websites. Page 35 of the 2015 Conservative manifesto states that,
“we will stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material”.
That commitment is very welcome. However, it was noticeably absent from the Queen’s Speech. When I asked the Government why that was and whether they would set out their plan during the Queen’s Speech debate, no answer was forthcoming. I have since been informed by the Minister, who very kindly met me on Wednesday, that the Government are actively thinking about this. I was greatly encouraged by her very real enthusiasm for the commitment, as well as by her very wide knowledge of the whole communications industry.
As the Government consider their options, I suggest that they need look no further than Clauses 6 to 11 of the Bill, which introduce a robust system of age verification. The current law, the Communications Act 2003, recently amended by the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 to include Section 368E, requires sites based in the UK that provide R18 on-demand programme services—that is, the opportunity to watch restricted films that can be bought only from sex shops if purchased as physical media—to make their services available in such a way that they cannot be accessed by children. The Authority for Television On Demand, ATVOD, is given the job of policing this.
The provision of that legislation is very welcome but there is a major problem, highlighted by ATVOD’s 2014 report For Adults Only?. The vast majority of such material accessed in the UK is streamed into this country from websites based outside the UK that are untouched by the legislation. In December 2013, 23 of the 25 top adult websites visited by UK internet users provided instant free and unrestricted access to hardcore pornographic videos and to still images with no barriers to underage viewing. Given the increasing number of court cases during which it has become apparent that young boys committing sexual crimes against girls have been acting out R18 material that they have viewed online on computers in their bedrooms, it is clearly vital to protect children from material that comes from abroad, as well as from that streamed from within the UK.
Regulating online service provision from beyond the UK presents challenges but these are not insurmountable. The Government have just introduced a framework through the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014 for regulating online gambling providers based outside the UK. The Act requires all online gambling sites based outside the UK to get a UK Gambling Commission licence to access the UK market. If they do not do so and seek to sell their services to people in the UK, the commission will direct financial transaction providers not to process transactions between people in the UK and the sites in question. They must either cease trading with people in the UK or get a Gambling Commission licence.
Clauses 1 to 7 are based on the principle of the Gambling Act. They require those seeking to stream pornography into the UK from sites based in other countries to have a UK licence to do so legally. One of the conditions of the licence is that there must be robust age verification checks. If a site is directed to the UK market without a licence, Clause 10 gives the UK licensing authority the power to direct financial transaction providers not to process transactions between such websites and people in the UK.
The truth is that, while some sites provide free material to draw people in, at some point they start charging to make money. If they cannot sell to people in the UK, they must either leave the UK market or introduce appropriate age verification so that they can get a licence. Given that the Communications Act already requires R18 on-demand programme services based in the UK to be made available in such a way that children cannot access them, and given that the vast majority of porn accessed online in this country comes from sites based outside the UK, the central challenge facing the Government is honouring their commitment to stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material. That means that the central challenge will be the foreign sites, but Clauses 7 to 11 provide a mechanism for rising to that challenge. This priority, I may add, is strongly backed by public opinion. A ComRes poll of 2,058 adults conducted last weekend for the charity CARE in preparation for today’s debate revealed—these figures were released only this morning—that 74% of people believe that the Government’s age verification commitment must apply to sites based both in the UK and outside the UK, and only 13% of people disagree with that.
The second difficulty with the current legal framework in relation to protecting children from watching adult on-demand programming relates to the fact that it seeks to protect them only from watching R18 material. If we as a society have determined that it is not appropriate for children to watch 18-rated material and we have the technology to introduce age verification, how can it be right to seek to protect children only from watching R18-rated material? Frankly, this approach does not make much sense. If we say that children should be protected from watching, say, “Fifty Shades of Grey” in the offline world, why not in the online world? Do children change as they move from the offline world to the online? Do they therefore become less vulnerable? I think not. This point is again backed up by ComRes polling from the weekend, which demonstrates that 73% of people think that 18-rated on-demand programme services should be subject to age verification. Just a small proportion, 13%, disagrees. Again, my Bill addresses this shortfall. Clause 6 makes it clear that a robust age-verification policy should apply to 18-rated as well as R18-rated material.
The final component of my Bill relates to education, which is key because some online challenges relate to accidentally coming across unwanted adult content. Here, filtering and age verification are helpful. Some online behavioural challenges, such as cyberbullying, sexting and grooming, can be addressed only by better education. Clause 3 places a duty on ISPs and MPOs to make available information about online safety to account holders in a prominent and easily accessible format throughout the duration of their contract. Clause 4 places a duty on the Secretary of State to empower parents with information about online safety so that they can better help to prepare their children to deal with cyberbullying, sexting and grooming.
Working together, the three components of my Bill—filters, age verification and better education—will help make the internet a safer place for children. In bringing my comments to a close, I should like to highlight the key question that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, put to the previous Minister the last time this matter was debated. Sadly, the noble and learned Lord cannot be with us today but he has encouraged me to ask the question once again. How can it be right that in the offline world we say that statutory protection is important, and yet in the online world, with the exception of R18-rated material that is live-streamed from the UK, self-regulation will do?
In a context in which we seem to have laws for everything, it makes no sense to suggest that child protection is all-important but then say that we can uphold it through self-regulation. If that is sufficient, why do we not abolish statutory child protection for the offline world and have a consistent self-regulatory approach across the board? The truth is that if child protection is sufficiently important to merit statutory protection offline, the same must of course be true online.
I very much hope that the Government will take up the Bill. It provides a means whereby they can fulfil their manifesto commitment on age verification and ensure that adult content filters apply to the whole marketplace and cannot be lifted without age verification. It provides a means whereby we can hold our heads up high and say, “Yes, child protection is just as important online as it is offline and we will accord it the same level of statutory protection”. Finally, in providing a statutory basis for the voluntary filtering arrangements currently in place, the Bill does what I understand the recent telecoms directive says the Government must do anyway—namely, set out our filtering provisions in law.
Mindful of these considerations, I believe that it is a Bill whose time has come and I commend it to both the Government and the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, for the convenience of the House, I remind noble Lords of the advice of my noble friend the Chief Whip at the beginning of business today that there is an advisory speaking time of six minutes for Back-Bench speakers.
My Lords, I support the principles of the Bill because it aims to support good parenting. It is difficult for parents to talk with children about sexual relationships, and we live in the new world of the internet, in which children are more familiar with finding their way around than their parents.
It is interesting that the BBC programme “Porn: What’s the Harm?”, aired last year, showed that 60% of young people were 14 or younger when they first viewed porn, and a quarter were 12 or under. It is worth noting that one in 14 was under 10—so they certainly had not achieved any sexual maturity—and only one-fifth were actually looking for porn the first time they saw it online. The result was that about 50% said they watched porn every day, or at least once a week.
What are the psychological effects of porn? I want to focus on that question and the effects on the brain of repeated viewing because it can result in neuro-adaptation, whereby the brain adapts and changes the circuitry, especially in the pleasure and reward pathways.
Watching porn repeatedly induces alterations in neurons in an area called the nucleus accumbens, which are also seen in drug abuse, and increases a neurotransmitter called deltaFosB in the nucleus accumbens, so that reward behaviour can result in hypersexual syndrome. Excess consumption of porn leads to dopamine surges of the neurotransmitter, addiction and structural changes in the pleasure reward pathways. This addiction manifests itself in ways similar to overeating, gambling and other sexual addictions. As the circuitry changes, porn viewing becomes normalised and viewing habits become more extreme and hardcore as the brain becomes accustomed and the person is trying to achieve the same kick from the viewing as they did previously. The chemical changes result in cerebral dysfunction and hypofrontal syndromes, which feature impulsivity, compulsivity, emotional lability and impaired judgment. Patients have been shown to have reduced activity in the part of the brain that is required for rational decision-making.
The difficulty is the normalisation of sexual violence. Research has shown that watching degrading porn increases users’ dominating and harassing behaviour towards women, and decreases compassion towards rape victims in male viewers. It is worth noting that the young people and children viewing porn are, by and large, male. Porn viewers are more likely to express attitudes that support violence towards women. ChildLine reports a 124% increase in referrals relating to online and offline sexual abuse. It seems to be linked to sexting, an increased number of calls about it, and abuse through sexual images, whereby 40% of girls and 32% of boys said that they had sent a sexual image or video via text. That, of course, can be used against them when a relationship breaks up.
Because of time, I will conclude my remarks and emphasise that three-quarters of young people in Britain thought that porn had affected men’s expectations of sex. The most common reason given is that they expect young women to behave like those in the porn films. Some 10% of young people said that porn made young women expect to be sex objects, that it objectified women and was unrealistic. The difficulty is that if we are exposing young people to porn without allowing parents the help of having controls over viewing it, we may well be stacking up appalling behaviour towards human relationships, sexual relationships and violence in the future.
My Lords, I very much support the Bill, but everything that I was going to say has already been said by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, so there is no point in me repeating it—except to say that I strongly support the Bill. It is the desire of every parent to see their child flourish and develop to their fullest potential in a way that is safe and enjoyable. The approach that we take to online safety must be holistic. It is not a case of education or adult content filters or age verification—it is all three. This Bill meets that need and builds on the work of the Government in recent years. I very much hope that the Minister will feel able to support this important piece of legislation.
My Lords, I follow two Members of the House with very distinguished medical careers who speak with great authority, which I cannot match. However, I want to approach the subject in a slightly different way.
I join noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on introducing her new and improved Bill. Though the Bill has been drafted very properly with children in mind, I want to refer to its potential relevance for adults who are struggling with pornography. I am grateful to the charity Naked Truth, which seeks to support adults caught in the net of pornography addiction, for briefing me for the debate.
Clause 1 would allow any and all households to decide that they did not want to access so-called adult content. I do so dislike the description of pornography as “adult content”, but that seems to be part of our language, sadly.
There is an illuminating parallel between addiction to pornography and addiction to gambling. However, whereas the economic and social costs of gambling are relatively well understood, the equivalent damage caused by adult addiction to pornography is much less appreciated in our society. Research findings across a number of studies suggest that the use of pornography in an addictive way is a significant factor in at least half of all relationship breakdowns. The leading UK health website NetDoctor states:
“Various experts from Relate and the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapy … have reported that solitary use of porn is a huge factor in relationship breakdown and that it is ‘spiralling out of control’”.
Testimony to the US Senate by Dr Jill Manning claimed that in over 50% of divorce cases, one party having an obsessive interest in pornography was a significant contributor to the relationship breakdown. There are many more examples of expert testimony that could indicate that adult addiction to porn has pernicious effects, not only on individuals and their close relationships but on wider society.
This has to be set in the context of the huge cost to the Exchequer, which means to all of us, of relationship breakdown. The latest estimate from the Relationships Foundation is no less than £47 billion a year. Even if that figure can be disputed and it is, say, only half that, it is still a huge amount of money and more than 50 times the amount that will be saved this year by the so-called bedroom tax or spare room subsidy, which has attracted so much attention but is only a fraction of the cost of the effect of pornography in our society. Beyond the direct financial costs there are other impacts on society, not least the effect on women in the workplace who see colleagues misusing equipment to access pornography.
One of the ways in which gambling addiction has been addressed is through the principle of self-exclusion. This is now a well-respected tool to address the problem. Perhaps the Bill could be strengthened by explicitly offering that option in the case of pornography addiction.
The recent gambling legislation has found a way to address the regulation of websites situated outside the UK. This Bill could offer an opportunity to do the same in relation to the very many sites that are dedicated to pornography. Of course, many of them are free, but, as was said earlier, often the free sites are there to entice people and trap them into subscribing to fee-paying sites. I very much hope that we can adopt a similar approach to attempting to regulate pornography on the net as we have done in relation to gambling.
In conclusion, I very much welcome this Bill but would wish to see it strengthened to provide a more explicit benefit to adults who suffer from addiction to pornography, as well as to strengthen child protection. This would also carry huge benefits for wider society.
My Lords, it is not my intention to rehearse in detail the contents of the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, whom we should all thank for both her concern and tenacity, has done that with her customary skill and clarity. There can be no doubt about what the Bill is seeking to achieve and how it plans to do it. I sincerely trust that we will give it a Second Reading today.
I start by saying that the two watchwords to deal with this appalling problem must be “need” and “speed”: to acknowledge the need and to act with the utmost speed. To our national shame, our country is awash with horrid details of sex abuse in all its nasty forms, and particularly of children. A judge is coming from New Zealand to spend a large chunk of her life revealing just how wide and deep the problem is in our country today. We can all remember events and images that made lasting and often unpleasant impressions on us when we were young—and that was in the days before this dreadful scourge had infected our world and our children’s lives.
There are lots of good things that the internet can do. We can gain information, book a holiday or even order food. Soon, its use will be compulsory for many day-to-day tasks, whether we like it or not. But there are many bad things that the internet has spawned, including networks for the spread of terrorism worldwide and a massive pornography industry. It is this adult pornography that our children are watching in ever-increasing numbers that is causing so much harm and distress. There is compelling evidence from cases in our courts, confirmed by the judges trying them, that some of the most brutal sexual acts, often by young boys on younger girls, result from their imitating acts that they have watched online.
When last we debated this problem, I quoted—it has been quoted again today—the horrifying statistic that in one month 44,000 primary school children had watched adult pornography. Since then I have realised that this is roughly one a minute. So in the course of this debate so far, 32 young children will have experienced adult pornography and had their minds permanently affected.
When it comes to the question of age verification, which is crucial in this matter, it might be thought by the layman or woman that the process would be complex and lengthy—but nothing could be further from the truth. A system has already been designed and successfully put into operation by the gambling industry that allows age verification to take place, as I understand it, in a matter of seconds. So this cannot be an excuse for delay.
I have already said that speed is of the essence in this matter. Of course there are other important matters facing us as parliamentarians: the problems facing Greece and the eurozone are immense but will take a long time to resolve; the grave situation in the Middle East will rumble on indefinitely; and English votes for English laws and all our constitutional issues are weighty matters that will take time to deal with properly. But this Bill represents something that we can do now for the sake of our vulnerable children, and we must press on without delay.
The Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, may not be perfect in every detail, but the Government must not use that as an excuse for procrastination. Since the general election, the Prime Minister has said on many occasions, “It is in our manifesto and we will do it”. For the purposes of this Bill, I quote directly from the Conservative manifesto, which states that,
“we will stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material”.
No ifs, no buts, no maybes—we will stop it.
I said at the beginning of my remarks that the watchwords for this problem were “need” and “speed”. Need is often associated with parliamentary legislation. Sadly, speed is less commonly associated with it. I urge the Minister and the Government, who have already acknowledged the need to act with all possible speed, to give this Bill a fair wind and to protect our children as soon as possible.
My Lords, this is the third time that I have spoken at Second Reading on an online safety Bill brought forward by my noble friend Lady Howe. I salute her for her perseverance and her determination. Perhaps I may also welcome the Minister and say how glad I am that she is where she is with her undoubted experience and understanding of the issues that will be raised.
Like other noble Lords, I do not intend to repeat what I said in the other Second Reading debates because all that has been said comprehensively by my noble friend. However, in line with what the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, has just said about need and speed, I want to offer the Minister a context in which this might happen.
I am currently a member of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. Recently, the committee has been trying to persuade the Prime Minister that it is essential that there should be a national security strategy to underpin both the strategic defence and security review and the comprehensive spending review which are promised in the near future.
Traditionally, defence has been conducted in the three elements, land, sea and air, but recently and increasingly, a fourth element has become much more important: cyber. This issue lifts itself into the cyberdefence of the nation and the protection of the citizens, not least the protection of those on whom the future of this nation depends; namely, our children. Rather than seeing this Bill again in a competition for Second Readings on a Friday and possibly getting very little further, I would like to see it lifted out of that and hope that the Minister will take it to the Prime Minister and have it included in the discussions on the national security strategy and therefore put on the plane where it ought to be.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to support the Online Safety Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, at its Second Reading. I thank her for her sterling efforts in continuing to bring this very important issue to the attention of both Parliament and the public. It cannot be right that we live in a society where nearly one in 10 children aged between 12 and 13 is worried that they have become addicted to online porn, with 18% having seen shocking or upsetting images according to a recent ChildLine poll.
The fact that pornography on the internet is so widely available poses a challenge to all who are concerned about our children’s welfare. No one thinks that it can easily be dealt with, but this Bill goes a good way towards finding a workable solution.
Today, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has pointed out, we find ourselves in an odd situation where, offline, child protection provisions are statutory and robust, but, online, they are voluntary, incomplete and very weak. Although the Conservatives rightly promised to force hardcore pornography websites both in the UK and overseas to put in place age restriction controls or face being shut down during their election campaign, they did not follow through in their Queen’s Speech, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said. The voluntary approach promoted by the previous Government during the last Parliament leaves out 10% of the market. Therefore, thousands of children remain at risk without a robust form of age verification. Filtering can be credible only if age verification is employed to check that those electing to lift filters and opt in to adult content are indeed 18 years of age or older. The Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, addresses these problems and proposes effective methods of control, because it is increasingly obvious that voluntary restraint has not worked and we can wait no longer.
This is a serious problem and even those who believe any regulation of services provided by the internet could be a threat to personal choice must surely be concerned by the recent Europe-wide research project on violence and abuse in teenage relationships published in February this year which found that 39% of boys in England aged 14 to 17 regularly viewed pornography, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has already mentioned.
“The easy availability to children of online pornography, much of it extreme, violent and profoundly degrading, is of deepening concern. It can leave them feeling frightened, confused, depressed or upset. The number of Child Line counselling sessions regarding pornography more than doubled last year to over 1,100 with some young girls revealing they were being pressured to mimic scenes from adult films”.
The acting director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Sarah Green, has recently said:
“Surveys have shown that more than half of young people have seen online pornography by the age of 14, and that many see it without even seeking it out as links are shared on social networks. Research has found that young people’s exposure to porn is linked to beliefs that women are sex objects and to negative and even fearful attitudes towards sex”.
The NSPCC would like to see the Bill include social media platforms as well as ISPs and mobile phone operators. It believes that such sites should be held to account for the content transmitted and take more seriously their safeguarding duties to protect children and young people.
We know that the UK is facing a worrying increase in mental health conditions among the young, and the failure to regulate their access and exposure to extreme pornography can only increase the crisis. I hope that the Government can support this important Bill, as the Conservative manifesto proposals were in keeping with many of the ideas of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. I shall quote it again, as other noble Lords have done. It states that,
“we will stop children's exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material”.
There must be an independent regulator with the power to compel internet service providers to block sites which fail to include effective age verification. This Bill requires the Secretary of State to designate a body to be the licensing authority to license foreign pornographic services, gives the ability to set fees and other licensing conditions, and allows the authority to revoke a license and direct financial transaction providers not to conduct transactions between people in the UK and websites which fail to obtain a licence. It is believed that credit card companies would be happy to withdraw payment facilities from non-compliant sites. Only by financially threatening such sites can the authority have a real impact. So far, providers have shown no desire to accept responsibility, and self-regulation cannot be relied upon.
It is now time to act, for every civilised society acknowledges its primary and overwhelming obligation to the security and nurturing of its young, and any policies or practices in any field which are inconsistent with that obligation fall outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour. We as parliamentarians have a duty to support this Bill.
My Lords, the provisions of this Bill are an important, indeed essential, part of a robust strategy to protect young people and children from the dangers of exposure to inappropriate material. I welcome it warmly.
There is no doubting the widespread support for the aims of the Bill, welcomed by the previous Government when it was debated two years ago as a common objective. Today, I hope that the Minister can give substance to this shared ambition and welcome the Bill as a neat way of beginning to meet a manifesto commitment.
Opting in to receive adult or explicit material on the net must be a requirement and not just an objective or aspiration. Care for young people demands that, when the internet is an integral part of their lives and predominantly beneficial, such a requirement is needed.
I spoke of this Bill as an essential part of what needs to be done; we shall need to do more. Access to inappropriate or explicit material is a clear risk, but there is also the risk of grooming, exploitation and the taking and sharing of explicit, self-generated images. The speed of the internet and social media means that an error or a bit of experimenting quickly escalates as control is lost of images.
To enable young people to stay safe, it is vital that they themselves, not only their parents and other adults, are educated and empowered. The Bill puts welcome emphasis on educating adults—that is essential. We should not overemphasise the role of parents and other carers nor underestimate the pressures that young people face online from their peers as well as from adult perpetrators. The reality is that teenagers choose to explore their sexuality online these days in ways that people of my generation find difficult to comprehend, and even find offensive because online forums are a full and normal part of their lived experience.
In addition to statutory controls for safeguarding, it is also critical to give children and young people the tools and the language with which to understand where they put their boundaries, and when to say no when those boundaries are impinged upon. Education about online safety, which is key to the Bill, needs to be about more than just enabling parents to choose which websites their children see. It also, just as importantly, needs to be about helping young people to work out and enforce their own boundaries online.
When my children were at school there was a campaign called Just Say No. As your Lordships will no doubt recall, it was about drugs. However, I hear it echoing in my head around all kinds of boundary issues—sex, money, emotional manipulation, for instance. Perhaps in addition to internet settings we need a Just Say No campaign that enables children and young people to say no to invitations to share material with each other, or to look at material other people are trying to draw them into.
The increasing time that young people spend online means that for those professionals working with them the internet is an inescapable part of the role. Clear guidelines and safeguarding procedures now exist for how professionals can engage with young people in the workplace or in other real situations. In the church we strictly enforce the rule that no adult works alone with a child, there is always a DBS check and proper procedures are in place. However, we need to go beyond that. We need to ensure that in online relationships, as the internet is used more widely, there is proper training and support so that youth leaders, clergy and others who engage with the community online are engaging in ways that keep both the young people and the professionals safe.
I welcome and support the Bill. It is one important step in minimising access to harmful material. We must give increased emphasis on equipping children and young people for when they encounter this material—as they almost inevitably will—as well as doing our best to reduce their risk of exposure.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, once again, on raising the important issue of online safety.
In March 2014, the Authority for Television on Demand report, For Adults Only? Underage Access to Online Pornography, showed that at least 44,000 primary school children had accessed an adult website in the space of a single month, as well as 200,000 under-16s. These figures are staggering.
Access to this kind of material, not surprisingly, can have adverse effects. Take, for example, the story of the 12 year-old boy who raped his seven year-old sister after watching hardcore pornography on his Xbox. The Telegraph explained the details of the case, which was heard in Blackburn youth court. The boy had watched pornography at a friend’s house and this had resulted in the boy wanting to try out what he had seen. The consequences of the boy watching this material were no doubt immense, not only for him but for his entire family. The Government should certainly be congratulated on taking some action in this area but it falls short of what is required.
I know that they are proud of the agreement between the big four ISPs but the flaws associated with this arrangement are significant. First, there is the 14% of the market that is not covered and the many children affected. I am aware that although some of the smaller providers are not party to the agreement between the big four, they none the less offer good filtering options. Phoning around the smaller providers, however, suggests that while four out of 14 provide age verification that is nearly comparable with that provided by the big four, in other cases it is weaker and in one case non-existent. This is simply not good enough.
The Government cannot have it both ways, saying, on the one hand, that the protection provided by the big four is important but, on the other, that they want to settle for a solution that means a group of children will have less chance of protection when they could apply the approach agreed by the big four across the board by adopting the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. If the Government believe that what they have persuaded the big four to do is important for child protection—as I certainly do—to settle for not applying it to all households will create two classes of children. I hope that when the Minister responds she will acknowledge that the Government cannot have it both ways and that all children are worthy of the same level of respect, and thus the same chance of protection.
The fact that Conservative MEPs are saying that new European telecoms legislation means that the Government will now have to legislate for filters in any event makes the Howe Bill even more timely.
Secondly, the thing that bothers me about the filtering that is being provided by the big four is the lack of robust age verification in relation to disabling filters. I am delighted that the Conservative Party manifesto made a clear commitment to introduce age verification for all websites with pornographic content. That is very welcome indeed.
However, there is another context where age verification is badly needed. What happens if parents put filters in place but their children subsequently seek to lift them? I have been advised that this point was raised with the big four ISPs but they declined to provide age verification before processing requests for filters to be lifted. Instead, they offered to send an email to the account holder, who must by definition be an adult, telling them that the filter settings have been changed. The fact that 34% of people polled admit they would not open an email from their ISP for quite some time—and may, indeed, never open it—demonstrates, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has explained, how completely inadequate this arrangement is. How can this possibly be defended? I am delighted that Clauses 1 and 2 include age-verification requirements prior to raising filters and for the whole market, not only the four ISPs. Again, I hope that the Government will adopt this important provision.
Turning now to adult-content websites, there is no doubt that the ATVOD report, For Adults Only?, was a real wake-up call. I welcome the fact that the Government responded positively to the proposal in the report that the UK law regarding those offering R18 and unrated on-demand programme services should be tightened up. The introduction of the Audiovisual Media Service Regulations last year was very welcome.
However, serious problems remain. ATVOD was clear that the vast majority of the R18 material accessed in the UK comes from sites based outside the country. Some 23 of the 25 sites most accessed are located outside the UK. If we seek merely to regulate those seeking to access the UK market from the UK, we will engage with only the tip of the iceberg. Consider the Experian Hitwise statistics for UK visits to just six “tube” sites—again the figures are staggering. I understand that there are a total of 240 million hits from the UK in a single month to adult sites without any form of on-site child protection. None of these sites is based in the UK. Clauses 7 to 11 of the Online Safety Bill adopt the model that was introduced in the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014, and I believe that the same can be applied to these sites.
I assume that the Conservative manifesto commitment to introduce age verification for all sites showing pornography stands, given that most of the sites used by people in the UK to access pornography are not based in this country. I hope that the Government will support this Bill. Finally, I believe that the key to online safety is in education.
My Lords, I, too, very much support all aspects of the Online Safety Bill, but in the time available today I want to focus particularly on the issues raised by Clause 7 in Part 3: “Definition of a foreign pornographic service”. The question is how to regulate websites that originate outside of the UK, which are currently unregulated. I was very disturbed by the statistics in the report published last year by the Authority for Television on Demand. I am sure that noble Lords agree that it is concerning that in December 2013, some 44,000 primary school-age children visited an adult website from a PC or laptop—and that does not include the figures for other types of device. If we look at children aged between six and 17, the report estimates that at least 473,000 have accessed an adult internet service, mostly offshore. ATVOD also stated in its press release about the report:
“Most of the major offshore adult services are unregulated and allow free, unrestricted access to hardcore porn to visitors of any age—this includes 23 of the 25 adult websites most commonly accessed from the UK”.
This situation surely must be a concern to policymakers. ATVOD recommended in its report:
“One option would be to mirror the licensing requirements being introduced for foreign online gambling services. It may be possible to establish a similar licensing regime for foreign porn services whose services are being used in the UK”.
Other noble Lords have referred to this, and I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for bringing such a proposal to the House today.
A similar scheme was debated last year when the House considered amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on the second day of Committee of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. The noble Baroness reminded the Committee that technically, foreign-owned websites could be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, but reported that no such prosecutions had taken place since 2005. No other regulation of foreign-based websites exists, which means that they have no obligation to provide any of the age verification requirements that parents hope for—yet parents expect that sort of age verification to be available on our high streets when a young person buys a DVD. I am pleased to support the proposal in this Bill that ATVOD should also be ensuring that age verification is in place for 18-rated material as set out in Clause 6, and that it extends into the licensing scheme proposed in Part 3.
From a logical point of view, it seems unsustainable that the same situation does not apply online as it does offline when the material originates outside the EU. How can that be right? A young person may not be able to buy a DVD, but could in theory access the same content or stronger in a coffee shop with unfiltered wi-fi on the same high street. Indeed, when asked recently about the need for age verification of such websites, 74% of those questioned said that age verification should apply to websites based both in the UK and outside it.
One element that was not debated last year with a similar licensing scheme was the option of blocking payments to websites. I am pleased to see that the Gambling Commission is successfully using this approach with unlicensed gambling websites. In this regard, the publication on Monday of its 2014-15 annual report is exceptionally timely for the purposes of today’s debate. It states:
“Of the small number of illegal operators identified, some responded immediately to our request to stop operating, while others have been cut off from accessing the British market by the main payment providers and advertising platforms.
“Arrangements with payment service providers, platforms such as Google and Facebook and with advertisers are working well and we have received a great deal of support in disrupting the activities of the unlicensed operators. We have used these arrangements successfully, specifically with payment providers, on five occasions between
It is very encouraging to know that this approach works and I hope that noble Lords will support such an approach to foreign pornographic websites.
ATVOD, in its report from which I have already quoted extensively, states that it has been working with the UK payments industry, which has made it clear that without clear case law they cannot prevent payments for fear of legal challenge. Part 3 would give legal certainty. There is much more that I would like to say but I must have regard and respect for the time limit, so I will stop.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for her consistency of approach to bringing the attention of your Lordships’ House to the important issue of online safety for children. We are all aware of the advantages the virtual world offers but some are prepared to challenge this and to make mischief. This Bill needs to mean what it says on the tin; that is, access to any internet-enabled platform in the virtual world should have the right protection and foundation in place to prevent harm to our young people.
As Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, I am concerned about the many victims who fall prey to harmful material and predatory behaviour through online services. Children can access harmful content so easily online. This material might be accessed through computers, mobile phones, gaming systems or other internet-enabled devices, or through material made available through social networking sites, chat rooms, or other social media platforms. But regardless of where and how it is accessed, the bottom line is that our children need to be kept safe from harmful material and those who prey on them.
We have heard this week of the successes of protective filters that parents can apply on their home internet so that children cannot accidentally or even deliberately access adult content. This is a huge step forward. However, I remain concerned that there is a long way to go. Ofcom cannot be the sole enforcer of all internet providers. Its current regulatory role is difficult enough. I fear that to ask it, through this Bill, to regulate all internet service providers and mobile phone operators is to ask it to provide a regulatory role for the wider internet. We know only too well that to police the internet would be impossible. In fact, police officers up and down this country do tremendous work every day. What they see is truly unbelievable and harmful. We must thank them for everything they do to protect our society. We need to think about how the conditions we are attempting to place on internet service providers and other operators can be enforced and not just regulated.
Our children should be protected from harmful material but this needs to be holistic and about online safety for all harms and not simply about adult pornographic material. Our children can be harmed by so much more. By accessing certain material, children can easily become victims of crime. We have heard about child sexual exploitation and sexual grooming occurring online, and about children lured into accessing certain services or chat rooms and then being bullied, blackmailed, or exploited further. Our children need protecting from all this and parents have an important role to play, as do schools or other bodies. But can we fight for or demand more?
Children have much more technological knowledge than their parents. Despite our best efforts to introduce age verification processes and filters through this Bill, we need much more protection. We need our efforts to be well thought-out, future-proofed and conscious of the ways that these protections can be overcome or circumnavigated. So that we do not have these same discussions and debates time and again, we must keep up with technological changes.
Internet service providers will be integral in making sure that age verification controls work. The experience of the gambling industry has shown success with age verification controls but we have also seen, albeit a minority, some who find ways around these controls. I strongly believe in the spirit of this Bill and support the Government’s efforts, but for the sake of our children we need to take this further than pornographic material. Age restrictions should be considered for other harmful material; for example, extremist or offensive doctrine, certain chat rooms and other online opportunities where our children may be harmed. This will be a difficult and challenging task and I am aware of the progress that the Government have made so far. I commend the Minister because I know that she has the skills and talents, and that she does outstanding work and is very proactive in all sectors of the virtual world.
In the length of time given to two speakers in this important debate, a child will have been sexually groomed. This Bill cannot simply provide the perception that something is being done. We need a strong position on protecting our children and a clear method of enforcing that position. We need to move faster and smarter because the virtual world is catching up too quickly and we need to protect children now.
My Lords, this Bill has absolutely the right good intentions and I am not opposed to what it tries to do; namely, to protect our young from online inappropriate material and adult content. This also applies to other things which the young can access online. The real problem is whether the mechanism will work. Will trying to do it this way be effective? Because I have been involved in the internet and the IT world for a very long time, I do not think that it will and I will explain why. There are other things we should do. First, I declare an interest: I am the unpaid chair of the Digital Policy Alliance. We have been looking at this for some time and have a discussion group going on it.
I will talk about the practicalities and the real difficulties. The internet is complex and it can be all too easy to circumvent any controls put in if they are in the wrong place. The gambling controls referred to work because they are enforced at the end point—at one of the ends of the internet—and not by the system that routes the communications, which the ISPs are part of. That is where you connect in. An ISP is defined in the Communications Act as amended, which is mentioned in the Bill. The Act states that an internet service provider provides an internet access service that consists,
“entirely or mainly of the provision of access to the internet”.
It allocates an IP address; that is all it does. ISPs do not actually interfere with the transmission of material through it. They are basically just a connection. That is the challenge: everything goes through an ISP, but they do not do anything with it. They are like a telephone directory. You have a thing called a domain name server, which looks up the thing you have typed and routes you off to wherever it is going. That is pretty well it.
ISPs can interfere a little bit. People say that the Internet Watch Foundation and the Digital Economy Act managed to block sites. Yes, but what happens is that the website’s address is put on a blacklist and rerouted elsewhere automatically. It does not interfere with the transmission. Part of the problem with doing this at the ISP level is that it will not help with things such as Netflix and Amazon, where there is some unsuitable content on the website: you will block the whole of Amazon, Netflix or whatever. It cannot block selectively. What it comes down to is that you have to do it where the material is being accessed. The other trouble is that the person who switched on the computer in the morning, which is when the ISP knows who might have switched it on, is not necessarily the person using it later in the day. You also have to find out who is accessing the website. These things can be done.
There is a further problem: the EU is about to interfere with all this. The telecoms single market regulation protects the ISPs from having to do these sorts of things. It says, “You’re just a communications medium”. The EU is about to rewrite, or is in any case looking at, the audiovisual media services directive, which concerns some of these issues. That will be about European-wide stuff. The regulations apply directly to us. We cannot do anything about them. We can tamper with the directive, but maybe we should wait and see what comes out. I am not for waiting for the sake of it, but we have to take it into account.
In the mean time we can do something. This is being discussed in several groups because people want to find a solution to it. It has been noted that it also involves, for instance, tobacco, alcohol and gambling—although they are doing something about that effectively. E-cigarettes are now involved. There are crowdfunding sites where people are trying to invest in things. Education also has requirements of material for certain age groups. Also, one wants to protect children’s groups from overaged people trying to come in and access their little groups. Age verification in general will be of vital interest at any age, but all this requires age verification at the point of supply—where you access the websites—not at the point where you go on to the internet. They are the only ones who know what the requirement is, be it over the ages of 15, 18 or 21, or aged under 30.
One place where this is being discussed, which I am involved in, which is why I declared my interest, is in a neutral forum hosted by the Digital Policy Alliance. There, we have a cross-cutting group from a lot of different industries, because we want to produce something that can be used by everyone. You then put some teeth into how you enforce it. You could put some penalties in there that make people want to comply. The debate on this is being observed by government departments. There are a lot of different attitudes towards it as to what they want. The identity providers have one way of doing things; others have other ways. The important thing is that we should be able to identify any age range. The other thing that has come into this is that some of the foreign businesses are sitting in this because they want to do something about it too. They know that they are going to come under attack, particularly foreign suppliers of “adult content”, as they like to call it. They would like to do something that can be rolled out abroad as well. If that happens, we will suddenly get it globally. To me, that is very interesting.
Separately, the British Standards Institution is starting work on a publicly available specification or PAS, which is like a standard, that might do something about this. It will not specify an exact methodology or technology; this whole thing will be technology neutral. It will then come up with something that can be used when the Government formulate some regulations and laws around this. It can be used to say, “If you don’t comply at least to that standard, you’re in trouble and we’ll enforce some nasty stuff against you”. A prescriptive method, as in this Bill, I am afraid will kill a lot of the positive discussion and positive work being done on this. I would like the Bill to go on the backburner, but it has inspired the most useful conversation and has given it a huge shot in the arm to get discussions going fast.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, who is such a doughty campaigner on this issue. She said that this is her fourth Second Reading, which must be something close to a record. I think I have been in on all the debates. I have been watching her with interest. She is so clever at getting these things up and speaking so well about them. She set out the ambitions of the Bill with great clarity. In turn, it has set the tone for what has been a very interesting and good debate. I say at the very start that we on this side of the House support the Bill’s ambitions.
In passing, I ask the House to note that, until now—and, I hope, for a long time to come—the approach to the issues raised in this Bill has never split along party lines. We have been able to maintain broad agreement on all sides of the House about what should be the main thrust of policy.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, to what I think is her first appearance at the Dispatch Box. She must be quivering with nerves and worry about it. I reassure her that her experience and skills in this field mean that she is well equipped to lead policy in this area. I am sure that what she says will be of great interest and we look forward to it.
The answer to many of the issues that have been raised in this debate is education. Indeed, that is reflected in the Bill, although it comes quite late in a number of paragraphs. It will get us a long way down the road, but, as the noble Lord, Lord McColl, said in his refreshingly brief intervention—I am afraid that he is not in his place—education is necessary but it may not be sufficient.
I note from the Library’s helpful briefing note for this debate that in December 2014, the Government announced an extra £500,000 of funding for the Safer Internet Centre, which aims to provide advice to schools about online safety, which has also been added to the national curriculum. Recently, the Prime Minister also announced actions to tackle online child sexual abuse at an international level. I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on progress on both those issues.
Since the last debate in your Lordships’ House on this topic, I have been involved with the Metropolitan Police’s parliamentary programme. As part of that, I visited the child pornography unit. That visit shocked me considerably and has changed my mind about this issue. The volume of activity referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, in a very powerful intervention, and the growing problem of the way in which those who participate in this action do so through the dark web and encryption, means that the resources which are available to pursue this are very stretched. I pay tribute, as she did, to the staff of this unit for the exceptional work they do. I do not know how they do it. I certainly could not do it but their persistence and skill should be commemorated in some way. They are, of course, absolutely at the forefront of the protection of vulnerable children. I drew from my discussions with the staff in that unit the fact that there was a need for legislation to bolster the work they do. That is something we should bear in mind.
I noted that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, quoted in her opening remarks something that was said to her by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, about the difference in approach towards online and offline material in this area. There is a good foundation of statutory provision for offline material, which other noble Lords have mentioned, whereas online material is left to voluntary arrangements. Our position on this has been that self-regulation should be tried first. However, we have made it clear that if satisfactory agreements are not forthcoming on a voluntary, self-regulatory basis, we think that there is a case for legislation. So the question is: has this Bill’s time come?
As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said, the Conservative Party manifesto seems to imply that the Tories would introduce measures to compel pornographic sites to adopt age verification measures. Like others, I would be grateful if the Minister would say specifically and without doubt whether or not this is the Government’s policy. Clearly, this Bill is an opportunity to deliver that statutory underpinning—if it is there. The noble Baroness will tell us whether or not the Government are going to pick up this Bill, but it would certainly mean an early resolution of the points made by senior Ministers, including the Prime Minister, and would, I think, get her out of a difficult spot.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, I think there is a need to build on age verification by “following the money”. I understand that the credit card companies have said that they would happily withdraw payment facilities from non-compliant sites. The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, referred to technical issues. We should listen to him because there are problems with regard to, on the one hand, the internet being considered as merely a vehicle for communications and, on the other, the fact that it links up to services which may need to be regulated. We need to find a solution that is regulatory possible and compliant and technically feasible. Nevertheless, the idea that the money would not follow those who wish to reach unlicensed sites seems to be working in the gambling area, as we have heard, so that is something the Government should take advice on and possibly pursue.
This debate has been largely about children—rightly so—but, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, there are wider issues of cybersecurity in play, which we need to bear in mind. Also, as the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, reminded us, we have to consider social media sites and a much wider concern about bullying and the impact of peer-on-peer pressure through the internet. But there is also another dimension to this. Research shows that those who are vulnerable—those with disabilities, those in low socioeconomic groups and families who have suffered trauma—are also much more vulnerable when they are online. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester said, there is probably a much larger group of people who are at risk than simply children. Perhaps later stages of the Bill might address that point.
Finally, we have heard from the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, that there is an EU interest to be accommodated here. I would be grateful if the Minister could bring us up to date with what is happening in Europe, particularly on the telecoms single market directive. As I understand it, the final text of the directive will go for ratification to the relevant European institutions later this year. I understand it is likely that the directive will require every member state to enact legislation to allow the deployment of parental-control software at network level. We do not currently have such legislation so the implication is that what we currently do in the UK, which is largely voluntary, would not be able to continue once the directive is in force. Clearly, if that is the case, the Bill could provide the vehicle for the Government not only to do some good in this area but—perhaps uniquely—to prove their good EU credentials, and get ahead.
My Lords, I take this opportunity to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for her tireless work and determination to protect children from harmful content online and for introducing this most important Bill. I am pleased that she agrees that progress has been made over recent years and we acknowledge that her continued commitment to pressing the Government on online safety has enabled the voice of this House to be heard. I also thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this most important debate.
Online safety is a major priority for the Government. Under the Prime Minister’s leadership over the past five years, the UK has become the world leader in the fight to combat online abuse, exploitation and content that is harmful for children. My appointment as the first Minister for Internet Safety and Security is just one marker of our commitment and urgent intent to continue this vital work to keep children safe as they experience all that the internet has to offer.
The free availability of online pornography is a horrific problem that Governments across the world have sought to tackle—with very limited success. As many noble
Lords have said, the internet has no borders and therefore the UK cannot solve these problems alone. International co-operation is vital and the #WePROTECT global alliance, which we created in the previous Government, has shown us what can be achieved when government, industry, law enforcement and NGOs work together. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, the #WePROTECT summit held in December last year brought together 50 countries and international organisations in a global statement of action and commitment to build databases and core competencies around the world to identify child sexual abuse material, working with Interpol to ensure that we can better identify victims and track down the criminals who are responsible for these horrific crimes.
I emphasise from the outset how strongly I believe the motivations of the House to be aligned in this area, and state my personal commitment to this work. This was clear throughout today’s debate and, while great progress has been made, we remain acutely aware of the risks and dangers that young people face online. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, mentioned the psychological effects and neuroadaptation, and the potential for sexual addiction. We recognise and note the urgency of this issue. That is why we made a commitment in the Conservative Party manifesto to protect children from harmful content,
“by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material”,
and we are committed to that.
Before I address the various parts of the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, I will reiterate that as part of that commitment we are determined to hold the adult industry to account for its business practices which, inadvertently or not, cause distress and harm to children. We entirely agree with the sentiment behind the noble Baroness’s Bill. We are deeply concerned about the ease with which minors can access pornography, and the effect it can have on their sexual development and overall health and well-being. The noble Baroness makes excellent suggestions and we are grateful to her for introducing the Bill. However, much of what it proposes is either already happening or will be the subject of the Government’s own considerations in meeting the manifesto commitment. I assure the noble Baroness, and the House, that the Government are committed to further action to address specifically the issues raised today and that we will bring forward our own proposals.
For further clarity, I will briefly address the three parts of the Bill. The first part would place additional duties on UK internet service providers, mobile phone operators, Ofcom and the Secretary of State in relation to the provision of filters and online safety information. As many noble Lords have mentioned today, we already have a robust filters regime in place in the UK. More than 90% of consumers are offered a choice to configure their internet service easily through family-friendly filters. All mobile operators in the UK now automatically set filters to be default-on and only adults, who must provide proof of age, can turn these off. The major public wi-fi providers have made family-friendly wi-fi available wherever children are likely to be accessing the internet unsupervised. These are significant achievements but we acknowledge that there is much more work to be done, as one child being harmed is one child too many.
The noble Baroness has expressed concerns that children may be able to get around these filters. While no solution will ever be foolproof, three-quarters of parents in the UK are confident that children are unable to bypass these tools. But to mitigate any further risk, as has been said today, ISPs email the main account holder when filter settings are set or changed. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Browne, raised the concern that households served by smaller, filterless providers must be taken into consideration. It is important to note that these providers state at installation and on their marketing materials that they do not have child safety credentials. However, parents must remain vigilant and engage with children about their internet use.
Your Lordships may have read in the news and heard from other noble Lords today that recent European regulations around net neutrality, which were agreed in June, will restrict ISPs from blocking access to content. This will impact our family-friendly filters regime but I reassure the House that throughout the negotiations, we have made sure that our current world-class child protection measures will remain. We will take all steps necessary to ensure that we are able to protect children from harmful content and that our current regime will stay in place, in line with the new regulations.
Returning to the provisions in the noble Baroness’s Bill, educational information for parents and consumers is today widely available and accessible on providers’ websites and through a range of NGOs and organisations that offer advice. Putting these well-established practices and activities into legislation is therefore unnecessary. While it is not mentioned in the noble Baroness’s Bill, this Government have also recognised the need for a robust education programme in schools. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, feels strongly about this issue. As of September 2014, e-safety is now a compulsory part of the national computing curriculum. In response to the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, my colleagues at the Department for Education are keen to take further action to strengthen online safety education and are exploring options through personal, sexual and health education, the national computing curriculum, cyberbullying and statutory guidance. This will be supported by the work of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety.
We also support wholeheartedly the iRights campaign of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, which is gaining traction in the UK and around the world. It seeks to ensure that internet and digital technologies are designed and delivered around the needs of young people.
The second part of the noble Baroness’s Bill would require on-demand programme services in the UK to have specific age verification schemes in place. It would also extend the current regime to cover content classified by the BBFC as equivalent to 18 as well as to R18. The Authority for Television on Demand, ATVOD, already regulates video on demand content that might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of minors, and requires robust age verification, such as through credit card checks. Our current regime, with its classification system, stems from the EU audiovisual media services directive, which is now being reviewed in Brussels and will focus on the protection of minors. The Government and key stakeholders will contribute to this review process. At this stage, we would be unwise to pre-empt the review by making any changes to existing legislation.
The third part of the Bill concerns the licensing of foreign pornographic services. As I have said, we are committed to requiring that adult sites introduce age verification control. None of the 10 most popular sites in the UK for pornography access requires robust age controls. This is clearly unacceptable; I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, on this point. Companies delivering content in the UK must make best commercial efforts to ensure that these sites are behind age verification controls. We will make sure that they do.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked about a point raised previously by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. In the offline world, DVDs containing explicit pornographic content are subject to age controls in licensed sex shops. I assure my noble friend Lord Framlingham that my department will be consulting on proposals in due course to develop ways to bring online content in line with physical media in this regard. We will consider the noble Baroness’s solution among other options that have been put forward.
We have already solicited feedback and advice from ATVOD, the BBFC, the Digital Policy Alliance and representatives of the adult industry in the UK and abroad. Much work is under way. I am particularly supportive of the idea being pursued by the Digital Policy Alliance and the British Standards Institution, which was mentioned today by the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, of a federated approach to age verification. This is particularly promising as it offers us scope to develop a “verify once, use many times” model for adult sites and also for gambling and e-commerce. As my noble friend Lady Newlove mentioned, we must ensure that this applies to all harmful content, not just to pornographic material. The approach put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and the Digital Policy Alliance is a very promising development indeed.
No system can be perfect and some minors will always be able to find ways around any measures that we put in place. We must not be naive. We need to give careful thought to what solutions will make the biggest impact in a proportionate manner. While the protection and welfare of children online is our top priority, I want to be clear that the Government have no wish to restrict adults’ access to legal pornographic content. This is about protecting young people from harm.
In my meeting this week with the noble Baroness to discuss the Bill, we confirmed that we are happy to consider the approach that she sets out in her Bill, alongside other options we are considering. Our ambitions in fact exceed the scope of the Bill. We need a multifaceted approach to prevent harm to children and young people in general, grounded in robust evidence, and we are taking action in all the areas addressed by the Bill. We will consider any proposals that are likely to be effective and proportionate to tackle harmful content online and we welcome your Lordships’ suggestions. We will achieve our manifesto commitment, while addressing recent developments in European regulations, and will reach out to children through education and support parents in the crucial role that they must play. I also confirm that the child abuse and exploitation online issue is being considered as part of the strategic defence and security review, and I will come back to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on this point.
There is clearly a shared resolve in this House, as there can be no higher priority than keeping children safe online.
My Lords, I am most grateful to everyone who has taken part in today’s debate. It has ranged very widely, and I was—obviously—particularly interested to hear what the Minister had to say on all the points that have been raised by noble Lords who have spoken. I gained the impression that the manifesto commitment will be achieved, albeit not at this moment, not least because of some of the interesting but clearly difficult proposals being debated on the European scene. So I think we will have to wait for some time.
The whole business about protecting children was fairly crucial in what noble Lords have been saying, and I agree with the noble Baroness about that: it is about protecting children. But one or two points were raised that are even wider than that. I would have thought that the issue of adults with pornographic addictions was pretty concerning to most people who think about the effect that this may have on behaviour right across all relationships between men and women—and, indeed, attitudes to what is and is not acceptable behaviour.
I am very grateful to all noble Lords for what has been said today, and I very much look forward to the various debates that will no doubt take place in the forthcoming months. I shall try to keep in touch with what is going on in the European scene, because that will be particularly important to how we progress in determining the future of this very important area. I thank all noble Lords very much indeed.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.