Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:35 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 4:35 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, in my contribution to the debate on the gracious Speech I want to address two pressing online safety concerns which I very much hope the Government will address during this Parliament: adult content filters and the need to bring online enforcement standards into line with offline enforcement standards.

The Government’s current approach to adult content filters, which cover a broad range of adult-only content including pornography, violence and gambling, is addressed through the voluntary filtering agreement of the big four ISPs which was negotiated in 2013. However, as I have said on a number of occasions, I do not believe that this voluntary agreement goes far enough. It does not apply to all ISPs, and there is no transparency about filtering standards, with different companies embracing different regimes. According to the latest figures from Ofcom, 99% of households with children have access to the internet, but the number of parents using filters is pretty small, about one-third, and lack of knowledge of filters remains high—42% of parents of five to 15 year-olds and 35% of parents of three to four years.

One way of dealing with this variable take-up would be require all ISPs to provide default-on internet services to all households. In this scenario, internet service providers would automatically place family-friendly filters and controls on their services unless an internet user over the age of 18 chooses to opt in to receiving internet services with adult content. Sky has already taken the initiative to adopt the default-on approach to its services and has seen a significant increase in the number of households using its filtering options to 62% of existing customers. This is significantly more than any of the other big four. Evidence of the effectiveness of default-on was presented to the House of Lords Communications Committee in the previous Parliament. Ofcom said:

“ISPs that have had the most success with take up—if success is measured by take up—are those that have adopted a default-on process ... Default-on does drive take up. It is as simple as that”.

The committee’s report, Growing up with the Internet, recommended,

“all ISPs and mobile network operators should be required not only to offer child-friendly content control filters, but also for those filters to be ‘on’ by default for all customers. Adult customers should be able to switch off such filters”.

Confronted by this evidence, the committee made the right recommendation:

In this context, we cannot pretend that we are seriously committed to child safety online yet turn a blind eye to those ISPs which continue to present the filter options in a format that we know will result in significantly fewer children being protected than would be the case if they embraced default on. The committee’s recommendation embraces three key elements. First, it addresses all ISPs, not just the big four that subscribe to the voluntary agreement. Secondly, it says that all ISPs should be required to offer family-friendly filters. At present, no ISPs are required to do so: it is entirely voluntary. Thirdly, it says that all ISPs should be required to provide adult content filters, in the default-on format—something that only Sky does.

I look forward to the Government’s response to the committee’s report and sincerely hope that these measures will be incorporated in the Green Paper on internet safety and future legislation. This will be particularly important given the Government’s aspiration for the digital charter—that the UK should become,

“the safest place in the world to be online”.

My second concern is the outstanding issue of the definition of “extreme pornography”, versus the original definition of “prohibited material” used in Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017. Your Lordships’ House debated these definitions on Report on 20 March, and I do not intend to rehearse those arguments again today. At Third Reading, I expressed my sadness at how the Bill had left this House, especially that we had removed the power from the regulator to take enforcement action against, among other content, animated child sex abuse images that fall under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009—images that were reported to be present on Facebook just days after Third Reading.

The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Ashton, said in response to my concerns about the definitions that,

“there is still work to do”.—[Official Report, 5/4/17; col. 1094.]

The Minister in the other place subsequently said, in respect of the definitions,

“we regard that as unfinished business”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/4/17; col. 1146.]

Mrs Claire Perry, the honourable Member for Devizes, said that the Minister,

“has assured us from the Dispatch Box and in meetings of his firm commitment to making sure that these definitional questions are resolved in such a way as to enable all parties to support them”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/4/17; col. 1146.]

I am very keen to hear from the Minister how the Government intend to quickly resolve this unfinished business in such a way as to enable all parties to support the definitions before Part 3 comes into effect.

Section 29 of the Digital Economy Act requires a review of the definitions in Part 3, including “extreme pornography”, between 12 and 18 months after Part 3 comes into effect. If there is cross-party recognition that the definitions need more work—and indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said on Report that the definition of extreme pornography “is not ideal”— we should be doing our utmost to resolve the unfinished business to ensure that Part 3 comes into effect with, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones said, definitions,

“based on something deliverable online and offline with equal strength”.—[Official Report, 20/3/17; col. 37.]

I shall be introducing a Bill to the House highlighting this challenge on 10 July.