My Lords, I welcome the Government’s decision finally to lay this guidance and the regulations for the House’s approval. It has not come a moment too soon. As the Minister knows, I have been concerned for some time that we should progress implementation of Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act and stop dragging our feet while harm is being done to our children. Almost every week, I hear of cases of children as young as four experiencing the traumatic horror of accidently discovering pornographic material online. This can be devastating for young minds, causing them anxiety and depression.
This is ground-breaking child protection legislation and we should be proud, because it will be the first of its kind in the world. The UK is leading the way in online safety and setting an example for other countries that are looking to introduce similar controls. We can demonstrate that it is possible to regulate the internet to ensure that children can be protected from online pornographic material that we would never let them near in the offline world.
There is an abundance of evidence showing how harmful this material can be and, significantly, that children often do not seek it out but stumble across it. Research by the NSPCC found that children are as likely to stumble across pornography by accident as to search for it deliberately. Also significantly, the NSPCC reports that children themselves support age-verification. Eighty per cent of young people felt that age-verification is needed for sites that contain adult content.
The age-verification regulator, the British Board of Film Classification, has been working on implementing the legislation for a number of months and has kept me briefed on its progress. I am confident that it will successfully deliver age-verification in the UK to prevent children stumbling across and accessing pornography. Its guidance sets out principle-based standards which will encourage even more innovation and allow for new means of age-verifying consumers in the future. This is important because if this regime is to work, age-verification needs to be robust and privacy must be protected.
My concern, as always, is with child protection, but I recognise the need to ensure that this regime is seamless enough to prevent commercial incentives to avoid compliance. For this reason, I am pleased that the BBFC has said in the annex to the guidance that it intends to introduce a voluntary scheme to bring in a higher privacy standard than the GDPR—which is already of a high standard.
I would like the Minister to reassure us that this scheme will be in place shortly and that the Government will fully support it. It is most important that, as the age-verification regulator, the BBFC will have a range of enforcement powers, including requesting ancillary service providers and payment service providers to withdraw their services to non-compliant websites, and instructing internet service providers to block them. These powers should be highly effective in achieving the legislation’s objectives and should be used as swiftly as possible to encourage compliance. I ask the Minister: how will the Government encourage ancillary service providers, who can only be “requested” to take action, to co-operate fully with the BBFC? I have been told by the BBFC that PayPal, Visa and MasterCard have already indicated that they will withdraw services where there is non-compliance. I also welcome the support that I understand will be given by the ISPs and mobile network operators. Their role will be crucial.
While I welcome the regulations and guidance before us today, I want to put on record my great sadness that when Part 3 is implemented under their direction, this will not block non-photographic child sex abuse images, which it is illegal to possess. The vast majority of non-photographic child sex abuse images accessed within the UK, which can be computer generated and incredibly lifelike, are beamed into Britain from websites in other jurisdictions beyond the easy reach of UK law, or indeed the Internet Watch Foundation. Instead of seizing what was an effective enforcement mechanism for our non-photographic child sex images legislation, sadly, amendments were put forward to prevent the regulator using the one enforcement tool which could work in addressing this problem: IP blocking. Rather than waiting for the review of the terms of Part 3 in a year or 18 months’ time, I urge the Government to take action now by giving time to support the very short Digital Economy Act amendment Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. It has only one or two clauses—we might discount the clause dealing with extent—and could address this issue.
I am also disappointed that the regulations before us do not cover all online pornography, for example on social media and through search engines. There is plenty to be seen out there. I understand that the BBFC is set to report back to Government 12 months from these regulations entering into force, and annually thereafter. I believe it may recommend alternative or additional means of achieving the legislation’s child protection objectives. I look forward to seeing what recommendations it makes to protect children further online and to help make the UK the safest place for children to be online. I can assure your Lordships that I will be monitoring its progress closely.
I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that the Government will take a flexible and proactive approach if changes need to be made to reflect changes in technology or behaviour. This is such an important child protection measure that we must all give it the support it deserves. Children should not be able to access pornographic material. While this law might not stop all access, it will act as a speed bump to save a child’s mind from being blighted for life. I often visit Rye Hill prison near Rugby, which houses only sex offenders—over 680 of them. Many of them say to me that they wish they had not been exposed to pornography at an early age, and would do anything to prevent children today being able to do the same and thereby becoming addicted to porn.
This has been like running a marathon but we are nearing the finish line and taking huge strides in the right direction, as this sets a fundamentally important precedent in online regulation. As I always say, childhood lasts a lifetime, so let us give children happy memories as they go forward.