My Lords, I have some concerns about the regulations before us, although I have to say that the Government are trying to do something that is very difficult, if not impossible, which is to regulate the internet. I am perhaps not as enthusiastic as my noble friend Lady Benjamin on this.
These regulations do not adequately protect children from pornography or, to use the Minister’s words in his introduction, they are not the complete answer. No system of age verification can do that as, as other noble Lords have said, pornography is available on sites other than commercial pornography sites and the potential controlling measures could not in reality be used for those other sites. Asking UK internet service providers to block Tumblr and Twitter is not a runner in the real world, and these are free-to-use services, so asking financial institutions not to take payments for non-compliant sites would not work either.
In fact, using a virtual private network to appear to be in a country that does not have age verification is a free and easy way to get around any age-verification process. As the noble Lord and my noble friend said, we are the first country to try this and therefore there are plenty of countries that one can pretend to be in in order to get round the system.
Age verification without statutory guidelines to protect the privacy of adults seeking to access legal pornographic material on the internet is a significant threat to people’s privacy but, having said that, the arrangements that the British Board of Film Classification has made around a voluntary code, where certification is given to companies providing age verification to give people some confidence that their privacy will be protected, is a second-best but welcome measure.
These measures, in addition to creating the risks to privacy and failing to thwart curious and determined young people, are of use in preventing children accidentally stumbling across pornography, as my noble friend Lady Benjamin said, but only on commercial porn websites. Does the Minister feel that this could as easily be achieved by making it mandatory for websites that contain pornography, whether one-third or more of the website, to have “Adult only” warnings before the browser of the internet can access pornographic images as opposed to an age-verification system?
The other use of these regulations is an attempt to restrict access to extreme pornography, which is a bit like Brexit—it is not enough for some and goes too far for others, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, indicated. I am not sure that, as some have suggested, age verification limits access to educational LGBT+ resources; I am not sure that commercial porn sites contain such beneficial information. As I have said before and will say again, what is really needed is compulsory, age-appropriate, inclusive sex and relationship education for all children, including telling even very young children what they should do if they encounter online pornography—that is, to turn off the computer immediately and inform a parent or guardian—as that is unfortunately something that will inevitably happen despite these regulations.
My overall message is that we should not delude ourselves that these measures are going to be wholly effective in preventing children viewing online pornography or that they will adequately protect the privacy of adults seeking to access legal material on commercial porn websites and that as a result we should be careful that we do not lull ourselves into a false sense of security just by passing these measures.