Online Pornography (Commercial Basis) Regulations 2018 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 11th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords) 6:30 pm, 11th December 2018

My Lords, this has been a very good debate, and I thank the Minister for his introduction, which allows us to range quite widely over the issues in play. I would observe—and I would not have it any other way—that over the last couple of years, the noble Lord, Lord Ashton, and I, and, indeed, one or two noble Lords who have spoken today, have spent a great deal of time together discussing and debating legislation and regulations which might apply to all pornography, and specifically in relation to protecting children. Some people bond over a coffee, football, the arts or shared hobbies; we do it with porn. In that sense I am with the right reverend Prelate who felt that he had to live it down in some way. I share his pain.

We have covered a lot of ground in this area and, although on the surface it is quite a narrow issue, getting the balance right between personal liberty and necessary regulation is never easy, and it is particularly hard to do given the technological changes that we are witnessing—in particular, the way in which information is now flowing through the internet.

I have been reading back at some of the debates we had on the Digital Economy Act, as have others, and at some of the original regulations that we have already looked at which appointed the BBFC as the is the AV regulator. I want to make it clear that we do not want to hold up these statutory instruments—as noble Lords have already mentioned, they are already quite delayed. I have come to a provisional conclusion that what we have before us will not achieve what the Government intend, and may actually have unintended consequences and run the risk of stalling other, better alternatives, which I think we may have to consider in due course. Others have said this before, but it is worth repeating: these regulations are not future proof; they are not comprehensive; they do not catch social media; they do not deal with overseas providers; they will not deal with non-photographic images and other more elaborate ways in which pornography is now being purveyed; and they do not bind together the companies involved to try to find a solution.

I will go through the regulations and make comments which are very similar to those that are already there and I will speak a bit to my own regret Motion. I will come back at the end of my remarks to where I think we need to go if we are going to take this issue further.

The general point on which I wish to start, before going on to the points raised by the scrutiny committees, is the argument I made before that a lot of the difficulty we have today with these regulations stems from the fact that we are trying to give statutory powers to a body that is essentially a private company. This is compounded—this comes up in the committee reports —by the fact that Parliament is not used to seeing regulations over which it has no direct authority, because they will be implemented through an arrangement between the department and a private body: the BBFC. In a sense, we are reading largely independent guidelines, fulfilling a mandate agreed within legislation but not subject to the specific scrutiny of this House, or indeed of the other place.

The BBFC is not a statutory body. It has no royal charter, so it cannot be assumed that it will act in the public good. It has a reasonable record, and it has statutory responsibility for videos and DVDs—but its work, for example in classifying films shown in the cinema, is done without any statutory authority. Will this issue be picked up in either the White Paper or the review which the Minister mentioned in his introduction?

My second point relates to the first in the sense that we have still not bottomed out the question of appeals that might arise as a result of the decisions being taken by the BBFC. We tried in the Digital Economy Bill to exert considerable pressure on the Government to get a separate regulator appointed as an appeals body. Indeed, we suggested that Ofcom would have been appropriate. Now we have a situation where the BBFC is the organisation of preliminary determinations and the body of first instance, but it is also the body for appeals. In principle, I do not think it is right that any body, statutory or otherwise, should be both judge and jury in its own cases. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. Can this be reviewed as part of the process?

Thirdly, we are skating round the question of what exactly is obscene material. Why do we have two existing definitions—one that is repeated in full in the documents before us but also one that derives from the definition of extreme pornography which is in another Bill? We had a good discussion about this during the DEA. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, mentioned some of the ideas that were considered and turned down at that time, but it was also raised in the Data Protection Bill—so it will not go away. I think that in the review that is coming, it is really important that we nail what exactly we are trying to say. Either it has to be done in terms of perception or in terms of physical activities. I do not think that it can be both.

Turning to the instruments themselves, on the electronic communications one, which was referenced by Sub-Committee B of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and the Joint Committee, the issue seemed to be, as has already been said, the rather odd definition of a “commercial basis”. We are looking for assurances from the Minister in relation to how that will apply, particularly in relation to children who come across internet sources which do not fall within the criteria specified. The second point, which has also been picked up, is the question of one-third of the overall content, which is a very odd way of trying to approach what I think is a sensible idea—that there should be some de minimis limit on what is considered a commercial provider of pornography, but measuring it in the way that has been suggested. Even with the comments made by the department to the committee, the Government have not taken that trick. I look forward to the Minister’s comments in the hope that he will deal with some of the examples given by the Joint Committee, which seem to raise issues.

On the AV guidance contained within the statutory instrument on that matter, again there are suggestions from both committees. The first point is the rather nuanced one made by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that, as the BBFC has not provided an exhaustive list of approved age-verification solutions, the Minister himself should explain more fully the types of arrangement which were deemed adequate. He may find that that is better done by correspondence.

The question raised by several speakers of why the Government have not brought forward the power under Section 19 to impose financial penalties is the focus of my regret Motion, and I shall deal with that now. Both Sub-Committee B and the Joint Committee found this a very strange decision, and others have mentioned it as well. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond in full. The argument is very straightforward. Since we have doubts about the whole process and the concerns that exist are about the lack of effective solutions to protect children, one would have thought that the only way in which we can make progress on this is to ensure that the regulator has the effective firepower to get compliance if required to do so. It is interesting that in the documentation, and in the other regulation before us, search engines are fingered. Providers of IT services and providers of advertising can be hit. It is clear from the parallel situation in the gambling world that the support of the payment providers has been absolutely crucial in stamping out illegal practices there. Why have the Government not taken these powers?

On the same issue, but approaching it from the other end, I had problems with the guidance about a non-compulsory, additional, voluntary, non-statutory assessment and certification of age-verification solutions package, which is shown in annexe 5 of the documents before us. I gather that it will be an external agency, probably one of the large auditing firms. I found this very difficult to understand, and would be grateful if the Minister could explain what exactly is going on here. How is it that the ICO, an independent statutory body, is down as having developed this solution in consultation with the BBFC? If that is the case, it seems that its independence has been compromised and I do not see how that can work. In any event, adding another non-mandatory voluntary system seems to be just another way of complicating an already difficult area, as well as raising considerable issues of privacy along the lines raised by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. Is this a wise step to take at the very start of a new venture? The whole question in relation to making a success of this seems to be in doubt. Will the Minister comment?

Finally, during the debate we held on the first order in this clutch of statutory instruments, which confirmed the BBFC as the age-verification regulator, the Minister confirmed that it was not the BBFC’s job to determine whether what is being offered on its sites to adult users is lawful. Can the Minister confirm that, despite the slightly ambiguous wording in some places in the draft guidance, the role of the BBFC is, as stated in the regulations, limited to assessing that a person offering such services,

“has met with requirements of section 14(1) of the Act, to secure that pornographic material is not normally accessible by children and young people under 18”?

In conclusion, I ruminated earlier about whether this was the right approach, given the need to get a proper grip of the situation. Let us put in context the fact that, through the Data Protection Act, we have set up and now brought to fruition a data ethics and innovation commission, which will deal with issues of personal data, privacy and the way in which they interrelate. We have begun to see the new, age-appropriate design approach to the way in which internet service providers have to look after the rights of children who get on to their sites. We have discussed the precautionary principle in relation to internet services more generally.

Finally, I will pose a question to the Minister. We have in front of us top-down, traditional approaches to regulation: setting limits, engaging in the possibility of serious action if the limits are breached, and making sure that—as far as possible—we are able to contain a situation that we think is now unacceptable. However, the only way to get by on this is if the companies themselves are involved, so a duty of care approach might be much more fruitful as a way forward. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that.