My Lords, I am very glad to be taking part in this debate on a topic that I have raised in this House on numerous occasions. As the number of people who use the internet and the range of things they use it for expand, we all face new challenges in balancing the good with the potentially harmful. I commend the Government and the Ministers involved in this for rising to the challenge.
The well-being of our children and young people online is at the forefront of this document and is something I have worked at and with, in different ways, over a number of years. I very much welcome the Government’s reiteration of their commitment,
“to support parents in preventing and dealing with online harms”.
I am particularly pleased that, since the publication of the White Paper, the Government have announced that the age verification of pornographic websites will finally come into effect on
“Steps companies should take to ensure children are unable to access inappropriate content, including guidance on age verification, content warnings and measures to filter and block inappropriate content”.
I have also been active in supporting family-friendly filtering by mobile phone operators and internet service providers and am concerned to read the report, Collateral Damage in the War Against Online Harms, published last week by Top10VPN and the Open Rights Group, suggesting that these filters are potentially harmful rather than advantageous. The Minister and I have had discussions about this over the years. I have never suggested that filtering is a panacea for parents; it is merely one tool in their toolbox for supporting their children as they grow up in this increasingly digital world. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to this report.
The White Paper sets out the Government’s intention for a new online media literacy strategy. I have always argued for educating the public on the options before them to manage their technology use, and especially to help equip parents to raise their children in an increasingly digital world. I welcome the inclusion within the remit of the strategy of:
“Developing media literacy approaches to tackling violence against women and girls online.”
I hope the Minister, will be able to expand on the plans in this area and how they tie in with the commitment in the Ending Violence against Women and Girls—2016 - 2020—Strategy Refresh, that the Government are,
“working to better understand whether links exist between consumption of online pornography and harmful attitudes towards women”,
and that the Government will,
“commission research in order to better understand the links between consuming pornography and attitudes to women and girls more broadly”.
I would be grateful if the Minister would give us an update on how these projects are progressing and when he expects the research to be completed.
I recognise that this White Paper cannot cover all online harms and does not intend to do so. The Minister made that clear in the Statement on
During the debate on the regulations, I also raised my concerns that the final version of the Digital Economy Act left a significant loophole with respect to non-photographic and animated child sex abuse images. This means that the age-verification regulator cannot ask internet service providers to block websites that contain these images. The same point was made in the other place, to which the Minister, Margot James MP, said:
“That strikes me as a grotesque loophole”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/12/18; col. 612.]
I am very pleased that, since the debates at the end of last year, the Internet Watch Foundation has adopted a new non-photographic images policy and URL block list, so that websites that contain these images can be blocked by IWF members. It allows for network blocking of non-photographic images to be applied to filtering solutions, and it can prevent pages containing non-photographic images being shown in online search engine results. In 2017, 3,471 reports of alleged non-photographic images of child sexual abuse were made to the IWF; the figure for 2018 was double that, at 7,091 alleged reports. The new IWF policy was introduced only in February, so it is early days to see whether this will be a success. The IWF is unable to remove content unless that content originates in the UK, which of course is rare. The IWF offers this list on a voluntary basis, not a statutory basis as would occur under the Digital Economy Act. Can the Minister please keep the House informed about the success of the new policy and, if necessary, address the loopholes in the legislative proposal arising from this White Paper?
We are debating a document that is clearly a step in the right direction, and I am sure that all noble Lords certainly congratulate the Government on that. I also very much look forward to hearing the Minister address some of the many points raised by other Members, both before I spoke and following me.