Online Harms White Paper - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:50 pm on 30th April 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 6:50 pm, 30th April 2019

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 15 July. I and other noble Lords will be monitoring the launch and the effect of this closely. I welcome, too, the intention to bring in a duty of care for social media companies. I shall follow the detail of this debate with interest as well, especially the role of the proposed new regulator, which will issue codes of practice on preventing children accessing inappropriate content, including codes 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 8 April. However, given the focus of the paper on social media companies and child sexual abuse, I was expecting it to cover two areas which are missing. I was hoping he would have addressed some of the issues that were raised in this House and the other place about the limitations of the extent of the Digital Economy Act 2017. When we debated the regulations that will determine which websites will be required to have age verification, on December 11 last year, there was considerable comment about the current exclusion of social media websites. The Minister said that this issue might be addressed by the White Paper: sadly, it is not. It would be helpful to understand the Government’s decision not to include social media within age verification when so much of the White Paper is about the responsibilities of social media, and children accessing pornography is one of the harms in the scope of the White Paper.

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.