Age Verification - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:13 pm on 20th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Digital) 2:13 pm, 20th June 2019

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. This is unfortunate to say the least, and it means these AV requirements will be put in place nearly three years after the original Digital Economy Act was passed. If the Minister does the maths, he will find it has been three years since they were incorporated into the Act.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked all the right questions and made a comment about the professionalism of our Civil Service. But I find it staggering that, if you recall, we had exactly the same situation with the Video Recordings Act when notification did not take place. We all had to come back here and re-pass aspects of that Act because that notification had not taken place. I do not understand why that experience was not engraved on every heart in the DCMS or Home Office. I think it was a Home Office requirement at the time, but I dare say the people themselves transferred to the DCMS subsequently. In those circumstances, will compensation be available to companies that have developed age-verification solutions and gone through the voluntary certification and assessment process in anticipation of the guidance going live this July? I would expect nothing less.

During the passage of the Digital Economy Act, we on these Benches agreed in principle with the concept of age verification for pornographic sites for the purposes of child protection, but we wanted greater safeguards in the Bill in terms of third-party verification and privacy. Sadly, that did not happen. My noble friend Lord Paddick and I argued in 2017 for statutory third-party age verification and queried that last year when the regulator was nominated as the BBFC.

What is the current level of voluntary operation of age-verification methods, in response to the guidance or as an independent action? Does any site operate a voluntary age-verification process? If so, are such processes now exclusively third party, which was the essence of our original amendment and why we felt that that was an important privacy aspect? Explicitly, what will be the procedure for the re-approval of the guidance? Will it be by the negative or the affirmative procedure?

My noble friend Lord Paddick argued last year for a much greater commitment to compulsory age-appropriate sex and relationship education for all children, including telling children what they should do if they encounter online pornography. That is an important other side of the coin. What resource is devoted to this increasingly important aspect of sex education? What difference will the new DNS over HTTPS protocol make to the eventual ability of the BBFC to enforce these requirements or to force internet service providers to comply?

The Secretary of State refers in the Statement to the implementation of the online harms White Paper, which is strongly related to the age-verification agenda. The Minister knows that we have reservations about over-hasty legislation; we believe that pre-legislative scrutiny would be wise and would iron out some of the scope and definitional problems. There are conflicting views about the width of the duty of care and, on the other hand, the dangers of being over-prescriptive. There are many voices still to be heard before we can be sure that the legislation will be sound. Is not a draft Bill the way forward?

There is no reason, however, why Ofcom should not be designated early after the end of the consultation—after all, it has the clout, the technological understanding, and experience in regulating content where it converges with technology, in using enforcement and information-gathering powers and in co-operating with other regulators. It could draw up the first code of practice on online safety, mentioned in the Statement.

There is some concern that current policies are driving us into a world where age verification will be required for all kinds of access other than to pornography. That seems to be the implication of the Secretary of State’s remarks about technical challenges associated with identifying the specific age of companies’ users. Is that the intention? We need to be extremely wary of the consequences of that. That must be fully debated before we go further on age-verification requirements.