Amendment 4

Part of Online Safety Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 25 April 2023.

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Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP 6:00, 25 April 2023

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 4 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley.

At Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Morrow raised the point that the Bill needs to cover all online pornography. A factsheet on the Bill, helpfully circulated to Peers last week by the Government, says:

“The Bill’s regulatory framework will cover all online sites with pornographic content, including commercial pornography sites, social media, video-sharing platforms and fora. It will also cover search engines, which play a significant role in enabling children to access pornography”.

This is a welcome commitment but I would like to explore it further.

The Government say “all”, but the definition of which services are in scope of the Bill, as set out in Clause 3(5) and Clause 71(4), requires that there are either

“a significant number of United Kingdom users, or … United Kingdom users form one of the target markets for the service (or the only target market)”.

At Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Morrow asked the Minister what will be considered as “significant”. Is it significant in terms of the total UK adult users who could use a service, or significant in terms of potential global users?

The noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, is exploring the same issue in her Amendment 4. She is proposing that the Bill’s current definition be replaced with something much easier to understand: that a site must have at least 1 million users per month in the UK to be within the scope of the Bill. That definition is certainly clear. However, I am looking forward to hearing whether it reflects the Government’s intention. For my part, I am concerned about what it might mean for clarifying which pornographic websites would fall into Part 3.

In December, the Government published an analysis carried out in January 2021 by the British Board of Film Classification on the top 200 pornographic websites. It reported that these 200 sites received 76% of the total UK visits to adult sites, based on data during August 2020. Ofcom published a similar list of the top 10 sites visited in September 2020—the site at number 10 had 3.8 million visitors. We do not know how many visitors there were to websites 100 or 200, but it is not unreasonable to speculate that it could be less than a million and would therefore fall outside the definition proposed by the noble Baroness, and nor is it clear whether those websites would fall within the Government’s original definition.

It is important for the Minister to tell the Committee quite clearly whether he expects the top 200 pornographic websites to be within the scope of Parts 3 and 5 of the Bill. If he does, I ask him to explain how that will be possible within the current definition in the Bill, not because I am trying to trip him up but as a genuine inquiry that the Bill does what we are expect it to do. If he does not expect the top 200 pornographic websites to be in scope, how many does he estimate would fall within Parts 3 and 5? Either way, it seems to me that there could be pornographic websites accessed in the United Kingdom that are not required to have age verification to protect those aged under 18 from accessing this content.

As I said, I doubt that this is what parents expect from this flagship Bill, especially as the Government set out in their factsheet that their own commissioned evidence says,

“exposure to pornography may impact children's perceptions of sex and relationships, may lead to replication of practices found in pornography, increased likelihood of engaging in sexual activities and harmful or aggressive behaviour, and reduced concern for consent from partners”.

It seems to me that “significant” should focus on the significant harm a website or content provider would cause if it were accessed in the UK. The number of visitors or popularity of the site should be irrelevant when considering whether or not children should be allowed to access it. My view is quite simple: if a website, social media or content provider wishes to host pornographic material, that is of potential significant harm to children and should be age-verified. I am therefore interested, given what the Government have said previously, to know whether the Minister agrees that all pornographic content must be age-verified if it is to be accessed in the UK. That is certainly what I believe most parents expect, and I will listen carefully to the Minister’s response.