Amendment 12BA

Part of Online Safety Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 25 April 2023.

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Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 9:00, 25 April 2023

My Lords, I want to inject into the debate some counterarguments, which I hope will be received in the constructive spirit in which they are intended. Primarily, I want to argue that a level playing field is not the right solution here and that there is a strong logic for a graduated response. It is often tempting to dial everything up to 11 when you have a problem, and we clearly do have an issue around child access to pornography. But from a practical point of view, the tools we are giving our regulator are better served by being able to treat different kinds of services differently.

I think there are three classes of service that we are thinking about here. The first is a service with the primary purpose and explicit intent to provide pornography and nothing else. A regime dedicated to those sites is quite appropriate. Such a service might have not just the strongest levels of age verification but a whole other set of requirements, which I know we will debate later, around content verification and all sorts of other things that kick into play. The second category is made up of services that are primarily designed for social interaction which prohibit pornography and make quite strenuous efforts to keep it off. Facebook is such a service. I worked there, and we worked hard to try to keep pornography off. We could not guarantee that it was never present, but that was our intent: we explicitly wanted to be a non-pornographic site. Then there are—as the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, pointed out—other services, such as Twitter, where the primary purpose is social but a significant proportion of adult content is allowed.

I suggest that one of the reasons for having a graduated response is that, from our point of view, we would like services to move towards porn reduction, and for those general-purpose services to prohibit porn as far as possible. That is our intent. If we have a regulatory system that says, “Look, we’re just going to treat you all the same anyway”, we may provide a perverse incentive for services not to move up the stack, as it were, towards a regime where by having less pornographic or sexualised content, they are able to see some benefit in terms of their relationship with the regulator. That is the primary concern I have around this: that by treating everybody the same, we do not create any incentive for people to deal with porn more effectively and thereby get some relief from the regulator.

From a practical point of view, the relationship that the regulator has is going to be critical to making all these things work. Look at what has been happening in continental Europe. There have been some real issues around enforcing laws that have been passed in places such as France and Germany because there has not been the kind of relationship that the regulator needs with the providers. I think we would all like to see Ofcom in a better position, and one of the ways it can do that is precisely by having different sets of rules. When it is talking to a pure pornography site, it is a different kind of conversation from the one it is going to have with a Twitter or a Facebook. Again, they need to have different rules and guidance that are applied separately.

The intent is right: we want to stop under-18s getting on to those pure porn sites, and we need one set of tools to do that. When under-18s get on to a social network that has porn on it, we want the under-18s, if they meet the age requirement, to have access—that is perfectly legitimate—but once they get there, we want them kept out of the section that is adult. For a general-purpose service that prohibits porn, I think we can be much more relaxed, at least in respect of pornography but not in respect of other forms of harmful content—but we want the regulator to be focused on that and not on imposing porn controls. That graduated response would be helpful to the regulator.

Some of the other amendments that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has proposed will help us to talk about those kinds of measures—what Twitter should do inside Twitter, and so on—but the amendments we have in front of us today are more about dialling it all up to 11 and not allowing for that graduation. That is the intent I heard from the amendments’ proposers. As I say, that is the bit that, respectfully, may end up being counterproductive.