Amendment 12BA

Part of Online Safety Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 25 April 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 9:30, 25 April 2023

My Lords, this has been a very helpful debate and I hope it sets up the Committee up for when we return to these issues. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, just said, it is about having appropriate regulation that does the job that we want. I feel from this debate, as I have felt before, that we are in agreement about what we want; the question, as ever, is how we get there.

The noble Lord, Lord Allan of Hallam, spoke well on the practicalities of the different ways that pornography is accessible and, because they are so different, the need to respond differently. An example is Twitter, which is primarily a social network but its content can be inappropriate when accessed by a group who should not be accessing it—children, in this case. It is important that the way this is approached does not take away the ability of Twitter, for example, to do the job that it is there to do but does protect those who need to be protected. The words that came to mind is that regulation needs to be fit for purpose, but the question is what the purpose is and how we make it fit for it.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken today. The noble Baroness, Lady Harding, spoke of consistency of outcome. That is a very good place from which to look backwards to see what is required. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, was right to say that we must not send out the message that pornography is, somehow, the only harm or that there is a hierarchy of harms. In my view, we are simply debating that at this stage. So pornography is not the only harm, nor is it of a higher order than other harms.

I would like to say how grateful I am to my noble friend Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, who was supported in the Chamber by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, on behalf of his noble friend the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, who put his name to some of these amendments. I am grateful because the debate in this area facilitated an early debate on the issue of regulation and online pornography, and did it thoroughly. It raised a number of questions that we will need to address when debating later amendments.

There is no denying the damage that can be caused by young people readily having access to pornographic content online. They see material that it would be illegal for them to see offline. If we have already dealt with offline, our challenge is to protect children and young people in the same way online. However, as we will discuss later and probably at some length, this side of the House does not accept that access to illegal pornography is the only issue affecting how children can and should use the internet. Exposure to pornographic content changes young people’s perceptions of sexual activity and, in the worst cases, can contribute to sexual assault. Even in cases where there is consent, evidence is available that shows that depictions of certain high-risk activities in pornographic material mean that many more people are engaging in, for example, choking and asphyxiation, with the predictable but tragic outcome of permanent injury or even death.

Having said that, later we will be debating measures that need to be put in place to protect children of 18 and under from accessing sites that they are likely to encounter. We need to ensure that age-appropriate design is the keystone to the protection of children online. We are relying heavily on effective terms of service to protect vulnerable adults from accessing material which would cause them harm, and that issue definitely needs more debate.

Pornography has an influence on adult sexual behaviour and, regardless of our own personal views, we have to remember that much adult content is in fact perfectly legal, and for whatever reason, it is also very popular. While some of the most widely used user-to-user platforms have opted not to carry adult material, there are others, as we have heard in the debate, such as Twitter and Reddit, that do allow users to share explicit but legal content. There has been an explosion in the number of so-called content creators who upload their own material to sites such as OnlyFans. There has also been an explosion in user-to-user services such as Twitter, which I would presume to be the very valid motivation behind Amendment 183A.

Steps taken to restrict child access to adult content and user-to-user platforms are often easy to bypass, so the question of whether such services should be within the scope of Part 5 is indeed a valid one. There are some platforms that do take their responsibilities seriously, with OnlyFans having engaged with the topic of online safety long before it will be compelled to do so; but others have not. So, on that basis, it is clear that we cannot continue with the status quo given the ever-increasing risk that illegal material does not get taken down by algorithms and automated moderation.

We recognise that the Government have had their own reasons for not implementing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. That decision was disappointing, and in fact, the disappointment was made even worse by repeated empty promises, dither and delay. However, the department clearly recognises the issue, which is a welcome first step, and it is not clear that simply rerunning the arguments from the DEA is going to bear fruit this time round. This Bill is largely apolitical, and colleagues on all sides of the House, including from these Benches, have the opportunity to come together; we have the opportunity to agree a way forward to protect children, to reduce exposure to extreme forms of pornography but ultimately to allow adults to consume pornography if they wish to do so. That is the challenge that we have.

These Benches support robust age verification for access to pornographic content, but it is vital that these systems are secure and take appropriate steps to preserve the user’s privacy. The questions raised in this group are extremely valid, and the proposals presented by other colleagues, including the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, deserve very serious consideration. We hope that the Minister can demonstrate in his response that progress is being made.