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 Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) 9:30, 25 April 2023

My Lords, first, I will address Amendments 12BA, 183A and 183B, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, who I was grateful to discuss them with earlier today, and the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, whose noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, I am grateful to for speaking to them on his behalf.

These amendments seek to apply the duties in Part 5 of the Bill, which are focused on published pornographic content and user-generated pornography. Amendments 183A and 183B are focused particularly on making sure that children are protected from user-to-user pornography in the same way as from published pornography, including through the use of age verification. I reassure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that the Government share their concerns; there is clear evidence about the impact of pornography on young people and the need to protect children from it.

This is where I come to the questions posed earlier by the noble Lord, Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown. The research we commissioned from the British Board of Film Classification assessed the functionality of and traffic to the UK’s top 200 most visited pornographic websites. The findings indicated that 128 of the top 200 most visited pornographic websites—that is just under two-thirds, or 64%—would have been captured by the proposed scope of the Bill at the time of the Government’s initial response to the online harms White Paper, and that represents 85% of the traffic to those 200 websites.

Since then, the Bill’s scope has been broadened to include search services and pornography publishers, meaning that children will be protected from pornography wherever it appears online. The Government expect companies to use age-verification technologies to prevent children accessing services which pose the highest risk to children, such as online pornography. Age-assurance technologies and other measures will be used to provide children with an age-appropriate experience on their service.

As noble Lords know, the Bill does not mandate that companies use specific approaches or technologies when keeping children safe online as it is important that the Bill is future-proofed: what is effective today might not be so effective in the future. Moreover, age verification may not always be the most appropriate or effective approach for user-to-user companies to comply with their duties under the Bill. For instance, if a user-to-user service, such as a social medium, does not allow pornography under its terms of service, measures such as strengthening content moderation and user reporting would be more appropriate and effective for protecting children than age verification. That would allow content to be better detected and removed, instead of restricting children from a service that is designed to be appropriate for their use—as my noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe puts it, avoiding the situation where children are removed from these services altogether.

While I am sympathetic to the aims of these amendments, I assure noble Lords that the Bill already has robust, comprehensive protections in place to keep children safe from all pornographic content, wherever or however it appears online. This amendment is therefore unnecessary because it duplicates the existing provisions for user-to-user pornography in the child safety duties in Part 3.

It is important to be clear that, wherever they are regulated in the Bill, companies will need to ensure that children cannot access pornographic content online. This is made clear, for user-to-user content, in Clause 11(3); for search services, in Clause 25(3); and for published pornographic content in Clause 72(2). Moving the regulation of pornography from Part 3 to Part 5 would not be a workable or desirable option because the framework is effective only if it is designed to reflect the characteristics of the services in scope.

Part 3 has been designed to address the particular issues arising from the rapid growth in platforms that allow the sharing of user-generated content but are not the ones choosing to upload that content. The scale and speed of dissemination of user-generated content online demands a risk-based and proportionate approach, as Part 3 sets out.

It is also important that these companies understand the risks to children in the round, rather than focusing on one particular type of content. Risks to children will often be a consequence of the design of these services—for instance, through algorithms, which need to be tackled holistically.

I know that the noble Baroness is concerned about whether pornography will indeed be designated as primary priority content for the purposes of the child safety duties in Clauses 11(3) and 25(3). The Government fully intend this to be the case, which means that user-to-user services will need to have appropriate systems to prevent children accessing pornography, as defined in Clause 70(2).

The approach taken in Part 3 is very different from services captured under Part 5, which are publishing content directly, know exactly where it is located on their site and already face legal liability for the content. In this situation the service has full control over its content, so a risk-based approach is not appropriate. It is reasonable to expect that service to prevent children accessing pornography. We do not therefore consider it necessary or effective to apply the Part 5 duties to user-to-user pornographic content.

I also assure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that, in a case where a provider of user-to-user services is directly publishing pornographic content on its own service, it will already be subject to the Part 5 duties in relation to that particular content. Those duties in relation to that published pornographic content will be separate from and in addition to their Part 3 duties in relation to user-generated pornographic content.

This means that, no matter where published pornographic content appears, the obligation to ensure that children are not normally able to encounter it will apply to all in-scope internet service providers that publish pornographic content. This is made clear in Clause 71(2) and is regardless of whether they also offer user-to-user or search services.

As set out in a recent letter to your Lordships, Ofcom will prioritise protecting children from pornography and other harmful content. In the autumn it intends to publish draft guidance for Part 5 pornography duties and draft codes of practice for Part 3 illegal content duties, including for child sexual exploitation and abuse content. Draft codes of practice for children’s safety duties will follow in summer 2024. These elements of the regime are being prioritised ahead of others, such as category 1 duties, to reflect the critical importance of protecting children.

It is right that Ofcom consult on Part 5 guidance as quickly as possible, to protect children from accessing pornography on Part 5 services. Part 5 guidance is focused entirely on the provision of pornography, whereas codes of practice under Part 3 are significantly more complex, as they deal with other forms of harmful content and so require longer to develop. This may mean there will be a limited period of time during which Part 5 protections are in place ahead of those in Part 3. It would not be right to delay the Part 5 consultation on that basis.

As the Bill makes clear, we expect companies to use technology such as age verification to prevent children accessing pornography, whether it is user-generated or published. Any technology used to comply with the Bill will need to be effective in accurately identifying the age of users. Ofcom will be able to take enforcement action if a company uses inadequate technological solutions. But, as I mentioned earlier, the Bill will not mandate specific approaches or technologies.

In her Amendment 125A, the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, raises concerns that a provider of pornographic content could move from being a Part 5 service to a Part 3 service if they allow comments or reviews on their content. I am grateful to her for raising and discussing the issue earlier. Amendment 125A in her name intends to narrow—