New clause 7—On-demand programme services: requirement to prevent persons under the age of 18 accessing pornographic material with an 18 classification certificate—
“Section 368E of the Communication Act 2003 (harmful material) is amended as follows—
(a) in subsection (5)—
(i) after subsection (a) insert—
“(aa) a video work in respect of which the video works authority has issued an 18 classification certificate, and that it is reasonable to assume from its nature was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal,”;
(ii) after subsection (b) insert—
“(ba) material that was included in a video work to which paragraph (aa) applies, if it is reasonable to assume from the nature of the material—
(i) that it was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal, and
(ii) that its inclusion was among the reasons why the certificate was an 18 certificate,
“(bb) any other material if it is reasonable to assume from its nature—
(i) that it was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal, and
(ii) that any classification certificate issued for a video work including it would be an 18 certificate.”
(b) in subsection (7) after “section” insert—
““18 certificate” means a classification certificate which—
(a) contains, pursuant to section 7(2)(b) of the Video Recordings Act 1984, a statement that the video work is suitable for viewing only by persons who have attained the age of 18 and that no video recording containing that work is to be supplied to any person who has not attained that age, and
(b) does not contain the statement mentioned in section 7(2)(c) of that Act that no video recording containing the video work is to be supplied other than in a licensed sex shop;””
This new clause requires the extension of measures for UK-based video on-demand programming to protect children from 18 material as well as R18 material.
First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley for making such a clear and cogent argument for why the Bill needs further amendment. As I think she said—I am sure that she will correct me if I am wrong—we want to ensure that the Government stick to their manifesto commitment to protect children from all forms of online pornography. That will take consistency and a depth of modesty about the extent of our various levels of knowledge about how the internet works.
The hon. Member for Devizes made a good speech, and I am grateful to her for making the argument about on-demand films, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley also did, but the hon. Lady said—please correct me if I am wrong—that there were not many providers of free online pornography. I must respectfully disagree. Given the existence of peer-to-peer sharing and other forms of availability—my hon. Friend mentioned Tumblr and other social media websites—I am afraid that it is incredibly easy, as my nephews and nieces have confirmed, sadly, for a young person to access free online pornographic content in ways that most of us here might not even understand.
I am happy to clarify. My focus was on the Government’s intention to capture free and commercial pornography. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there is a plethora of free stuff out there, and she is right to focus on the harm that it causes.
I thank the hon. Lady for that clarification. I understand from an intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West that the reason why we were not allowed to remove the words “on a commercial basis” was that they were deemed out of scope. As I understand it, the word “economy”, if we stick to the letter of it, includes transactions for which there is no financial payment. There are transactions involved, and the word “digital” is in the title of the Bill, so I think it unfortunate that the amendment was not agreed to. Taking out the words “on a commercial basis” would have done a great deal to make consistent across all platforms and all forms of pornographic content available online the restrictions that we are placing on commercial ones.
I support the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend to the wording of clause 15(5)(a) and (6), for reasons that have already been given, and I want to add to the arguments. Hon. Friends and Members may have read the evidence from Girlguiding. As a former Guide, I pay tribute to the movement for the excellent work that it has done. It has contributed a profound and well-evidenced understanding of what young women are saying about online pornography. I will pick out a couple of statistics, because they make arguments to which I will refer in interventions on later clauses. That will make my speeches less long.
In the 2016 girls’ attitudes survey, half of the girls said that sexism is worse online than offline. In the 2014 survey, 66%, or two thirds, of young women said that they often or sometimes see or experience sexism online. It is a place where young women routinely experience sexism, and part of that sexism is the ubiquity of pornography. In 2015, the survey found that 60% of girls aged 11 to 21 see boys their age—admittedly, some of those are over the age of 18, but they are still the girls’ peers—viewing pornography on mobile devices or tablets. In contrast, only 27% of girls say that they see girls their age viewing pornography. The majority of those young women say from their experience that children can access too much content online and that it should be for adults only. In the survey, we see a certain degree of concord among young women in the Girlguiding movement, Opposition Members and the Government manifesto, which pledged, as my hon. Friend said, to exclude children from all forms of online pornography.
The 2015 Girlguiding survey also found that those young women felt that pornography was encouraging sexist stereotyping and harmful views, and that the proliferation of pornography is having a negative effect on women in society more generally. Those young women are the next generation of adults.
I have worked with young men who have already abused their partners. In my former job working with domestic violence perpetrators, I worked with young men of all ages; for the men my age, their pornography had come from the top shelf of a newsagent, but the younger men knew about forms of pornography that those of us of a certain age had no understanding of whatever. They were using pornography in ways that directly contribute to the abuse of women and girls, including pornography that is filmed abuse. I shall come back to that point later, but we need to recognise that young men are getting their messages about what sex and intimacy are from online pornography. If we do not protect them from online pornography under the age of 18, we are basically saying that there are no holds barred.
The hon. Member for Devizes and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley mentioned loopholes. When we leave loopholes, it creates a colander or sieve for regulation. Yes, the internet is evolving and, yes, we in this Committee Room probably do not know every single way in which it already provides pornography, and certainly not how it will in future, but that is a good reason to provide a strong regulatory framework when we have the chance. We have that chance now, and we should take it. If it remains the case that removing the words “on a commercial basis” is deemed outside our scope, which I find very sad—I think it is a missed opportunity, and I hope the House can return to it at some point and regulate the free content—we must definitely ensure that we are putting everything else that we possibly can on a level playing field. That means that the regulation of video on demand has to be consistent and that we have to close any other loophole we can spot over the next few days.
I hope Opposition amendments will make the Government think about the manifesto commitment they rightly made—I am happy to put on the record that I support it—and take the opportunity to stick to it. Young women want that; young men need it, because my experience of working with young men who have abused their partners and ex-partners is that they felt that they were getting those messages from pornography; and we as a society cannot afford to ignore this problem any longer. We have a chance to do something about it, so let us take that opportunity.
I must have it clearly on the record that I supported that commitment only: not the whole Conservative manifesto, just the bit that says “We want to protect all children from all online pornography.”
I am sure our powers of persuasion will extend that support in the future. The outbreak of support for our manifesto is welcome; this is an incredibly important area, and I am proud to lead the Front-Bench effort to deal with underage people’s access to adult material by introducing age verification. I want to respond in detail to the points made, because it is important we get this right.
Before I come to the specific amendments, I will deal with commercial providers. The measures in the Bill will apply equally to all commercial providers, whether their material is paid for directly or appears on free sites that operate on a different business model. “Commercial” has quite a broad meaning, as my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes said. If a provider makes money from a site in any way, whether or not it makes a profit, it can be caught by the legislation. That is the right distinction, because it targets those who make money and are indifferent to the harm their activities may cause to children.
If the hon. Lady will hold on, I want to explain this in full, rather than in part, before I give way. The age verification regulator must publish guidance on the circumstances in which it will regard a site or app as commercial. It will be for the regulator to judge whether a site is commercial, and there is no definition that states which website platforms are covered. Crucially, the regulator will also be able to take a view if specific social media and other types of sites are ancillary service providers—a person who appears to be facilitating or enabling the making available of pornographic material by non-compliant persons. I think that the capturing of others as ancillary service providers is an important part of making sure that we fully deliver our manifesto commitment, as I believe this Bill does.
We are aware that “commercial” is not limited to sites that require payment. It includes online advertising and other business models, as the Minister has said. However, it is unclear how the regulator will be able to enforce these measures given that the only enforcement available to them is notifying other payment service providers and ancillary services.
No doubt we will come on to enforcement. A number of clauses and amendments are on enforcement. The point is that other social media sites can be classified by the regulator as ancillary service providers for facilitating or enabling the making of available pornographic material. Our view is that enforcement through disrupting business models is more powerful because you are undermining the business model of the provider. However, I do not want to get too distracted, in an out of order way, into enforcement which is rightly dealt with in later clauses.
If the Bill is clearly designed to enable the regulator to focus on social media sites and other ancillary service providers, why was that term “on a commercial basis” included in these sections?
The principle is that there is a distinction between those who are making money by targeting and are indifferent to potential harm and those whose services facilitate the provision of porn to those who are under age. I think it is a reasonable distinction. We are trying to deal with the mass of the problem. By its nature, it is very difficult to get to 100%. I think that leaving the Bill in this way, with flexibility for the regulator to act, has a big advantage over being overly prescriptive in primary legislation and too specific about the way in which the regulator acts, not least because disrupting the business model is the goal of trying to provide enforcement.
I support the Minister’s point about over-prescription, but perhaps he could help me by talking about a particular case. Let us take Tumblr hosting a stream of content which is 18. Who would the regulator target if it issued an enforcement notice? Would it be the content provider, or would it be the social media platform that is hosting that content?
In that case, the platform—I do not want to get into individual platforms, but I am happy to take my hon. Friend’s example—would likely be an ancillary service provider and therefore captured. This is a very important distinction. There is a difference between somebody who is actively putting up adult material and choosing not to have age verification, and a platform where others put up adult material, where it is not necessarily impossible but much harder to have a control over the material. There is an important distinction here. If we try to pretend that everybody putting material onto a platform, for example, the one that my hon. Friend mentions, should be treated the same way as a porn-providing website, we will be led into very dangerous territory and it makes it harder to police this rather than easier. That is my argument.
On the specific amendments, I understand entirely where the argument on demand is coming from. I want to give an assurance which I hope will mean that these clauses will not be pushed to the vote. On-demand audio-visual media services under UK jurisdiction are excluded from part 3 of the Bill because they are regulated by Ofcom under part 4A of the Communications Act 2003. As my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes said, other on-demand services that are not currently regulated in the UK will be caught by the Bill regime.
The amendments and new clause 7 would apply the Bill’s age verification requirements to on-demand audio-visual media services under UK jurisdiction, meaning that we would end up with a double regulation. They would also amend the existing age verification requirement that applies to providers of those services to cover material that the British Board of Film Classification would describe as “18 sex works”, as well as R18 and equivalent. I want to be crystal clear about the aim: it is to have complementary regimes as between on-demand material regulated by Ofcom and material to be regulated by the BBFC, so that although the regulator may be different, the result is the same.
Forgive me, but the Minister just gave a lot of information, and I want to clarify something. Whichever regulator is doing it, will the effect of the legislation as he would like to see it put R18 films and 18-rated films on on-demand services at the same level of age verification? I am not clear on that point.
The aim is that even though the regulator may be different in those two cases, the result would be the same. I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. The Bill will do that without having double regulation. As we discussed earlier with regard to a different part of the Bill, having double regulation in the same area can lead to confusion and worse outcomes, rather than clarity and better outcomes.
A service that falls within part 4A of the Communications Act 2003—that is to say, one that is outwith the proposals —must not contain any specially restricted material, unless that material is made available in a manner that secures that persons under the age of 18 will not normally see or hear it. Specially restricted material includes R18 material and other material that might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of persons under the age of 18. Our intention is that such other material should include material that the BBFC would describe as 18 sex works. I think that answers precisely the point that the hon. Lady was making.
Partly because the regulation of areas currently covered by Ofcom is considered to be working well, so I did not want to throw that regime up in the air. I did want to deal with the additions and make provisions additional to the existing regime.
Because I think the BBFC is best at making the very nuanced distinctions between different types of material and their regulation that are required. The way it has landed, with the two regulators sitting side by side, but with the aim that the result of the regulation is the same, is the better way of doing it.
There is clarity in the Bill about what is under the jurisdiction of one regulator and what is under the jurisdiction of the other. I will, though, take that away and seek to give an assurance that the two regulators will work together to ensure that that boundary is dealt with adequately. There is flexibility in the Bill to ensure that that can happen. I cannot speak for Ofcom or the BBFC, but it would seem to me to be perfectly reasonable and obvious that the boundary has to work properly. I would not like to over-specify that in the Bill because of the nature of changes in technology. The distinction between broadcast and on-demand services is changing as technology develops, and it is better to leave it structured as it is. I am sure that both regulators will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s important point that the boundary between the two needs to be dealt with appropriately and that they need to talk to each other.
Is the Minister reassured, as I am, by the fact that in the evidence sessions there was enthusiastic support from the BBFC for embracing the role, as well as very clear guidance that it had the competence to do so? We have not necessarily heard that from anybody else. The support and enthusiasm for taking on that role is very telling.
Quite a lot of clarification is needed, and I hope it will come during the Bill’s passage. I do not think that the distinction between Ofcom and the BBFC is clear in this part of the Bill or in later clauses on enforcement. However, given that it states elsewhere in the Bill that the proposal is subject to further parliamentary scrutiny, and as the BBFC has not yet officially been given the regulator role—as far as I am aware—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
“or an internet service provider.”.
This amendment and amendment 67 ensure that the requirement to implement age verification does not fall on ISPs but commercial sites or applications offering pornographic material; and defines internet service providers.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 90, in clause 22, page 23, line 29, leave out
“or ancillary service provider”
“, ancillary service provider, or internet service provider.”.
Amendment 77, in clause 22, page 24, line 23, at end insert “or
(c) an internet service provider.”.
This amendment and amendment 78 ensure that the definition of an ancillary service provider would include ISPs; and defines internet service providers.
Amendment 91, in clause 22, page 24, line 23, at end insert—
“(6A) In this section an “ancillary service provider” includes, but is not limited to, domain name registrars, social media platforms, internet service providers, and search engines.”.
Amendment 67, in clause 25, page 26, line 2, at end insert—
““internet service provider” has the same meaning as in section 124N of the Communications Act 2003 (interpretation);”.
See the explanatory statement for amendment 66.
New clause 8—Duty to provide a service that excludes adult-only content—
“(1) This section applies to internet service providers who supply an internet access service to subscribers.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), “subscribers” includes—
(a) domestic subscribers;
(b) schools; and
(c) organisations that allow a person to use an internet access service in a public place.
For the purposes of the conditions in subsections (3) and (4), if the subscriber is a school or organisation a responsible person within the school or organisation shall be regarded as the subscriber.
(3) A provider to whom subsection (1) applies must provide to subscribers an internet access service which excludes adult-only content unless all of the conditions listed in subsection (4) have been fulfilled.
(4) The conditions are—
(a) the subscriber “opts in” to subscribe to a service that includes online adult-only content;
(b) the subscriber is aged 18 or over; and
(c) the provider of the service has an age verification scheme which meets the standards set out by OFCOM in subsection (4) and which has been used to confirm that the subscriber is aged 18 or over before a user is able to access adult-only content.
(5) It shall be the duty of OFCOM, to set, and from time to time to review and revise, standards for the—
(a) filtering of adult content in line with the standards set out in Section 319 of the Communications Act 2003;
(b) age verification policies to be used under subsection (4) before an user is able to access adult content; and
(c) filtering of content by age or subject category by providers of internet access services.
(6) The standards set out by OFCOM under subsection (5) must be contained in one of more codes.
(7) Before setting standards under subsection (5), OFCOM must publish, in such a manner as they think fit, a draft of the proposed code containing those standards.
(8) After publishing the draft code and before setting the standards, OFCOM must consult relevant persons and organisations.
(9) It shall be the duty of OFCOM to establish procedures for the handling and resolution of complaints in a timely manner about the observance of standards set under subsection (5), including complaints about incorrect filtering of content.
(10) OFCOM may designate any body corporate to carry out its duties under this section in whole or in part.
(11) OFCOM may not designate a body under subsection (10) unless, as respects that designation, they are satisfied that the body—
(a) is a fit and proper body to be designated;
(b) has consented to being designated;
(c) has access to financial resources that are adequate to ensure the effective performance of its functions under this section; and
(d) is sufficiently independent of providers of internet access services.
(12) It shall be a defence to any claims, whether civil or criminal, for a provider to whom subsection (1) applies to prove that at the relevant time they were—
(a) following the standards and code set out in subsection (5),; and
(b) acting in good faith.
(13) Nothing in this section prevents any providers to whom subsection (1) applies from providing additional levels of filtering of content.
(14) In this section—
“adult-only content” means material that contains offensive and harmful material from which persons under the age of 18 are protected;
“age verification scheme” is a scheme to establish the age of the subscriber;
“internet access service” and “internet service provider” have the same meaning as in section 124N of the Communications Act 2003 (interpretation);
“material from which persons under the age of 18 are protected” means material specified in the OFCOM standards under section 2;
“OFCOM” has the same meaning as in Part 1 of the Communications Act 2003;
“offensive and harmful material” has the same meaning as in section 3 of the Communications Act 2003 (general duties of OFCOM); and
“subscriber” means a person who receives the service under an agreement between the person and the provider of the service.”.
This new clause places a statutory requirement on internet service providers to limit access to adult content by persons under 18. It would give Ofcom a role in determining the age verification scheme and how material should be filtered. It would ensure that ISPs were able to continue providing family friendly filtering once the net neutrality rules come into force in December 2016.
New clause 11—Power to make regulations about blocking injunctions preventing access to locations on the internet—
“(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision about the granting by a court of a blocking injunction in respect of a location on the internet which the court is satisfied has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that is contravening, or has contravened, section 15(1) of this Act.
(2) “Blocking injunction” means an injunction that requires an internet service provider to prevent its service being used to gain access to a location on the internet.
(3) Regulations introduced under subsection (1) above may, in particular—
(a) make provision about the type of locations against which a blocking injunction should be granted;
(b) make provision about the circumstances in which an application can be made for a blocking injunction;
(c) outline the type of circumstances in which the court will grant a blocking injunction;
(d) specify the type of evidence, and other factors, which the court must take into account in determining whether or not to grant a blocking injunction;
(e) make provision about the notice, and type of notice, including the form and means, by which a person must receive notice of an application for a blocking injunction made against them; and
(f) make provision about any other such matters as the Secretary of State considers are necessary in relation to the granting of a blocking injunction by the court.
(4) Regulations under this subsection must be made by statutory instrument.
(5) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.
(6) In this Part— “Internet service provider” has the same meaning as in section 16 of the Digital Economy Act 2010. In the application of this Part to Scotland “injunction” means interdict.”.
This new Clause empowers the Secretary of State to introduce regulations in relation to the granting of a backstop blocking injunction by a court. The injunction would require an internet service provider to prevent access to a site or sites which do not comply with the age-verification requirements. This would only be used where the other enforcement powers (principally fines) had not been effective in ensuring that sites put in place effective age-verification.
I welcome the Minister’s previous comments, which gave me some real assurances on the parity of content and regulator. I also reassure him of how popular he will be when the Bill finally passes—the Centre for Gender Equal Media said that, in its most recent survey, 86% of people support a legal requirement on companies to prevent children’s access to pornography. We are moving in the right direction.
Amendment 66 seeks to pick through slightly more carefully who is responsible and is captured by the Bill’s language. There are four internet service providers in the UK through which the majority of broadband internet traffic travels, and they have come a long way. Five years ago, they accepted none of our proposals, be it single click protection for all devices in the home or the implementation of a filtering system that required selection—we could not select whether or not the filters were on. They have gone from that to the position now whereby, in some cases, we have ISPs that provide their services with the filters already on as default—something that we were told was absolutely unimaginable. With that regime, the level of complaints is very low and the level of satisfaction is very high.
Amendment 67 is consequential on amendment 66 and both seek to clarify the scope of who exactly would be covered under the wording of clause 15(1), which states:
“A person must not make pornographic material available on the internet on a commercial basis to persons in the United Kingdom except in a way that secures that, at any given time, the material is not normally accessible by persons under the age of 18.”
The Government have made it quite clear in the consultation, and the Minister clarified in his previous remarks, that the proposals apply to companies running websites aimed specifically at providing pornographic content for commercial gain, and that they want those who profit from such material being made available online to act in a legal, socially responsible way. It could be argued that ISPs both profit from the material being made available online and also make pornographic material available online, even though they are not the original source of the material. We also heard from the Minister that he is minded to consider social media platforms in that same category. In my view, the regulator must also publish guidance under clause 15(3) about
“circumstances in which the regulator will treat an internet site or other means of accessing the internet as operated or provided on a commercial basis”.
It is my concern that that could also be read as applying to ISPs. The amendments are intended to clarify that. In fact, I can quote from an article from July, which said:
“Internet access providers are likely to feel left in an uncertain position at the moment as, while the Bill does not reference them in this context, the definition of ‘makes pornographic material available’ could be argued as incorporating companies which provide connectivity to servers used for the making available of pornographic material”,
and piping that material into the home.
Paragraph 22 of the explanatory notes makes reference to “commercial providers of pornography”, and that obviously appears to place the onus of this suite of measures firmly on the content providers, but an optimal approach would be to improve the drafting to make the legislative attempt clear. I know we will have further discussions about the role of ISPs, but ISPs have done what we have asked them to do in introducing family friendly filters.
Because various other aspects of the Bill capture ISPs. My concern is that the Bill focuses on the commercial content providers where they are. The amendment is intended to probe the Government about how they are thinking about ISPs vis-à-vis commercial content providers in the drafting of the clause.
Our amendments are designed to enable the regulator to ask the internet service provider to block offending sites. This goes back to the point we made earlier on the differences between sites operated “on a commercial basis” and social media sites and ancillary sites. The proposals as they stand do not give the regulator sufficient powers to enforce the mechanisms proposed in the Bill.
Broadening the definition of “ancillary service provider” specifically to include internet service providers would require the regulator to notify them of non-compliant sites. That will put ISPs in the same bracket as payment service providers, which will be required to withdraw their services if other measures have been exhausted. In the case of ISPs, they would be required to block offending sites.
The amendments would create a simple backstop power where enforcement through the Government’s proposals had not achieved its intended objective and commercial providers had not withdrawn their services, either because the fine does not act as a deterrent or because, due to their international status, they do not need to comply. If pornography providers continued to provide content without age verification restrictions, the regulator would then have the power to require ISPs to take down the content.
We believe that, without amendment, the proposals will not achieve the Bill’s aim, as non-compliant pornographers would not be absolutely assured of payment services being blocked. First, the proposals do not send anywhere near a strong enough signal to the porn industry that the Government are serious about the proposals and their enforcement. Giving the regulator the power but not the stick suggests that we are not all that bothered about whether sites comply. Secondly, we can have no reassurance that sites will be shut down within any kind of timeframe if there is non-compliance. As drafted in the explanatory notes, “on an ongoing basis” could mean yearly, biannually or monthly, but it makes a mockery of the proposals if sites could be non-compliant for two years or more before payment services may or may not act. That does not provide much of an incentive to the industry to act.
Throughout the evidence sessions we heard that there are significant difficulties with the workability of this entire part of the Bill. For instance, many sites will hide their contact details, and a substantial number will simply not respond to financial penalties. Indeed, an ability already exists in law for ISPs to be compelled to block images that portray, for example, child sex abuse. There is also an ability to block in the case of copyright infringement. It therefore seems eminently reasonable that in the event of non-compliance, the regulator has a clear backstop power. We believe that even just legislating for such a power will help speed up enforcement. If providers know that they cannot simply circumvent the law by refusing to comply with notices, they will comply more efficiently. That will surely help the age verifier to pass the real-world test, which is integral to the Bill’s objectives.
Similarly, new clause 11 provides for an all-important speed of enforcement. As it currently stands, the Bill provides fairly feeble powers to an enforcer to give notice to a payment service or ancillary service provider that a site has contravened clause 15(1). Indeed, giving evidence to the Committee, David Austin of the BBFC said of his power to notify sites of their contravention of clause 15 that
“some will and some, probably, will not”––[Official Report, Digital Economy Public Bill Committee,
He welcomed as a second backstop power the ability to notify the ancillary or payment service provider. If providers still fail to act after that second backstop power is invoked, the regulator’s final power is to issue a fine. That is clearly insufficient, and the process itself would take a great deal of time, during which children under 18 would still be able to access pornography, even though the age verification regulator was well aware that there was a breach of clause 15(1).
The amendment would provide the Secretary of State with the power, through regulations, to issue a blocking injunction preventing access to locations on the internet if a court is satisfied that they are being used to contravene clause 15. The Opposition are clear that the power would be necessary only when the other enforcement powers had proved ineffective. Indeed, in evidence the BBFC was clear that fines by themselves would not be enough. David Austin said:
“For UK-based websites and apps, that is fine, but it would be extremely challenging for any UK regulator to pursue foreign-based websites or apps through a foreign jurisdiction to uphold a UK law. So we suggested, in our submission of evidence to the consultation back in the spring, that ISP blocking ought to be part of the regulator’s arsenal. We think that that would be effective.”––[Official Report, Digital Economy Public Bill Committee,
The Government’s own age verification regulator recommends that the amendments be made to the Bill. We very much hope that the Government will consider accepting them.
I am a little puzzled as to what the hon. Member for Devizes has against requiring ISPs to block porn sites. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley said, they are already required to block other sites. If we require ISPs to block sites that offend copyright laws, I really do not understand the problem with requiring them to block sites that provide pornography to children.
On a point of order, Mr Stringer. Perhaps this shows my ignorance of doing Committees from the Back Benches, but I intended to go on in my speech to discuss new clause 8, which I have tabled and which defines more clearly what I expect internet service providers to do. Would it be in order for me to deliver those remarks, or have I lost my opportunity?
I defer to the hon. Lady. She mentioned something she is going to say in due course; I look forward to hearing it. Nevertheless, I stand by my comments. We need to be clear about whether we are going to fail to require ISPs to do something that we already require them to do for copyright infringement and other forms of pornography involving children. I fail to see what the problem is. Having a blocking injunction available to the regulator would give them another tool to achieve the aim that we have all agreed we subscribe to, which is being able to block pornography from being seen by children and young people.
Mr Stringer, I assume that, like me, you sometimes have the feeling that you have sat down before you have finished what you are saying. I apologise to the Committee. I am rarely short of words, but in this case I was.
I want to respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Bristol West and clarify exactly what we have asked and should be asking internet service providers to do. In doing so, I shall refer to the new EU net neutrality regulations, which, despite the Brexit vote, are due to come into force in December. They cause many of us concerns about the regime that our British internet service providers have put in place, which I believe leads the world—or, at least, the democratic free world; other countries are more draconian—in helping families to make these choices. We do not want all that good work to be unravelled.
Our current regime falls foul of the regime that the European Union is promoting, and unless the Government make a decision or at least give us some indication relatively quickly that they will not listen to that, we may have an issue in that all the progress that we have made may run out by December 2016. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what the Government are doing to get the new legislation on the statute book in line with the schedule set out by his colleague Baroness Shields last December.
We have an effective voluntarily filtering arrangement. I believe—I think that this point is in the scope of ancillary service providers—that we intend to capture internet service providers as part of the general suite of those responsible for implementing over-18 verification, but I want the Government to make crystal clear that they are aware of the responsibilities of internet service providers and intend for the regulator to include them in the basket of those that they will investigate and regulate.
The big missing link in all this has been getting content providers that provide material deemed to be pornographic to do anything with that material. The difference is that content providers of, say, gambling sites have always been required to have age-verification machinery sitting on their sites.
The hon. Member for Bristol West is quite right that we want ISPs to be captured under this regulatory regime, but I am keen to hear from the Minister that all the work that we have done with ISPs that have voluntarily done the socially and morally responsible thing and brought forward family-friendly filters will not be undone by December 2016, when the EU net neutrality regulations are intended to come into place.
Quite a lot of points have been raised, and I seek to address them all. Clause 22 is an important provision containing the powers at the heart of the new regime to enable the age-verification regulator to notify payment service providers and ancillary service providers that a person using their services is providing pornographic material in contravention of clause 15 or making prohibited material available on the internet to persons in the UK.
Amendments 66, 67, 77, 78, 90 and 91 would provide that the requirement to implement age verification does not fall on ISPs and further clarify that ISPs are to be considered ancillary service providers. Amendment 91 would clarify that as well as ISPs, domain name registrars, social media platforms and search engines are all to be considered ancillary service providers for the purposes of clause 22, which makes provision for the meaning of “ancillary service provider”.
This is a fast-moving area, and the BBFC, in its role as regulator, will be able to publish guidelines for the circumstances in which it will treat services provided in the course of business as either enabling or facilitating, as we discussed earlier. Although it will be for the regulator to consider on a case-by-case basis who is an ancillary service provider, it would be surprising if ISPs were not designated as ancillary service providers.
New clause 8 would impose a duty on internet service providers to provide a service that excludes adult-only content unless certain conditions are met. As I understand it, that measure is intended to protect the position of parental filters under net neutrality. However, it is our clear position that parental filters, where they can be turned off by the end user—that is, where they are a matter of user choice—are allowed under the EU regulation. We believe that the current arrangements are working well. They are based on a self-regulatory partnership and they are allowed under the forthcoming EU open internet access regulations.
I think I understand the Minister to be saying that in cases where companies have introduced filters that are on by default, the fact that the users can choose to turn those filters off in the home means that they would not be captured by the net neutrality rules. Is that correct?
That is exactly what I am saying. On that basis, with the Government’s position having been put clearly on the record, I hope that my hon. Friend will not press new clause 8 to a vote.
New clause 11 would empower the Secretary of State to introduce regulations in relation to backstop blocking injunctions. We have looked carefully at the option of blocking by ISPs and have talked to a lot of stakeholders about it. We take the problem seriously, and we think our measures will make a real difference. We are yet to be persuaded that blocking infringing sites would be proportionate, because it would not be consistent with how other harmful or illegal content is dealt with. There is also a question of practicality: porn companies would be able to circumvent blocking relatively quickly by changing URLs, and there is an additional risk that a significant number of sites that contain legal content would be blocked. We would need to be convinced that the benefits of ISP blocking would not be outweighed by the risks.
I am a little confused about how the Minister envisages the provisions being enforced against the free sites we discussed in the previous group of amendments without that additional power, which indeed has been requested by the regulator that the Government have designated.
As the regulator said, the proposals here mark a huge step forward in tackling the problem. We have to make a balanced judgment: there is a balance to be struck between the extra powers to block and the need to ensure that they are proportionate. The powers are not a silver bullet; sites that were actively trying to avoid the Bill’s other enforcement measures would also be able to actively avoid these measures. It is questionable how much additional enforcement power they would bring, given those downsides.
I must press the Minister to consider that children’s charities have told us that this is one of the most important amendments to the Bill. The Minister says that porn sites could simply move their URLs, but that is not a reason not to take a stand by giving the regulator the power that it has asked for and that children’s charities have particularly asked for.
Children’s charities and the regulator have asked for action to solve the problem of needing age verification. That is what the Bill delivers. The question of how to enforce that is incredibly important; there are different considerations to be made, and I think the Bill has ended up with the correct balance.
The BBFC witness explicitly said last week that
“we suggested, in our submission of evidence to the consultation back in the spring, that ISP blocking ought to be part of the regulator’s arsenal.”––[Official Report, Digital Economy Public Bill Committee,
The BBFC says that notification of payment providers or ancillary services providers and fines may not be sufficient. I appreciate that porn sites might well use different URLs to evade it, but why has the Minister explicitly removed ISP blocking as a further backstop power? We are not talking about blocking too many sites; we have been very clear that it is intended as a backstop power when other measures fail.
“We see this Bill as a significant step forward in terms of child protection.”––[Official Report, Digital Economy Public Bill Committee,
We think, on balance, that the regulator will have enough powers—for example, through the provisions on ancillary service providers—to take effective action against non-compliant sites. For that reason, I think this is the appropriate balance and I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes to withdraw her amendment.
I think that we are running through two definitions of ISPs: one relating to ancillary service providers and the other to enforcement and blocking. If we include ISPs in the definition of ancillary service providers, we want to make sure that they are captured, either explicitly or as a service provider. Is the Minister saying that he is comfortable with the enforcement regime without blocking? Would it require further legislation for blocking to be carried out if the regulator felt it was an appropriate measure? Are we ruling that out in this legislation?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I would like to provide a point of clarity on the speech she has made. Treatment of an ASP will not lead to blocking. I think that is the answer to her question.
I thank the Minister for that intervention. We will return to this subject in a series of amendments around clause 20. I want to thank the Minister for clarifying some of the murkiness around definitions in the Bill. I want to ask him and his team, though, to consider what his colleague had said, which goes back to the net neutrality point.
I accept what the Minister says about the spirit being absolutely clear, that our current filtering regime will not be captured, but Baroness Shields did say that we needed to legislate to make our filters regime legal. I did not hear from the Minister that that legislation is something that the Department is preparing or planning to introduce.
We very much share the hon. Lady’s concerns that the legislation has explicitly excluded the ability of internet service providers to block. We simply cannot understand why the Government have ruled out that final backstop power. We appreciate it is not perfect but it would give the regulator that final power. We will return to new clause 11 at the end of the Bill and be pushing it to a vote when we come to it.
I thank the hon. Lady for making her intentions clear. I am prepared to withdraw or not push my new clause to a vote on the basis of what the Minister said, but I would love to get his assurances—perhaps he will write to me—to be crystal clear on the fact that he believes the Government do not have to legislate in order to push back on the net neutrality regime.
Before the hon. Lady sits down, she did mention the view of Baroness Shields that there should be new legislation. Notwithstanding our remarks about the number of Government amendments, does the hon. Lady believe this Bill could be a useful vehicle to achieve that?
Given the Brexit vote, I would be inclined to accept a letter from the Minister suggesting that we will absolutely resist any attempt to make EU net neutrality apply to what is a very fine, though not perfect, voluntary regime. On that basis, I accept the Minister’s assurances that that is what he intends to do. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.