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Internet pornography: requirement to prevent access by persons under the age of 18

Part of Digital Economy Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 20th October 2016.

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Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:00 pm, 20th October 2016

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.