The 2015 Conservative manifesto made a commitment that
“we will stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material”.
That is crucial, because of what the Children’s Commissioner says about the damaging impact of such sites on young people’s views of sex or relationships and
“belief that women are sex objects.”
In 2016 the Government therefore rightly introduced proposals for age verification, or AV, and some of us here spent many hours scrutinising, amending and ultimately passing part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017. Commercial providers would have to implement age verification systems requiring users to provide proof of age—that they were over 18—or the provider sites would be blocked. That is critical when only a small proportion of those sites are UK-based; the top 50 are all based outside the UK.
Concerningly, however, in 2019 the Government suddenly announced that they were not going to implement part 3 of the 2017 Act, which was then the subject of an angry urgent question. At the same time, though, Ministers gave reassurances that they regarded protecting children from pornography as “a critically urgent issue” and that their purpose was not to abandon plans to introduce AV on commercial pornography sites but to introduce AV instead through the online harms Bill, which would address all online harms in the same piece of legislation.
The indications were that that Bill would be ready for pre-legislative scrutiny in early 2020. I am more than saddened that that was not the case. The Government produced an online harms White Paper and a consultation in April 2019. The consultation closed in June 2019; the Government’s full response to it is still awaited, with no draft Bill yet in sight.
We have heard that the draft Bill might now be published in mid-2021, meaning that, subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, it could be 2023 before it is on the statute book, six years after this House passed part 3 of the 2017 Act—six years during which increasing numbers of children, some as young as five, have had unfettered access to online pornography.
Parents, children’s charities and many colleagues here in Parliament are deeply concerned. This week, Savanta ComRes polling has been published showing that the public are not happy. In mid-September, 2,100 adults were polled across the UK, 63% of whom said that the Government should implement part 3 of the 2017 Act now and additional protections against other online harms through the online harms Bill, when that legislation has been passed. Only 21% thought the Government should delay introducing statutory AV on pornographic sites until all the other mechanisms for addressing online harms are ready. If we discount the “don’t knows”, 74% said the Government should implement part 3 of 2017 Act now.
Finally, I suspect that the provisions that the Government may introduce could be even weaker than those in part 3 of the 2017 Act, having received replies to written parliamentary questions indicating that the proposed duty of care will apply not to all commercial pornographic sites but only to those that do not enable user-generated functionalities, because they usually require payment, which acts as a deterrent to children accessing them.
The Government should neither delay nor water down their manifesto commitment. I call on them to implement part 3 of the 2017 Act immediately and to introduce additional online safety protection through the online harms Bill urgently. We can never make the internet safe, but we can make it safer.