Lord Knight of Weymouth Portrait Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab)
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Yes; the noble Baroness is right. She has pointed out in other discussions I have been party to that, for example, gaming technology that looks at the movement of the player can quite accurately work out from their musculoskeletal behaviour, I assume, the age of the gamer. So there are alternative methods. Our challenge is to ensure that if they are to be used, we will get the equivalent of age verification or better. I now hand over to the Minister.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, I think those last two comments were what are known in court as leading questions.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, said herself, some of the ground covered in this short debate was covered in previous groups, and I am conscious that we have a later grouping where we will cover it again, including some of the points that were made just now. I therefore hope that noble Lords will understand if I restrict myself at this point to Amendments 29, 83 and 103, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie.

These amendments seek to mandate age verification for pornographic content on a user-to-user or search service, regardless of the size and capacity of a service provider. The amendments also seek to remove the requirement on Ofcom to have regard to proportionality and technical feasibility when setting out measures for providers on pornographic content in codes of practice. While keeping children safe online is the top priority for the Online Safety Bill, the principle of proportionate, risk-based regulation is also fundamental to the Bill’s framework. It is the Government’s considered opinion that the Bill as drafted already strikes the correct balance between these two.

The provisions in the Bill on proportionality are important to ensure that the requirements in the child-safety duties are tailored to the size and capacity of providers. It is also essential that measures in codes of practice are technically feasible. This will ensure that the regulatory framework as a whole is workable for service providers and enforceable by Ofcom. I reassure your Lordships that the smaller providers or providers with less capacity are still required to meet the child safety duties where their services pose a risk to children. They will need to put in place sufficiently stringent systems and processes that reflect the level of risk on their services, and will need to make sure that these systems and processes achieve the required outcomes of the child safety duty. Wherever in the Bill they are regulated, companies will need to take steps to ensure that they cannot offer pornographic content online to those who should not see it. Ofcom will set out in its code of practice the steps that companies in the scope of Part 3 can take to comply with their duties under the Bill, and will take a robust approach to sites that pose the greatest risk of harm to children, including sites hosting online pornography.

The passage of the Bill should be taken as a clear message to providers that they need to begin preparing for regulation now—indeed, many are. Responsible providers should already be factoring in regulatory compliance as part of their business costs. Ofcom will continue to work with providers to ensure that the transition to the new regulatory framework will be as smooth as possible.

The Government expect companies to use age-verification technologies to prevent children accessing services that pose the highest risk of harm to children, such as online pornography. The Bill will not mandate that companies use specific technologies to comply with new duties because, as noble Lords have heard me say before, what is most effective in preventing children accessing pornography today might not be equally effective in future. In addition, age verification might not always be the most appropriate or effective approach for user-to-user companies to comply with their duties. For instance, if a user-to-user service, such as a particular 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. This would allow content to be better detected and taken down, instead of restricting children from seeing content which is not allowed on the service in the first place. Companies may also use another approach if it is proportionate to the findings of the child safety risk assessment and a provider’s size and capacity. This is an important element to ensure that the regulatory framework remains risk-based and proportionate.

In addition, the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, risk inadvertently shutting children out of large swathes of the internet that are entirely appropriate for them to access. This is because it is impossible totally to eliminate the risk that a single piece of pornography or pornographic material might momentarily appear on a site, even if that site prohibits it and has effective systems in place to prevent it appearing. Her amendments would have the effect of essentially requiring every service to block children through the use of age verification.

Those are the reasons why the amendments before us are not ones that we can accept. Mindful of the fact that we will return to these issues in a future group, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this wide-ranging debate, in which various issues have been raised.

The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, made the good point that there needs to be a level playing field between Parts 3 and 5, which I originally raised and which other noble Lords raised on Tuesday of last week. We keep coming back to this point, so I hope that the Minister will take note of it on further reflection before we reach Report. Pornography needs to be regulated on a consistent basis across the Bill.

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I wonder whether I can make a brief intervention—I am sorry to do so after the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, but I want to intervene before my noble friend the Minister stands up, unless the Labour Benches are about to speak.

I have been pondering this debate and have had a couple of thoughts. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I am reminded of something which was always very much a guiding light for me when I chaired the Charity Commission, and therefore working in a regulatory space: regulation is never an end in itself; you regulate for a reason.

I was struck by the first debate we had on day one of Committee about the purpose of the Bill. If noble Lords recall, I said in that debate that, for me, the Bill at its heart was about enhancing the accountability of the platforms and the social media businesses. I felt that the contribution from my noble friend Lady Harding was incredibly important. What we are trying to do here is to use enforcement to drive culture change, and to force the organisations not to never think about profit but to move away from profit-making to focusing on child safety in the way in which they go about their work. That is really important when we start to consider the whole issue of enforcement.

It struck me at the start of this discussion that we have to be clear what our general approach and mindset is about this part of our economy that we are seeking to regulate. We have to be clear about the crimes we think are being committed or the offences that need to be dealt with. We need to make sure that Ofcom has the powers to tackle those offences and that it can do so in a way that meets Parliament’s and the public’s expectations of us having legislated to make things better.

I am really asking my noble friend the Minister, when he comes to respond on this, to give us a sense of clarity on the whole question of enforcement. At the moment, it is insufficiently clear. Even if we do not get that level of clarity today, when we come back later on and look at enforcement, it is really important that we know what we are trying to tackle here.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I will endeavour to give that clarity, but it may be clearer still if I flesh some points out in writing in addition to what I say now.