Digital Economy Act 2017 (Commencement of Part 3) Bill [HL] Debate

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Digital Economy Act 2017 (Commencement of Part 3) Bill [HL]

Baroness Brinton Excerpts
Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, for laying this Private Member’s Bill, so eloquently introduced by him and supported by all noble Lords who have spoken so far.

As others have said, we should not need to have a Bill to start Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017, which restricts use of porn sites to the over-18s, who must use age verification. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, made the critical point that Parliament approved that legislation five years ago. As we have heard, the law was originally due to come into force in April 2018 but, after repeated delays, the Government announced in 2019 that they would not go ahead with it. The Government are hiding behind the proposed online safety Bill, saying that they will make sure that protection of children from online pornography will be covered. But as both the noble Lords, Lord Morrow and Lord Browne of Belmont, said, it looks as if the online safety Bill is very much less clear and effective than Part 3 of the DEA. Further, it now looks as if it will be at least five and possibly up to 10 years before that proposed legislation comes into practical force, and there is no guarantee that a Minister might not block parts of the online safety Bill, just as happened with the DEA.

My noble friend Lady Benjamin and others made important and critical points about the safety of women. Many of us speaking today have expressed those concerns during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said, the core of this Private Member’s Bill is the protection of children now, and the key to making Part 3 work is a reliable age-verification process. It was moving to hear her say that the Internet Watch Foundation can attest to the need for it in the conversations it is having with children who have been groomed and abused.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, also referred to film classification and the prevention of harm to children. In its role as the age-verification regulator, the British Board of Film Classification reports that a significant and growing evidence base supports the case for preventing children’s access to online pornography. Recently, the BBFC carried out research into children’s exposure to online pornography. The findings include that more than half of 11 to 13 year-olds have seen porn, some being as young as 7 or 8. The majority of young people’s first time watching pornography is accidental: 62% of 11 to 13 year-olds who have seen porn stumbled across it unintentionally. Children see violent content that they find upsetting and disturbing, including content that they feel normalises rape. This comes back to the comments made by noble Lords about the murder of Sarah Everard.

The BBFC would refuse to classify any of this type of content on DVDs. Children do see porn on social media, but most of their viewing is done on dedicated sites. We know that there is now significant public support for the introduction of age verification, with 83% of parents and 56% of 11 to 13 year-olds in favour—so the young people want protection too. The BBFC would have been responsible for making sure that porn sites comply and would have been able to fine or block sites that did not, but it would be up to each site to decide its own system for age verification. It is good to hear that the BBFC has agreed a memorandum of understanding with the Information Commissioner’s Office and the National Cyber Security Centre at GCHQ to ensure that strict privacy rules are maintained.

However, this is all voluntary at the moment—for providers, that is. The BBFC’s voluntary age-certification scheme expects all providers to undergo an audit. One was carried out recently by the NCC Group, which ensured that there was no handover of any personal data. This is absolutely key, because it is vital that age verification is run separately and independently from online providers. Helpfully, over the passage of the past five years, despite the delay in the implementation of Part 3, age verification has improved. The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, talked about anonymous age verification but, for me, it is the independence of the age-verification process from online pornography providers that protects the process from unscrupulous providers and thereby also protects the individual, particularly children.

This would counter previous concerns that too many children could circumvent age verification via a VPM or proxy. It would also reduce the risk of child sexual exploitation and abuse by predators grooming children by enabling predators to groom children by acting as gatekeepers to pornography. So can the Minister say whether he believes that, if made into law, the proposals from the BBFC, ICO and NCC Group would also protect the privacy of individuals? I ask that because one of the other concerns is about the private act of watching legal and consensual pornography that can at the moment be passed on and sold by one of the parties—known as revenge porn. Would this be covered under these age-verification rules?

We also need to ensure that there is no undue targeting of sexual minorities, especially people whose sexual preferences are secret; this includes many younger members of the LGBT community, including young adults. The potential for the hacking of personal data has been very harmful to many people in the past, so we need proposals to make sure that they are protected.

There is one thing that I have not heard anybody else mention in the debate so far. This matter is not just about legislation; it is also about education. Schools need to teach children about the dangers, and how to use the internet and social media safely and responsibly. Parents, whose own education in online data usage is often way behind that of their children, must be empowered to protect their children online, including through digital literacy education and advice and support for parents on best practice.

There is far too much illegal activity online, including child porn, extreme porn and revenge porn. Our existing laws must be properly enforced, which requires more officers, resources and training for police and prosecutors. Keeping children safe online is more difficult than ever, but it is also more important than ever. The Government, social media companies and online providers must do more to protect children from harmful content.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McColl. We on these Benches hope and expect that the Minister will give us a frank response, not the stock response, on why Part 3 has not yet been commenced. However, the one message from all the speakers so far is that time is of the essence and regulators need teeth. Voluntary arrangements do not always work, especially because two things have happened since the passage of the DEA: evidence shows that high numbers of much younger children are encountering online pornography; and age-assurance and verification processes have improved significantly and can now be managed independently of online pornography providers. We cannot wait.