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

Full Debate: Read Full Debate

Baroness Kidron

Main Page: Baroness Kidron (Crossbench - Life peer)

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

Baroness Kidron Excerpts
Baroness Kidron Portrait Baroness Kidron (CB)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, for securing the debate and add my frustration and exasperation to the voices of noble Lords who have already spoken. I declare my interests, particularly that of chair of the 5Rights Foundation and as a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill.

Here we are again, discussing our collective failure to protect children from violent misogynistic pornography and the negative impact it has on body image, self-esteem, sex and relationships. That failure can be measured, in part, by the need of schoolchildren to set up their own website, Everyone’s Invited, so that they could make witness to their tales of epidemic sexual abuse in our schools—about which we have done nothing. It can also be measured by the statistic released this week by the IWF that last year 27,000 seven to 10 year-olds in the UK posted self-generated sexual abuse images—a threefold increase on the year before. In a chilling conversation with colleagues a couple of days ago, the IWF explained how it hears in the voices of these young children language taken directly from the pornography they are mirroring. It is unacceptable to hear the despair of schoolchildren and fail to act. It is tragic to imagine even one child—of any age—mimicking porn for the pleasure of a paedophile, let alone 27,000 seven to 10 year-olds.

We will undoubtedly hear from the Minister that Part 3 of the DEA will be usurped and addressed through the forthcoming online safety Bill. However, that does not account for the failure of Government to implement legislation already fought for in this House, and already in law for five years. Nor does the fact that this measure is absent from the draft online safety Bill, or the recent refusal to accept my Private Member’s Bill on age assurance, give me any confidence that this is a priority for the Government.

Frictionless access to online pornography is not an equivalent to hazy memories of men who once read a soft-porn mag behind the cricket shed. It is a multi-billion industry delivering eye-watering violence towards women and girls, delivered by a tech sector proven to be driven by profit and with a wilful disregard for children’s safety and well-being. It is worth noting that 60% of pornography access by children aged 11 to 13 is not actually searched for—it is unintentional, often delivered algorithmically as content they might like. Waiting for the online safety Bill is no longer an option and access to pornography is not the only issue.

Ofcom’s own research shows that 42% of five to 12 year-olds in the UK use social media services— most of which have a minimum age use of 13. Ofcom’s chief executive, Dame Melanie Dawes, in her evidence to the Joint Committee said that any code of practice under the Bill would take a minimum of 18 months to produce. This does not take into account the year of transition by which it becomes law. This is simply not good enough for an issue of this urgency. A child of 11 getting their first smartphone today will be 14 or15 before they benefit from the online safety Bill, and a child who was 11 when Part 3 was agreed will be an adult. Nor is it acceptable, as I have been told by Ministers and officials, that what is currently proposed by DCMS is a voluntary standard of age assurance rather than a statutory code of practice. Voluntary standards require volunteers and we have seen repeatedly that the sector will not act unless mandated to do so. Age assurance, which is any system of estimating or establishing age, must be subject to rules of the road so that we know that, whatever the technical approach —and believe me, there are many—both third-party providers that offer age checks and services that operate their own age-assurance systems are doing so to a set of agreed principles appropriate to the risk.

On 19 November last year, we had the Second Reading of the Age Assurance (Minimum Standards) Bill, which would have given Ofcom the power to create a mandatory code of age assurance. On that occasion, I set out the arguments for a proportionate, flexible, secure, accurate, privacy-preserving regime for age assurance—one that would finally deal with the issue of underage access to pornography but also support the age-appropriate design code, with its landmark safety and privacy advances—as well as the further safeguards that we anticipate will be brought forward in the online safety Bill. I will not repeat in full what I said on that occasion, but rather refer the noble Lord to that debate and urge him to understand that this is not a question of technology but one of governance.

If government sets the principles of privacy, security, purpose limitation and fairness, we know that the technology is there. We have a vibrant safety tech sector in the UK, and it too has asked that the Government create mandatory standards so that it can be seen to meet them. This is not a zero-sum game. The sector is already checking age, but very badly. It is already taking excessive data from both children and adults, with little oversight over how it is used and with whom it is shared. We must now set a higher bar.

Royal Assent has been granted for age assurance. The Government have promised age assurance. Parents are desperate for age assurance and children will never be safe without it. Waiting for the online safety Bill is to condemn yet another generation of young people to a digital world that fails to protect them. That means it is government that now bears the responsibility for the failure to act.

In the name of the thousands of seven to 10 year-olds who will copycat porn for predators in the meantime and the young people who repeatedly ask that their digital lives be safer, kinder and more equitable, I ask the Minister himself to act and, when he stands to speak, to make a commitment that he personally will put this case, in full, to the Secretary of State and ask that she give government support to the Private Member’s Bill that is sitting at the ready and, in doing so, swiftly fulfil the ambition of Part 3 of the DEA.