DUP Peers call for online age verification to protect children.

DUP Peers speaking during the debate on the Online Safety Bill have called for robust age verification measures to be introduced to protect children from accessing pornographic content.

By Lord Morrow of Clogher Valley Peer

Lord Morrow said,

“This bill is long overdue. The Second Reading of my Private Members Bill was on the 28 January 2022, which sought to commence Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017. This would have ensured that age verification of pornographic was applied to pornographic websites. It is disappointing that Bill has not progressed and that part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, a vital tool that could have prevented children from access online pornography is still not being implemented.

In February 2016 – now 7 years ago - the Government first set out the case for age verification proposals because:

“pornography has never been more easily accessible online, and material that would previously have been considered extreme has become part of mainstream online pornography. When young people access this material, it risks normalising behaviour that might be harmful to their future emotional and psychological development.”

Nothing has changed in 7 years. The threat is still as real today as it was then, all that has changed is that during those 7 years of delay, more children's lives have been harmed. My Lords this cannot be allowed to continue.

I welcome that the Government has indeed listened to the concerns about access to commercial pornographic websites and as a result introduced Part 5 of the Bill. However, I believe there are more changes that are needed to make it effective. Today, I raise only three of them.

The Bill needs a more robust definition of pornography based on the 2017 Act.

The Bill needs to cover all pornography services. Clause 71 says only if a service has “links with the UK” will it be required to comply with the duties in Part 5, where “links with” means only pornographic websites which have a significant number of UK users or have the UK as a target market.

I ask the Minister, what will be considered “significant”? Significant in terms of the total UK adult users who could use their service or significant in terms of, potentially, their global users?

Either way, it seems to me that there could be pornographic websites accessed in the UK that are not required to have age verification to protect those under 18 from accessing this content. I doubt this is what parents are going to expect from this flagship Bill.

Finally the Bill needs a commencement clause for age verification.

Far too many young people have grown up without the protection that age verification could have brought if the 2017 Act had been implemented. There should be no further delay and the Government should demonstrate the urgency that they spoke of when they announced in October 2019, they would not be implementing the 2017 Act.[2] Age verification needs to be implemented as soon as quickly as possible and that is why a commencement clause is needed on the face of the Bill. My Lords, we cannot countenance these measures not being brought into force or even a long delay of 3 or more years.

The children’s charity Barnardo’s have estimated that children have accessed pornographic content almost 55 million times since the Government announced in 2019 that they would be bringing forward the Online Safety Bill as an alternative to part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. This cannot be allowed to continue. That is why we need to get this Bill right and ensure that robust age verification, that applies to all websites and social media that is accessed in the UK is brought in as quickly as possible."

Lord Browne said,

My Lords, it is beyond any doubt that an Online Safety Bill is needed. The internet has been left uncontrolled and unfettered for too long. While the Bill is indeed welcome, it is clear that more work needs to be done to ensure that it adequately protects children online.

There is a substantial body of evidence suggesting that exposure to pornography is harmful to children and young people. Many have spoken in this debate already about the harm of easy access to pornography, which is carried into adult life and has a damaging impact on young people’s views of sex and relationships. For many young men addiction to pornography, which starts in teenage years, can often lead to the belief that women should be dehumanised and objectified. Pornography is becoming a young person’s main reference point for sex and there is no conversation about important issues such as consent. That is why the Bill needs to have proper and robust age verification measures to ensure that children cannot access online pornography and are protected from the obvious harms.

Even if the Bill is enacted with robust age verification, experience tells us this is no guarantee that age verification will be implemented. Parliament passed Part 3 of the Digital Economy Bill in 2017, yet the Government chose not to implement the will of this House. That cannot be allowed to be repeated. Not only must robust age verification be in the Bill, but a commencement date must be added to the Bill to ensure that what happened in the past cannot be allowed to happen again.

I know that some Members of the House are still fearful that age verification presents an insurmountable threat to privacy: that those who choose to view pornography will have to provide their ID documents to those sites and that their interests may be tracked and exposed or used for blackmail purposes. We live in an age where there is little that technology cannot deliver. Verifying your age without disclosing who you are is not a complex problem. Indeed, it has been central to the age verification industry since it first began to prepare for the Digital Economy Act, because neither consumers nor the sites they access would risk Toggle showing location of Column 733working with an age verification provider who could not provide strong reassurance and protection for privacy.

The age verification sector is built on privacy by design and data minimisation principles, which are at the heart of our data protection law. The solutions are created on what the industry calls a double-blind basis. By this, I mean that the adult websites can never know the identity of their users, and the age verification providers do not keep any records of which sites ask them to confirm the age of any particular user. To use the technical terms, it is an anonymised, tokenised solution.

The Government should place into the Bill provisions to ensure robust age verification is put in place, along with a clear time-limited commencement clause to ensure that, on this occasion, age verification is brought in and enforced. I support the Bill, but I trust that, as it makes its way through the House, provisions in it can be strengthened.

Lord Hay said,

My Lords, I very much welcome the Bill to the House, late as it may be. Like the noble Lord, Lord Storey, I know very little about the internet. I certainly know less about the sites we are talking about tonight, but I know that some of those sites are destroying our young people and poisoning their minds.

Age verification in terms of safety for children online was first debated in 2016. It is remarkable that a child who was eight years old when this proposal was first put forward will be an adult when the protections that they deserve will finally be in place. Many children will have been allowed to live through their formative years being exposed to untold harm online. A child who was eight in 2016 could be potentially in the grips of addiction by the time that age verification is made a legal requirement. This did not need to be the case. The harms suffered by many teenagers over the last seven or eight years could have been avoided. As the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, indicated, if the Government had only done what they were supposed to do and implemented age verification through Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, children could have been protected.

According to research by DCMS, 80% of children aged six to 12 have viewed something harmful online, while over 50% of teenagers believe that they have accessed illegal content online. We cannot allow children to continue to be let down. We need to ensure that robust age verification is in place, but, more than that, we need to get it right. While the Bill is a step in the right direction, I think there is a lot more work to be done. This is an important Bill, but it is also important for this House to get it right.

First, we need to ensure that age verification on pornography sites will be brought in on this occasion. The Government cannot be allowed to sidestep this issue. A clear commencement clause needs to be placed into the Bill.

Secondly, we need to ensure that age verification is in place, not just for children accessing pornography; the age of those acting in content must also be verified. User-to-user pornography websites are simply a hotbed of illegal material and children surviving sexual abuse that need to be stopped by the Bill. If it includes clear age verification for those involved in the content, it will be a valuable tool in ensuring that children are not exploited online.

Thirdly, we need to move to protect women and girls from the effects of online pornography. Harmful pornography content promotes violence against women and girls. Evidence shows that excessive consumption of some legal pornography material can result in offenders viewing illegal child sexual abuse material. As increasingly extreme pornography becomes available on mainstream sites, the threshold of what is acceptable is very much lowered.

There is much to support in this legislation: it offers an opportunity to ensure that we can protect women and children. I look forward to working with others to ensure that we can deliver on these important protections.

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