The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Child Online Safety – Baroness Howe Calls the Government Out with a Private Members’ Bill.

Everybody says they take child online safety seriously... everybody. So, it seemed there was much to celebrate when the Government’s Digital Economy Act 2017 included a commitment, in part 3 of the Act, to introduce legislation for robust age-verification checks for online porn sites, with a regulator instructed to block any site anywhere in the world that failed to comply.

Despite the British Board for Film Classification (BBFC) having guidance as to how such checks might work ready as early as March 2018, since the Act came into force, introducing age-verification has been delayed and delayed and finally shelved.  Now the Government is introducing an Online Harms Bill, ‘to improve internet safety for all’.  But, as Baroness Howe of Idlicote said in the House of Lords on 9th January “This new Bill seems to be a desire to put attempts to protect children from pornographic websites on the same footing as attempts to protect them on social media platforms” – replacing age-verification with a new legal duty of care and codes of practice that a regulator can enforce with fines. But, to quote Baroness Howe again, "The internet is complicated and one-size-fits-all policies simply will not work."

There is no need for a one-size-fits-all policy anyway – the challenge of protecting children from pornographic websites has already been met - back in 2017 in part 3 of the Digital Economy Act.  It’s there on the statute book.  So why did the Government kick it into touch?

True, online age-verification is tricky.  The UK's legal porn industry were instrumental in the drawing up of the proposals, and CMF met them along with the BBFC and other interested groups at Parliamentary round-tables hosted by Baroness Benjamin. There was concern at the time about privacy and the handling of people's data. And after the Act was passed, despite repeated reassurances from pornography websites and age verification sites (many of them owned by the pornography websites) that personal details would be kept separate from information about what users had watched, privacy campaigners continued to raise concerns about data security. Eventually issues over failure to inform the EU as to its plans finally led the government to abandon the age verification plan, in favour of implementing controls in its Online Harms White Paper.

But none of that is the audience’s problem.

Impatient with the Government’s procrastination and the continued online danger to children, Baroness Howe will introduce her Digital Economy Act 2017 (commencement of Part 3) Bill on 21st January 2020, to force the implementation of this important aspect of child safety. The Children’s Media Foundation welcomes this move. Just because something is difficult - implementing a suitable safety check- doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.  Guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) reflects that from the BBFC; putting the onus on companies to work within a framework of expectation (similar to the BBC editorial guidelines approach) rather than specific rules. That would put the emphasis on companies to prove that their users are not under 18, rather than to verify that user is over 18.  The Online Harms Bill does require online platforms to determine that their audience are not children BUT failure only results in a fine. How will that protect young children from seeing things they can’t unsee? If part 3 of the Digital Economy Act was implemented, the regulator would have had the power to block the offending site that failed to use age-verification.

The Children’s Media Foundation has long said that the digital world should match the expectations of the real world, in which we strive for a safe environment for children with walled gardens (discreet porn shops) for adults, rather than the other way round.  We wish Baroness Howe a successful journey through Parliament with this important legislation.

 

Jayne Kirkham
CMF Political Liaison

Industry Policy

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