Bishop of Chester speaks in favour of greater protection for children online

On 6th December 2013, the Bishop of Chester spoke during the Second Reading of Baroness Howe’s Online Safety Bill. Speaking in support of the Bill and strengthening legal protections for children, he argued that the regulation of the internet was a question that couldn’t be avoided. An approach based on self-regulation only would not be sufficient. He noted that the danger in the information age was that we do not see beyond the information itself to the higher realities of knowledge and wisdom that that abundance of information should seek to serve. The Bishop of Derby also spoke during the debate.

14.03 Bishop of ChesterThe Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, it will not surprise the House to learn that I support the Bill, and I add my words of gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for her energy and persistence in bringing it forward. The Bill deals with an important aspect of child protection in relation to violent, abusive and, especially, pornographic material. In speaking mainly about pornography, I make it clear that I do not think that the issues around pornography in our society relate only to children. Indeed, I have a Motion for balloted debate which would look at the wider issues and the impact of pornography on our society. I hope that the House will have a chance to explore those rather difficult issues at some point before too long.

Only yesterday, the Financial Times revealed that around a quarter of all online searches are for pornography and that those who conduct such searches are then targeted by a host of other companies and users with related material. According to the report, more than 85% of the 5 million pornographic websites are supported by advertising. That is the wider background to the debate today. However, for us this morning, the scope is more limited and, I believe, more straightforward. We are dealing with an important aspect of child protection. The precise links between the use of pornography and child abuse are much disputed, as we have heard, but it seems that there are links, as is regularly suggested during prosecutions. Strengthening the legal protections for children in our society may well have a wider and welcome impact upon the tendency to regard pornography as in some sense just a normal and natural part of adult life. I hope that we can look at all these questions if and when my Motion comes up in the ballot.

The other fundamental issue raised by the Bill is the regulation of the internet, which is not an easy one to address, for reasons of both principle and practicality, as the noble Baroness mentioned just now. However, it is a question that cannot be avoided. I liken the impact of the electronic age to previous great social and economic revolutions such as the development of steam power or the internal combustion engine. I suspect that the impact of the internet is and will be even greater and will come upon us even faster. When, in a previous incarnation, I was a chemistry undergraduate at the University of Oxford, I remember computers in the 1970s which filled whole rooms. They needed to be fed with programs written in now extinct languages using tickertape. Ten years later, some homes had portable but still quite bulky and limited computers, and still later we saw the emergence of the internet itself. The rapidity of the development has been extraordinary and no doubt has a long way to run yet.

I have no doubt that huge benefits have flowed and are flowing from all this, but the danger in the information age is always that we do not see beyond the information itself to the higher realities of knowledge and wisdom that that abundance of information should seek to serve. How do we bring to bear on the internet the wider wisdom of society? In this particular regard, how should we seek to extend the protection of children, which is now so well established offline, to the online world? We rightly limit the retail availability of pornographic and violent material to children, and this Bill merely seeks to extend that protection online.

Noble Lords may have noticed that I have yet to use a word that occupies a prominent place in the Bill—the word “adult”. I recognise the legal reasons for the Bill referring to “adult” material, but I enter a note of regret that this is the language that has to be used. I try in my general behaviour to behave in an adult and grown-up way, no doubt with many failures and notwithstanding the hope for a certain childlikeness which should attend human beings of every age. I regret the way that our society has come to associate the word “pornographic” with the word “adult” quite so easily; I could suggest some other title or description another day. Be that as it may, I wholeheartedly support the aim of the Bill to provide a legal framework for the regulation of the internet and associated electronic media in this regard.

I do not believe that an approach based simply on self-regulation will do. All credit should go to the Prime Minister and others who have made a good start in that area, but the internet is just too powerful for that. The greater the positive benefits that flow from its power, the greater the likely dangers that emerge as well. It is simply a rule of life that things that are of positive benefit usually have a negative use attached to them somewhere. That is demonstrably the case in relation to the internet. I acknowledge the efforts that are currently being made but I do not regard voluntary self-regulation to be fully adequate, either practically or in terms of its underlying ethos. The provisions of the Bill would reinforce and undergird the self-regulation that we welcome.

When one deals with major social issues, voluntary co-operation and self-regulation are indeed greatly to be welcomed and encouraged, but the law generally has a role as well. As we have found in so many other sensitive areas of life—for example, in relation to equality and non-discrimination—changes in the law help to change public attitudes in all sorts of ways, precisely because the rule of law, which is the foundation of our society and democracy, is expressed through the specific corpus of actual laws. That does not mean that all regulatory principles should be set out in law, but the importance and significance of providing, as far as we can, a safe environment for our children leads me to support the Bill wholeheartedly. It is not a matter of freedom versus censorship. It is about championing the rule of law rather than anarchy; civil society rather than an internet version of the wild west in which anything goes.

Today’s debate is held in the shadow of the death of Nelson Mandela, who said:

“Any country, any society which does not care for its children is no nation at all”.

The Bill provides for a healthier society and I hope that the Government will give it a fair wind.

My Lords, it will not surprise the House to learn that I support the Bill, and I add my words of gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for her energy and persistence in bringing it forward. The Bill deals with an important aspect of child protection in relation to violent, abusive and, especially, pornographic material. In speaking mainly about pornography, I make it clear that I do not think that the issues around pornography in our society relate only to children. Indeed, I have a Motion for balloted debate which would look at the wider issues and the impact of pornography on our society. I hope that the House will have a chance to explore those rather difficult issues at some point before too long.
Only yesterday, the Financial Times revealed that around a quarter of all online searches are for pornography and that those who conduct such searches are then targeted by a host of other companies and users with related material. According to the report, more than 85% of the 5 million pornographic websites are supported by advertising. That is the wider background to the debate today. However, for us this morning, the scope is more limited and, I believe, more straightforward. We are dealing with an important aspect of child protection. The precise links between the use of pornography and child abuse are much disputed, as we have heard, but it seems that there are links, as is regularly suggested during prosecutions. Strengthening the legal protections for children in our society may well have a wider and welcome impact upon the tendency to regard pornography as in some sense just a normal and natural part of adult life. I hope that we can look at all these questions if and when my Motion comes up in the ballot.
The other fundamental issue raised by the Bill is the regulation of the internet, which is not an easy one to address, for reasons of both principle and practicality, as the noble Baroness mentioned just now. However, it is a question that cannot be avoided. I liken the impact of the electronic age to previous great social and economic revolutions such as the development of steam power or the internal combustion engine. I suspect that the impact of the internet is and will be even greater and will come upon us even faster. When, in a previous incarnation, I was a chemistry undergraduate at the University of Oxford, I remember computers in the 1970s which filled whole rooms. They needed to be fed with programs written in now extinct languages using tickertape. Ten years later, some homes had portable but still quite bulky and limited computers, and still later we saw the emergence of the internet itself. The rapidity of the development has been extraordinary and no doubt has a long way to run yet.
I have no doubt that huge benefits have flowed and are flowing from all this, but the danger in the information age is always that we do not see beyond the information itself to the higher realities of knowledge and wisdom that that abundance of information should seek to serve. How do we bring to bear on the internet the wider wisdom of society? In this particular regard, how should we seek to extend the protection of children, which is now so well established offline, to the online world? We rightly limit the retail availability of pornographic and violent material to children, and this Bill merely seeks to extend that protection online.
Noble Lords may have noticed that I have yet to use a word that occupies a prominent place in the Bill—the word “adult”. I recognise the legal reasons for the Bill referring to “adult” material, but I enter a note of regret that this is the language that has to be used. I try in my general behaviour to behave in an adult and grown-up way, no doubt with many failures and notwithstanding the hope for a certain childlikeness which should attend human beings of every age. I regret the way that our society has come to associate the word “pornographic” with the word “adult” quite so easily; I could suggest some other title or description another day. Be that as it may, I wholeheartedly support the aim of the Bill to provide a legal framework for the regulation of the internet and associated electronic media in this regard.
I do not believe that an approach based simply on self-regulation will do. All credit should go to the Prime Minister and others who have made a good start in that area, but the internet is just too powerful for that. The greater the positive benefits that flow from its power, the greater the likely dangers that emerge as well. It is simply a rule of life that things that are of positive benefit usually have a negative use attached to them somewhere. That is demonstrably the case in relation to the internet. I acknowledge the efforts that are currently being made but I do not regard voluntary self-regulation to be fully adequate, either practically or in terms of its underlying ethos. The provisions of the Bill would reinforce and undergird the self-regulation that we welcome.
When one deals with major social issues, voluntary co-operation and self-regulation are indeed greatly to be welcomed and encouraged, but the law generally has a role as well. As we have found in so many other sensitive areas of life—for example, in relation to equality and non-discrimination—changes in the law help to change public attitudes in all sorts of ways, precisely because the rule of law, which is the foundation of our society and democracy, is expressed through the specific corpus of actual laws. That does not mean that all regulatory principles should be set out in law, but the importance and significance of providing, as far as we can, a safe environment for our children leads me to support the Bill wholeheartedly. It is not a matter of freedom versus censorship. It is about championing the rule of law rather than anarchy; civil society rather than an internet version of the wild west in which anything goes.
Today’s debate is held in the shadow of the death of Nelson Mandela, who said:
“Any country, any society which does not care for its children is no nation at all”.
The Bill provides for a healthier society and I hope that the Government will give it a fair wind.

(via Parliament.uk)

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