Digital Economy Bill: Bishop of Chester on proposed age verification measures for adult content

On 13th December 2016 the Government’s Digital Economy Bill was debated at its Second Reading in the House of Lords. The Bishop of Chester, the Rt Rev’d Peter Forster, contributed to the debate, focusing on issues in Part 3 of the Bill relating to online pornography and social media.

I remember one older lady saying to me, “I will now happily go out in my car because if I break down I can call for help from the car itself”. That duality has remained with me over the years, and not least as the power of digital communication has expanded in such unprecedented and unimaginable ways.

Knowing how to provide regulation while not stifling the inherent creativity that the digital revolution is bringing is by no means easy. There are also profound issues of privacy that arise regularly, and which we confronted directly when dealing with the Investigatory Powers Bill. A little over a year ago I introduced a balloted debate in your Lordships’ House on the impact of pornography on society, and we had a good discussion. Two distinguished social scientists who are well known to the House, the noble Lords, Lord Giddens and Lord Parekh, urged caution in coming to any conclusions about the impact of pornography given that the digital age is transforming human experience in general and human sexual experience in particular in unprecedented ways that we are only just beginning to understand. I quote the noble Lord, Lord Giddens:

“If children are shielded too much, and for too long, they may not be able to cope when plunged into the maelstrom that is sexuality today”.—[Official Report, 5/11/15; col. 1774.]

Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, parted company with his noble friend Lord Giddens on that point:

“Children are not in a position to exercise personal autonomy. They cannot be entrusted with the liberty we would entrust to adults. They are … not able to distinguish between real life and fantasy, and they can easily be persuaded to do … things that ought not to be done … They need to be protected against certain kinds of manipulation and exploitation”.—[Official Report, 5/11/15; col. 1783.]

That is why the Conservative manifesto contained a pledge to introduce secure age verification for access to pornographic material and why I support these provisions in the Bill, which have been so usefully strengthened during its passage through the other place with the insertion of Clauses 23 and 80. One of my own MPs from Cheshire, Mrs Fiona Bruce, played a key role in this, as I am very pleased to acknowledge. No doubt there will be details to discuss, but the fundamental trajectory is one that I hope we can more or less all share. The two new clauses help to make the application of age verification both more enforceable and more internally consistent.

I will conclude my remarks with a brief observation and then with a specific question for the Minister. My observation is that seeking to maintain a sharp distinction between what people can do when they are under the age of 18 and what they can do when aged 18 and over will need careful consideration in the future. We and our society must prepare people for life as adults in realistic and effective ways. A great deal needs to be done in an honest and transparent manner, and here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, not least when looking at the PSHE curriculum because it is so much of a political football—but then nothing happens. However, there are really serious issues which cannot be ducked if we want to prepare children for the world as it actually is—the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens.

At the same time, I do not think we can simply assume without further thought and the careful research which is undoubtedly needed that adult exposure to pornographic material is always justifiable in the name of individual freedom and choice. This area is beyond the current Bill and certainly, careful evidence-based research is required, but there have been too many warnings from senior judges and others who have seen with their own eyes evidence of the corrupting potential of pornography in the serious criminal trials they were overseeing. Just where the legal lines are drawn, I am not sure, because some difficult questions are raised in this area, but I would like to suggest that these issues are important ones for the future.

Finally, I have a question for the Minister. I would like him to comment on what the expectations are for social media sites like Twitter, which can themselves host user-generated pornographic content. The expectations on commercial pornography websites are set out pretty clearly in Clause 15, but will the Minister please clarify how the Bill as drafted will impact on social media sites? Clause 22 starts to cover this with its reference to “ancillary service providers”, but in Clause 22(6) the reference is restricted to business activities so provided. Evidence from the Government to the Communications Select Committee on 29 October was as follows:

“Twitter is a user-generated uploading-content site. If there is pornography on Twitter, it will be considered covered under ancillary services”.

How does that apply to material on Twitter that is not uploaded in the course of business activities? I ask the Minister to clarify this point when he responds.

Lord Ashton of Hyde (MInister) [extract]: Many noble Lords—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe, Lady Kidron and Lady Benjamin, the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson, Lord Storey, Lord Gordon, Lord Whitty and Lord Morrow, the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and there may have been others—talked about and approved of the age-verification regime, at least to a certain extent. The Bill delivers on the manifesto commitment but there is always more to do and we think that is possible. I look forward to debating this in Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked what oversight there will be of the BBFC to ensure that these powers are used responsibly. We are pleased that we are working with the BBFC; it has a strong track record as an independent regulator. We recognise that age verification brings challenges and we must provide the regulator with the framework to succeed. We are already working closely with it to implement this ambitious policy and it is not the case that the Government’s role will then be finalised. The Bill provides for the designation of funding of the regulator by the Secretary of State, who must be satisfied, for instance, that arrangements for appeals are being maintained. In the case of blocking, the regulator must inform the Secretary of State whenever it intends to notify an ISP.

..The right reverend Prelate, the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Lady Benjamin, and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, asked a valid question about social media and Twitter. The Government believe that services, including Twitter, can be classified by regulators as ancillary service providers where they are enabling or facilitating the making available of pornographic or prohibited material. This means that they could be notified of commercial pornographers to whom they provide a service but this will not apply to material provided on a non-commercial basis.


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