Bishop of Chester questions strength of protections of new online pornography regulations

On 11th December 2018 the House of Lords considered a motion to approve the Online Pornography (Commercial Basis) Regulations 2018. During the debate the Bishop of Chester, Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke:

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I am pleased to speak in general support of the regulations and guidance. They relate to matters which I and others raised during the passage of the Digital Economy Bill in 2017 and, more broadly, to issues debated by the House a couple of years ago in a balloted debate that I introduced. The subject of that debate was the impact of pornography on our society. While there was some disagreement over the impact of pornography on adults, there was virtual unanimity that children needed to be protected from pornography—as far as this could reasonably be achieved. I seem somehow, by default, to have become the episcopal expert on pornography. I am trying to live that down. It is just the way it has fallen—although I often find myself talking from these Benches about things I have not had much experience of.

The regulations deal with protecting children through the introduction of robust age-verification procedures for accessing at least some pornographic sites. I welcome them but I note that there remains good evidence for believing that adult access to pornography is also ​often harmful. The recent report on sexual harassment by the Women and Equalities Select Committee in the other place made this point in a new context, particularly in relation to violent pornography. My welcome of the regulations and guidance is also tempered by some questions which they pose, and which I would like to put to the Minister.

My main concern relates to access to pornography on websites that do not charge for access. Provided their pornographic content is limited to one-third of their total content, they are exempted from the regulations. They may not charge but they may make money from advertising and other sources. What is the rationale for choosing one-third and not, say, 10%? Parents really do not want their children to stumble across online pornography and arguably children are more likely to do that if it is a website that does not charge in the first place. Why is it one-third? I realise that enforcement against every site would be a challenge, but surely the obligation to use access by age verification should be on all sites which promote pornography. What we need is a culture change in relation to child protection and not a partial, piecemeal and limited approach, which I fear these regulations, in some respects, provide.

In this spirit, I also point out that, as the Minister said, social media platforms such as Twitter are not within the scope of the regulations. I am not a tweeting Bishop. It is not something that I engage with much so I speak in some ignorance of just how Twitter works on the grand scale, but I note that just a month ago, a Member of your Lordships’ House, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, stated that 500,000 pornographic images were posted daily—yes, daily—on Twitter; that was on 12 November at col. 1766. Now, 500,000 is a round figure. I do not know what the figure is but clearly if it is anything like that, there is a whole world there of the promotion of pornography which these regulations do not catch. I believe we will need to return to the role played by social media platforms in conveying pornography. They may be difficult to regulate. It is a difficult and complex area, as the Minister said, but that is not an excuse for not trying our best. I believe there is more that we will need to do.

I welcome the regulations and the guidance, as far as they go, but I am sure there are related issues to which we will need to return in due course.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Ashton of Hyde) (Con): …

The right reverend Prelate, the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and others talked about the rationale for choosing one-third of content as the appropriate threshold. During the passage of the Bill, it was established that the focus should be on commercial pornography sites and not on social media. There were good reasons for that but I do not want to revisit them—that is what was decided. The one-third threshold was regarded as proportionate in introducing this new policy where sites make pornography available free of charge. However, websites that market themselves as pornographic will also be required to have age verification, even if less than a third of the content is pornographic.

A third is an arbitrary amount. It was discussed and consulted on, and we think that it is a good place to start on a proportionate basis. We will keep this matter under review and, as I said, it will be one of the obvious things to be taken into account during the 12 to 18-month review. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, asked how it will be measured. It will be measured by assessing the number of pieces of content rather than the length of individual videos. It will include all pornographic images, videos and individual bits of content, but the point to remember is that the threshold is there so that a decision can be made on whether it is reasonable for the regulator to assume that pornographic content makes up more than one-third of the entire content. This will be done by sampling the various sites.



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