The Bishop of Guildford spoke in support of amendments aiming to prevent children from accessing online pornography during a debate on the Online Safety Bill on 25th April 2023:
The Lord Bishop of Guildford: My Lords, one of our clergy in the diocese of Guildford has been campaigning for more than a decade, as have others in this Committee, on children’s access to online pornography. With her, I support the amendments in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Lady Harding.
Her concerns eventually made their way to the floor of the General Synod of the Church of England in a powerful debate in July last year. The synod voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion, which said that we
“acknowledge that our children and young people are suffering grave harm from free access to online pornography”
and urged us to
“have in place age verification systems to prevent children from having access to those sites”.
It asked Her Majesty’s Government to use their best endeavours to secure the passage and coming into force of legislation requiring age-verification systems preventing access by people under the age of 18. It also recommended more social and educational programmes to increase awareness of the harms of pornography, including self-generated sexually explicit images.
Introducing the motion, my chaplain, Reverend Jo Winn-Smith, said that age verification
“ought to be a no-brainer … Exposure to sexualised material is more likely to lead to young people engaging in more sexualised behaviour and to feel social pressure to have sex”,
as well as normalising sexual violence against girls and women. A speech from the chaplain-general of the Prison Service towards the end of the debate highlighted just where such behaviours and pressures could lead in extreme circumstances.
One major theme that emerged during the debate is highlighted by the amendments this afternoon: that access to online pornography goes far beyond materials that fall into what the Bill defines as Part 5 services. Another is highlighted in a further group of amendments: age assurance needs to be both mandatory and effective beyond reasonable doubt.
It was also commented on how this whole area has taken such an age to get on to the statute book, given David Cameron’s proposals way back in 2013 and further legislation proposed in 2018 that was never enacted. Talk of secondary legislation to define harmful content in that regard is alarming, as a further amendment indicates, given the dragging of feet that has now been perpetuated for more than a decade. That is a whole generation of children and young people.
In an imaginative speech in the synod debate, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, Archbishop Stephen, reminded us that the internet is not a platform; it is a public space, where all the rights and norms you would expect in public should apply. In the 1970s, he continued, we famously put fluoride in the water supply, because we knew it would be great for dental health; now is the opportunity to put some fluoride into the internet. I add only this: let us not water down the fluoride to a point where it becomes feeble and ineffective.
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