On 25th April 2023, the House of Lords debated the Online Safety Bill in committee. The Bishop of Oxford spoke in the debate, in support of various amendments to the bill that would extend protections for children against online harms:
The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the two noble Baronesses. I remind the Committee of my background as a board member of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. I also declare an indirect interest, as my oldest son is the founder and studio head of Mediatonic, which is now part of Epic Games and is the maker of “Fall Guys”, which I am sure is familiar to your Lordships.
I speak today in support of Amendments 2 and 92 and the consequent amendments in this group. I also support the various app store amendments proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, but I will not address them directly in these remarks.
I was remarkably encouraged on Wednesday by the Minister’s reply to the debate on the purposes of the Bill, especially by the priority that he and the Government gave to the safety of children as its primary purpose. The Minister underlined this point in three different ways:
“The main purposes of the Bill are: to give the highest levels of protection to children … The Bill will require companies to take stringent measures to tackle illegal content and protect children, with the highest protections in the Bill devoted to protecting children … Children’s safety is prioritised throughout this Bill”.—[Official Report, 19/4/23; col. 724.]
The purpose of Amendments 2 and 92 and consequent amendments is to extend and deepen the provisions in the Bill to protect children against a range of harms. This is necessary for both the present and the future. It is necessary in the present because of the harms to which children are exposed through a broad range of services, many of which are not currently in the Bill’s scope. Amendment 2 expands the scope to include any internet service that meets the child user condition and enables or promotes harmful activity and content as set out in the schedule provided. Why would the Government not take this step, given the aims and purposes of the Bill to give the highest protection to children?
Every day, the diocese of Oxford educates some 60,000 children in our primary and secondary schools. Almost all of them have or will have access to a smartphone, either late in primary, hopefully, or early in secondary school. The smartphone is a wonderful tool to access educational content, entertainment and friendship networks, but it is also a potential gateway for companies, children and individuals to access children’s inner lives, in secret, in the dead of night and without robust regulation. It therefore exposes them to harm. Sometimes that harm is deliberate and sometimes unintentional. This power for harm will only increase in the coming years without these provisions.
The Committee needs to be alert to generational changes in technology. When I was 16 in secondary school in Halifax, I did a computer course in the sixth form. We had to take a long bus ride to the computer building in Huddersfield University. The computer filled several rooms in the basement. The class learned how to program using punch cards. The answers to our questions came back days later, on long screeds of printed paper.
When my own children were teenagers and my oldest was 16, we had one family computer in the main living room of the house. The family was able to monitor usage. Access to the internet was possible, but only through a dial-up modem. The oldest of my grandchildren is now seven and many of his friends have smartphones now. In a few years, he will certainly carry a connected device in his pocket and, potentially, have access to the entire internet 24/7.
I want him and millions of other children to have the same protection online as he enjoys offline. That means recognising that harms come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are easy to spot, such as pornography. We know the terrible damage that porn inflicts on young lives. Some are more insidious and gradual: addictive behaviours, the promotion of gambling, the erosion of confidence, grooming, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, encouraging eating disorders, fostering addiction through algorithms and eroding the barriers of the person.
The NSPCC describes many harms to children on social networks that we are all now familiar with, but it also highlights online chat, comments on livestream sites, voice chat in games and private messaging among the vectors for harm. According to Ofcom, nine in 10 children in the UK play video games, and they do so on devices ranging from computers to mobile phones to consoles. Internet Matters says that most children’s first interaction with someone they do not know online is now more likely to be in a video game such as “Roblox” than anywhere else. It also found that parents underestimate the frequency with which their children are contacted by strangers online.
The Gambling Commission has estimated that 25,000 children in the UK aged between 11 and 16 are problem gamblers, with many of them introduced to betting via computer games and social media. Families have been left with bills, sometimes of more than £3,000, after uncontrolled spending on loot boxes.
Online companies, we know, design their products with psychological principles of engagement firmly in view, and then refine their products by scraping data from users. According to the Information Commissioner, more than 1 million underage children could have been exposed to underage content on TikTok alone, with the platform collecting and using their personal data.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has said, we already have robust and tested definitions of scope in the ICO’s age-appropriate design code—definitions increasingly taken up in other jurisdictions. To give the highest protection to children, we need to build on these secure definitions in this Bill and find the courage to extend robust protection across the internet now.
We also need to future-proof this Bill. These key amendments would ensure that any development, any new kind of service not yet imagined which meets the child user condition and enables or promotes harmful activity and content, would be in scope. This would give Ofcom the power to develop new guidance and accountabilities for the applications that are certain to come in the coming years.
We have an opportunity and a responsibility, as the Minister has said, to build the highest protection into this Bill. I support the key amendments standing in my name.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Storey (LD): My Lords, I enter this Committee debate with great trepidation. I do not have the knowledge and expertise of many of your Lordships, who I have listened to with great interest. What I do have is experience working with children, for over 40 years, and as a parent myself. I want to make what are perhaps some innocent remarks.
I was glad that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford raised the issue of online gaming. I should perhaps declare an interest, in that I think Liverpool is the third-largest centre of online gaming in terms of developing those games. It is interesting to note that over 40% of the entertainment industry’s global revenue comes from gaming, and it is steadily growing year on year.
I will listen with great interest to the tussles between various learned Lords, as all these issues show to me that perhaps the most important issue will come several Committee days down the path, when we talk about media literacy. That is because it is not just about enforcement, regulation or ratings; it is about making sure that parents have the understanding and the capacity. Let us not forget this about young people: noble Lords have talked about them all having a phone and wanting to go on pornographic sites, but I do not think that is the case at all. Often, young people, because of peer pressure and because of their innocence, are drawn into unwise situations. Then there are the risks that gaming can lead to: for example, gaming addiction was mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. There is also the health impact and maybe a link with violent behaviour. There is the interactive nature of video game players, cyber bullying and the lack of a feeling of well-being. All these things can happen, which is why we need media literacy to ensure that young people know of those risks and how to cope with them.
Lord Clement-Jones (LD): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford talked about the fact that harms will only increase in coming years, particularly, as he said, with ever younger children having access to mobile technology. Of course, I agree with my noble friend about the question of media literacy. This goes hand in hand with regulation, as we will discover when we talk about this later on. These amendments will not, in the words of my noble friend, break the internet: I think they will add substantially and beneficially to regulation.
Lord Knight of Weymouth (Lab): I turn to Amendments 19, 22, 298 and 299 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Harding and Lady Stowell, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and myself. Others, too, have drawn the analogy between app stores and corner shops selling alcohol, and it makes sense to think about the distribution points in the system—the pinch points that all users go through—and to see whether there is a viable way of protecting people and regulating through those pinch points. The Bill seeks to protect us via the platforms that host and promote content having regulation imposed on them, and risk assessments and so on, but it makes a lot of sense to add app stores, given how we now consume the internet.
I remember, all those years ago, having CD drives—floppy disk drives, even—in computers, and going off to buy software from a retail store and having to install it. I do not go quite as far back as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, but I remember those days well. Nowadays as consumers almost all of us access our software through app stores, be it software for our phones or software for our laptops. That is the distribution point for mobiles and essentially it is, as others have said, a duopoly that we hope will be addressed by the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill.
Baroness Kidron (Con): The noble Lords, Lord Bethell and Lord Stevenson, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford have a package of amendments which are very widely supported across the Committee. They have put forward a schedule of age assurance that says what the rules of the road are. We must stop pretending that age assurance is something that is being invented now in this Bill. If you log into a website with your Facebook login, it shares your age—and that is used by 42% of people online. However, if you use an Apple login, it does not share your age, so I recommend using Apple—but, interestingly, it is harder to find that option on websites, because websites want to know your age.
So, first, we must not treat age assurance as if it has just been invented. Secondly, we need to start to have rules of the road, and ask what is acceptable, what is proportionate, and when we will have zero tolerance. Watching faces around the Committee, I say that I will accept zero tolerance for pornography and some other major subjects, but, for the most part, age assurance is something that we need to have regulated. Currently, it is being done to us rather than in any way that is transparent or agreed, and that is very problematic.
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