Online Safety Bill: Bishop of Oxford supports amendments to protect children from online pornography

On 23rd May 2023, the House of Lords debated amendments to the Online Safety Bill in committee. The Bishop of Oxford spoke in support of amendments tabled by himself, Lord Bethell, and Baroness Kidron, which would institute greater protections for children to prevent them from accessing online pornography:

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, it is such a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. I pay tribute to her years of campaigning on this issue and the passion with which she spoke today. It is also a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, in supporting all the amendments in this group. They are vital to this Bill, as all sides of this Committee agree. They all have my full support.

When I was a child, my grandparents’ home, like most homes, was heated by a coal fire. One of the most vital pieces of furniture in any house where there were children in those days was the fireguard. It was there to prevent children getting too near to the flame and the smoke, either by accident or by design. It needed to be robust, well secured and always in position, to prevent serious physical harm. You might have had to cut corners on various pieces of equipment for your house, but no sensible family would live without the best possible fireguard they could find.

We lack any kind of fireguard at present and the Bill currently proposes an inadequate fireguard for children. A really important point to grasp on this group of amendments is that children cannot be afforded the protections that the Bill gives them unless they are identified as children. Without that identification, the other protections fail. That is why age assurance is so foundational to the safety duties and mechanisms in the Bill. Surely, I hope, the Minister will acknowledge both that we have a problem and that the present proposals offer limited protection. We have a faulty fireguard.

These are some of the consequences. Three out of five 11 to 13 year-olds have unintentionally viewed pornography online. That is most of them. Four out of five 12 to 15 year-olds say they have had a potentially harmful experience online. That is almost universal. Children as young as seven are accessing pornographic content and three out of five eight to 11 year-olds—you might want to picture a nine year-old you know—have a social media profile, when they should not access those sites before the age of 13. That profile enables them to view adult content. The nation’s children are too close to the fire and are being harmed.

There is much confusion about what age assurance is. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has said, put simply it is the ability to estimate or verify an individual’s age. There are many different types of age assurance, from facial recognition to age verification, which all require different levels of information and can give varying levels of assurance. At its core, age assurance is a tool which allows services to offer age-appropriate experiences to their users. The principle is important, as what might be appropriate for a 16 year-old might be inappropriate for a 13 year-old. That age assurance is absolutely necessary to give children the protections they deserve.

Ofcom’s research shows that more than seven out of 10 parents of children aged 13 to 17 were concerned about their children seeing age-inappropriate content or their child seeing adult or sexual content online. Every group I have spoken to about the Bill in recent months has shared this concern. Age assurance would enable services to create age-appropriate experiences for children online and can help prevent children’s exposure to this content. The best possible fireguard would be in place.

Different levels of age assurance are appropriate in different circumstances. Amendments 161 and 142 establish that services which use age assurance must do so in line with the basic rules of the road. They set out that age assurance must be proportionate to the level of risk of a service. For high-risk services, such as pornography, sites much establish the age of their users beyond reasonable doubt. Equally, a service which poses no risk may not need to use age assurance or may use a less robust form of age assurance to engage with children in an age-appropriate manner—for example, serving them the terms and conditions in a video format.

As has been said, age assurance must be privacy-preserving. It must not be used as an excuse for services to use the most intrusive technology for data-extractive purposes. These are such common-sense amendments, but vital. They will ensure that children are prevented from accessing the most high-risk sites, enable services to serve their users age-appropriate experiences, and ensure that age assurance is not used inappropriately in a way that contravenes a user’s right to privacy.

As has also been said, there is massive support for this more robust fireguard in the country at large, across this House and, I believe, in the other place. I have not yet been able to understand, or begin to understand, the Government’s reasons for not providing the best protection for our children, given the aim of the Bill. Better safeguards are technically possible and eminently achievable. I would be grateful if the Minister could attempt to explain what exactly he and the Government intend to do, given the arguments put forward today and the ongoing risks to children if these amendments are not adopted.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Allan of Hallam (LD): In the context of age assurance more generally, I start with a pair of propositions that I hope will be agreed to by all participants in the debate and build on what I thought was a very balanced and highly informative introduction from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. The first proposition is that knowledge about the age of users can help all online platforms develop safer services than they could absent that information—a point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford earlier. The second is that there are always some costs to establishing age, including to the privacy of users and through some of the friction they encounter when they wish to use a service. The task before us is to create mechanisms for establishing age that maximise the safety benefits to users while minimising the privacy and other costs. That is what I see laid out in the amendment that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has put before us.


You can put a lot of these tools in place, such as age assurance and age-restricted services. If you build an age-restricted version of your service—there is a YouTube for kids along with many other kids’ services—then you can see whether or not they are going to be acceptable. If people are rejecting them, you need to adapt. There is no point saying, “Well, you should go and use YouTube Kids”. If people are signing up for it but finding it too restrictive and going elsewhere, we need to be able to think about how we can adapt to that and work with it.

The reality today, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford referred to, is that 60% of kids are on social media, and in many cases their parents have bought the phone and enabled that access. How do we deal with that? We cannot just bury our heads in the sand and ignore it; we have to be able to adapt to that behaviour and think about what tools work in that environment.

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