Last Friday there was a debate in the House of Lords on the Second Reading of a Private Members Bill introduced by Baroness Howe of Idlicote on Online Safety with particular emphasis on the protection of children. The Bill would have the effect of requiring internet safety providers ansd mobile phone operators to provide an internet service without access to pornography (although adult subscribers would be able to opt in to receive adult material).
The Bill was welcomed by virtually every speaker from all parts of the House (although reservations were expressed by one Conservative and one LibDem peer). The Minister (Viscount Younger of Leckie), however, declined to say whether the Government supported the principle of the Bill (ie of protecting children from adult content online) and said that such matters were the responsibility of parents, even though many parents are far less technologically adept than their children.
A flavour of the Minister’s equivocation is given by these exchanges from the closing section of his speech:
“Viscount Younger of Leckie: I realise that many questions have come out of this interesting debate. If I have not been able to answer any, particularly on age verification, I will certainly make it a point to reply to noble Lords.
Baroness Thornton: The Minister mentioned age verification, and he prayed in aid the totally inadequate self-regulatory proposals that have been proven not to work. They are not working and we have an increasing problem. Will the Minister confirm that both the Byron report and the Bailey report recommended the use of age verification to block adult content on the internet?
Viscount Younger of Leckie: I can give the briefest of answers in the time available on age verification. It is an important issue. However, I would make a distinction between age verification in terms of the gambling sites, which the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, mentioned. My understanding is that with gambling sites there is a clear distinction at the age of 18. Material for the over-18s is pin-protected. Taking our view that parents would in effect be in control, parents would want to set a range of controls appropriate for their children, which may be different for a five year-old and a 15 year-old.
Lord Harris of Haringey: I am sorry because I realise the Minister is trying to close his remarks. But I am trying to understand the answer that he has just given my noble friend. Is he in essence saying that the Government are disregarding the recommendations from those two reports because the age verification used for gambling sites kicks in only at 18? The point is that they are saying that age verification is an important mechanism. We have the evidence from the gambling sites that age verification is possible and can work. Why is it not possible to put the two things together and introduce age verification structures that may kick in at younger ages?
Viscount Younger of Leckie: I note the noble Lord’s comment but the issue of age verification is more complicated than at first it appears. We need more time to discuss this. The best thing for me to do is to get back to the noble Lord and other noble Lords who have raised this particular issue with some answers.
Technology changes rapidly and legislation does not. Industry is better placed than legislators to design the simple and effective tools that parents want, keeping pace with technology and the way that their children access the internet. But there is a role for government in setting an expectation, bringing the right people together and always pushing for more and better-
Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: I am sorry to intervene again, but it is necessary. Everything that the Minister appears to be telling us is unsatisfactory. If it is not possible for legislators to set standards, how will a mishmash of providers across the entire community come up with anything that is consistent and reliable? Will he at least tell us that?
Viscount Younger of Leckie: I can reassure the noble Lord that it is in their interests to bring themselves up to scratch in order to be able to produce online safety for children. I know that this will not be a satisfactory answer for him, but our view is that it is the responsibility of parents, ultimately, to take this forward.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, why does the Minister say that it is in the interests of online suppliers to do this? It costs them money, they are in a highly competitive market and I suspect that a large number of them make money on the basis that they know perfectly well what some of their users want to access online and they simply want to increase the number of users. Why is it in their interests to introduce this without some form of regulation in the background?
Baroness Thornton: I am sorry, but before the noble Viscount sits down, I asked very specifically at least twice during my remarks whether the Government support the Bill in principle. The Minister has not answered that question. It is very important. It does not necessarily mean that the Minister wants the Bill, as it stands, to go forward, but the principle behind the Bill, that of protecting children from adult content online, seems obvious and I would really like to hear from the Government that that is the case. I do not wish to be rude to the Minister, but I wonder whether his speech was drafted in California or Whitehall.
This morning I have signed a letter sent by Baroness Howe to the Prime Minister seeking urgent clarification of the Government’s position. The letter says:
“We are writing to express concern about the Government’s policy on child internet safety following Friday’s debate on the Online Safety Bill in the House of Lords.
Just last month OFCOM published research highlighting the problems parents face in setting up their own filtering arrangements without government assistance, demonstrating what we already know, namely that parental controls are perceived to be “a fairly complex area, and… choosing and installing them would therefore require a considerable investment of time and effort”.
In this context, we feel that the approach suggested by the Minister – who appeared to suggest that putting in place appropriate protections is a matter for parents who should be better educated – is less than helpful.
We were particularly concerned that the Minister dismissed an opt-in system, as if the Government had always been opposed to it. This is troubling for two reasons. First, the opt-in model provides parents with the greatest level of assistance with filtering, whilst not in any way taking their decision-making responsibility away. It actually empowers them. Second, the opt-in model has just been presented by the Government (further to your very welcome intervention after the publication of the Perry Report) as one of three options that it is considering for promoting child safety on-line in its summer Parental Internet Controls Consultation, to which it has yet to make a formal response. This is particularly unfortunate not least because many parents engaged with the consultation believing opt-in to be a genuine option.
As the Government has yet to publish its response to the Parental Internet Controls Consultation, the good news is that there is still scope for the position presented on Friday to be reassessed in light of consultation submissions and indeed arguments made during the Second Reading debate.
We would urge you to do this and would be grateful for the opportunity for a meeting with you to discuss this matter further.
In closing a positive note from the Minister’s response is that he did not seem very sure about rejecting age-verification and said he would write to Peers. The truth is that without age-verification any form on online protection will be very weak. That age-verification is possible is clearly demonstrated by the regulatory frameworks surrounding online gambling and the sale of alcohol online which were stressed during the debate. Age-verification must be central to whatever regulatory framework the Government adopts.
We remain deeply concerned about this issue, as we know you are, and want to work with you to secure the most robust regulatory framework for our children. They deserve it.”
The letter is signed by three Labour, one Conservative, one LibDem and five independent/crossbench peers.
My speech in the debate was as folows:
“My Lords, the whole House is enormously grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, for bringing forward this timely and important Bill today. The degree of support that it seems to be finding from all quarters of your Lordships’ House is encouraging. Indeed, it is encouraging to see the range of speakers that we have today. That fact alone should send a very clear message to the Government that they should no longer be dithering on these issues but moving to try to find some solutions. There is also a very clear message to the internet service providers that they, too, need to put their house in order and start to find the most appropriate technical solutions to these problems.
The only note of dissent so far has been from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. He seemed to make the point that the Bill would place too much of an onus on internet service providers, that this was not what they were good at, and that responsibility should essentially rest with parents. I hope that I have not misrepresented his argument too greatly. That is the standard defence that is heard in these arguments in all aspects: that the internet service providers are the mere conduit or the mere pipeline by which this stuff gets into people’s homes and that somehow, because they are merely the provider of the pipe, they are not responsible for anything that flows through it. To argue that they therefore have no responsibility is rather like saying that water companies have no responsibility for purifying the water that they deliver, because their main purpose-the thing that they are good at-is providing pipes. Actually, they are not that good at that either, given the level of leaks. We do not accept that argument. We say that there is a responsibility on the providers of the pipeline to ensure that the water is pure and safe. That is essentially what the Bill is about.
Let us be clear. In this country, access to pornography is controlled offline. Therefore, there are limitations but they are not total limitations. However, it is made more difficult to access pornography in printed form, on DVD or whatever else. This legislation, should it be passed, will enable us to adjust to the fact that society increasingly exists online. It levels the playing field. It brings what is happening on the internet to the level of everything else, whether it is the top shelf of the newsagent or the age clarification which exists for cinema or DVD material.
We also know that Parliament has already legislated on the principle of age verification. The Gambling Act requires robust age verification. We have already tested this and Parliament has been through these arguments. As my noble friend Lady Dean said, the world did not end because age verification was required in that area-actually, she was applying it to another area, but the principle is that the world did not end. Age verification can be done and it now needs to be applied more generally. The solutions are available and workable. A number of sites notionally have an age restriction but the reality is that those restrictions are laughably weak. However, mechanisms are available that can make those age restrictions work. We should be encouraging that and this Bill is a step towards enabling that to happen.
The other change that has happened in recent years, which we have to accept, is that most children now spend much of their lives online. Most of their social transactions are mediated through internet-enabled mobile phones. The days when I recall one of my sons spending about three hours on the phone to arrange where he and his mates would meet no longer apply. Now, it is all done through the internet-through social media networks and so on. Ofcom’s survey in 2011 found that the average time spent online by five to 15 year-olds was 90 minutes per day. However, I suspect that that statistic is already out of date. It is probable that most five year-olds do not spend that amount of time online but that therefore means that the figure for slightly older age groups is much higher. The same survey found that many-in this instance, I think it was 41%-had been disturbed by something that they had found online and that a quarter had received unsolicited explicit material online.
That was a survey of a year ago. This is an area where things move rapidly and I suspect that we need to have in place legislation that is able to respond to these changes. Those figures will already be out of date. Even I was surprised to learn that 37% of three to four year-olds use the internet, but we have all heard stories of, and perhaps even seen, toddlers whose reaction to a picture in a printed book is to try to expand it with their fingers to make the image get larger. Again, I suspect we are simply not keeping up with the trends.
The reality, which again was found by the Ofcom survey, is that parents know less about the internet than their children do. I recall that when I was part of the sub-committee of the Science and Technology Committee that looked at personal internet security, we were told repeatedly of parents who could not quite manage the parental control software and so got their children to install it for them. That is hardly going to induce this sort of control and maybe they were not quite the responsible parents whom we are looking for, but that is the reality. The children are ahead of their parents in all this, so you have to make it easier for the parent who wants to be responsible. In my view, this is what this Bill is about: opt-in control through ISPs will limit unsolicited and inappropriate material getting into the home.
There is also a sort of golden age view, rather like the image of the family sitting around the dining table in their front room listening to the Home Service, which we were all brought up with in the 1950s. If it ever really was a golden age, the day of the concept of the computer being somewhere in the main room of the home, so that access to the internet is mediated through that process, has long passed. There are now so many internet-enabled devices in most homes that such access is not confined to one room where there may be adequate supervision.
Most children, as has already been said, will have internet-enabled mobile phones but most of the game machines that they use in their bedrooms are also now internet-enabled. There are Xboxes and Game Boys, and all these things are internet-enabled. Not all of them can receive images or material but that is the direction of travel. Children play games on them with people all over the world whom they do not know. That raises all sorts of interesting and wider child protection questions but it demonstrates why we have to be able to control the pipeline that delivers what comes into the home. It is not just about the main computer; it is about all the internet material that comes into the home, which is mediated through the channel of the internet service providers. However responsible parents may be, they can simply no longer actively monitor all the material that their children are accessing, even if such total monitoring would be wholly desirable.
There is of course a collective responsibility in all this. In that inquiry into personal internet security, we used the road safety analogy. We said that responsibility for safety on the roads was accepted and that there was: a personal responsibility as to how you were a road user, whether you were a driver or a pedestrian; a responsibility on the manufacturers of cars to make their cars more safe; a responsibility on local authorities to ensure that roads were well lit; and a responsibility to have roads that were well maintained. All that was with a view to delivering safety. We need to take that same approach to these sorts of issues.
Frankly, children need to be educated about internet safety at the same time as they receive road safety advice. We should be looking at them doing it at that young an age. Parents need to be enabled to be responsible through the measures contained in this Bill by being able to decide, in terms of the material that can come into the home, not to opt in to pornographic material. ISPs and equipment manufacturers need to make it easier for parents, and site owners need to have robust age verification.
This Bill is not a total solution to the problems of online safety but it is a step in the right direction, making it easier for everyone to play their part in securing online safety. I sincerely hope that the Government are going to be supportive and, if not, I hope that they are going to tell us how they will move forward on these issues.”