By Jonathan Isaby
On Tuesday night, Devizes MP Claire Perry secured an adjournment debate on the subject of pornography on the internet, in order to promote a particular proposal she is championing – to require all UK-based internet service providers to "restrict universal access to pornographic material by implementing a simple opt-in system based on age verification".
"Pornography is one of the most widely available forms of content on the internet, representing 12% of the estimated 250 million global websites. Studies suggest, shockingly, that one in three British children aged 10-a third of our British 10-year-olds-have viewed pornography on the internet, while four out of every five children aged 14 to 16 admit to regularly accessing explicit photographs and footage on their home computers. The world has really changed."
"These statistics are simply red-lining a problem that every parent recognises-namely, that our children are viewing material that we would never want them to see, especially at such a young age. So what can we do about it? The current way of controlling access to pornographic material on the internet is via safety settings and filtering software, installed and maintained by users-parents, teachers and carers across the country. Unfortunately, however, through technological ignorance, time pressure or inertia or for myriad other reasons, this filtering solution is not working. Even among parents who are regular internet users, only 15% say that they know how to install a filter. It is unfortunately also the case that our children know better than we do how to circumvent the filters, while the constant changes in internet technology and content mean that they can quickly become outdated."
"I am a fervent supporter of personal responsibility and have an innate dislike of Big Brother regulation, but there is a form of content delivery in this country that, in contrast to the internet, is either regulated by the Government or has a successful self-regulation model that does not appear draconian or heavy-handed. Our television viewing is restricted by sensible Ofcom guidelines, including section 1, which says that material equivalent to the British Board of Film Classification's R18 rating must not be broadcast at any time, and that adult sex material cannot be broadcast at any time other than between 22.00 and 05.30 hours on premium subscription services or on pay-per-view or night services, which have to have mandatory restricted access, including PIN verification systems. We all accept such regulation of our television viewing quite happily.
"What we see on our cinema screens is subject to regulation by the British Board of Film Classification, and we have accepted that for years. Our high street hoardings and general advertising are regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority, which displayed its teeth recently by removing posters from the Westfield shopping centre. Government guidelines inform newsagents' displays of lad magazines and porn magazines. Even the mobile phone industry, which has arguably seen even more change than the internet in the past 10 years and whose products are increasingly used to access the internet, has introduced a reasonably successful self-regulation model that requires an adult verification check before users can access inappropriate material on the internet… Why should internet service providers be any different from other content providers? Why is the onus on parents, teachers and carers to act as web guides and policemen? Where is the industry responsibility?"
"I do not propose to reduce or restrict inappropriate content for adults who access to the internet; I would simply like to make it more difficult for our children to access that material… The arguments for passive acceptance and self-regulation are past their sell-by date, and it is time to regulate the provision of internet services in this country. We already successfully regulate British television channels, cinema screens, high street hoardings and newspaper shelves to stop our children seeing inappropriate images, and mobile phone companies have come together to restrict access to adult material, so why should the internet be any different?
"British internet service providers should share the responsibility for keeping our children safe, and there should be an opt-in system that uses age verification for access to such material. I urge the Minister to engage with the internet service providers to set a timeline for those changes and, if they will not act, to move to regulate an industry that is doing so much damage to our children."
"This Government's position is that the internet should be lightly regulated, so that we benefit from many of the advances that have come about from a lightly regulated internet. Although we are focusing in this debate on the internet's negative aspects, it is important to remember that a lightly regulated internet has brought transformative companies to the web. As we learned from a piece of research published a couple of weeks ago, in just 15 to 20 years, internet commerce has come to represent something in the order of 9% to 10% of our economy.
"This remains a very serious subject, which deserves very serious consideration. As with any area of life, it is vital that children and the vulnerable be protected. Where there is harm and safeguards are not heeded, we need effective sanctions to prosecute illegal acts."
"My hon. Friend talked about an age-verified opt-in procedure for internet access to pornography hosted in the UK. This is already the case, although my hon. Friend made her own forceful argument that it might not be effective enough. The managers of websites featuring mature content have a legal responsibility to indicate clearly on their front page that those sites are unsuitable for anybody under the age of 18. Additionally, when websites charge for access, they must place their adult content behind a credit card barrier, to reduce further the risk of children and young people accessing it. We will continue to consider how that protection might be made more effective."
"I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are working with the internet industry, through UKCCIS, to create an online environment in which children are protected from potentially harmful or inappropriate content. We want our young people to develop the knowledge, skills and resilience that will enable them to avoid accessing such content, and, if they do come across it, to avoid it in future and report it to the appropriate authorities when it causes major concern. UKCCIS is also working to encourage parents to take responsibility for what their children see online. I hear what my hon. Friend says about the need for ISPs to block this content, but I think it important for parents to take responsibility, and to use the filters and parental controls that are available in current technology to prevent their children from accessing harmful material."
"What causes me to have a huge amount of sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said is the fact that I do not subscribe to the view that internet service providers are simply dumb pipes. In opposition and now in government, I have waged something of a campaign to that effect… I think it should be put on the record that ISPs can play a role, and, indeed, have played a very effective role in combating child abuse content online."
"We have seen that ISPs can do very effective work in removing child abuse websites. We also know-and I mentioned this during my speech on net neutrality last week-that they can manage the traffic that crosses their network in order to give their consumers a good service. A couple of weeks ago, I had a round table with ISPs and rights holders from the music and film industries and from sport to discuss what measures we could take to provide more legal content as the Digital Economy Act 2010 comes down the line. It seems to me that, given that rights holders are fully aware of the websites that are distributing their content illegally, ISPs could do more in that regard. However, what I learnt from the meeting was that it is important to arrange for people to sit around a table, discuss the issues, and seek ways in which we can work together to make the system operate effectively.
"After that meeting, which was productive-I felt that in two hours we had made substantial progress-I made it absolutely clear that I would follow it up. It would not be a one-off meeting that we would forget about, perhaps returning to it in a year's time. I should like to offer the same opportunity to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, and perhaps to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and other interested Members, as well as to charities and other organisations that are involved in the debate."
"The internet is, by and large, a force for good. It is central to our lives and our economy, and a Government have to be wary about regulating or passing legislation. Nevertheless, the advent of the internet has brought a number of problems. One of them is the proliferation of images of child abuse, which I believe is being dealt with extremely effectively through the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and UKCCIS, with the co-operation of ISPs. ISPs remain under an obligation to take down illegal pornographic content, which can extend beyond child abuse images, but there remain, from my position as a Minister, two issues.
"One of them is access to illegal content in terms of music, film and the creative industries, on which I am working with ISPs and rights holders. I take the second issue very seriously as a constituency MP alone: how we can work harder to ensure that it is more difficult for our children to come across inappropriate adult content.
"I firmly believe we can make progress, in co-operation with the ISPs, and that we can proceed on the basis of self-regulation. As I have said, I think it is important that we meet and sit around a table to exchange views, and I look forward to brokering such a meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes and a number of organisations she deems to be appropriate."