Nick Fletcher is MP for Don Valley.
The question of online safety is one of the significant challenges of our times. In the Conservative Party’s 2015 Manifesto, we promised to change the law to require the provision of robust age verification checks on pornographic websites.
The Government of the day then fulfilled this promise through Part Three of the Digital Economy Act 2017. In doing so, become we became the first country in the world to adopt a bold, innovative approach to protect children. Yet despite this, the age verification scheme set out in Part Three is still not in place.
This matters enormously because there is a growing evidence base detailing the effects pornography is having and will continue to have, on young people especially.
For example, a recent study by the British Board of Film Classification suggests that children and teenagers are stumbling across online pornography in some cases as young as seven or eight. More than half of 11-13-year olds reported that they’d seen pornography at some point and 62 per cent of 11-13-year olds who had seen pornography said the first time was ‘accidental’.
This problem is widespread, too. A major study in 2016 by the NSPCC showed more than half of 11-16-year olds had viewed explicit content online.
We also know that watching porn can shape and influence how a young person understands healthy sex and relationships. This is because, as The Children’s Society explains, “people under 18 are still in the stages of cognitive development and may not be able to separate the images they see through pornography and how they act in their everyday life.”
This is demonstrated in polling. For example, a survey by the NSPCC found that more than 87 per cent of boys and 77 per cent of girls surveyed “felt pornography failed to help them understand consent.” Forty-one per cent of young people who knew about porn also agreed it made people less respectful to the opposite sex.
In this context, it is disappointing that we did not persevere to introduce robust age verification controls on online pornography last year. This is particularly poignant, as the UK was poised to become the first country in the world to introduce these controls and take a giant leap forward in the protection of children online not just in the UK but across the world.
MPs and Peers had rigorously debated the impact of age verification. I have to admit that even I had doubts about whether age verification technology would prove effective. Yet having spoken to several policymakers in this field, it is evident that the technology would work.
I am also told that everything was also ready to implement these necessary safeguards. The British Board of Film Classification was appointed the independent regulator in February 2018, and both the Commons and the Lords had approved the age verification scheme.
Yet the Government decided not to proceed with the policy in October 2019, saying that they wanted to deal with children’s access to online porn as part of a new, more comprehensive Online Harms Bill tackling all online harms.
Yet new polling by Savanta ComRes shows that while the public do not object to the proposed Online Harms Bill, they are not wholly satisfied with this arrangement. For example, when asked last month what was closer to their position, 63 per cent of the 2,100+ adults polled said they thought the Government should get on and introduce age verification right away, rather than wait any longer, and implement additional protections against other online harms when they are ready.
Meanwhile, only 21 per cent thought the Government should wait for the new Online Harms Bill to introduce protections against all online harms at the same time. Indeed, when one excludes the ‘don’t knows’ (15 per cent) and looks at those with a firm view, 74 per cent said the Government should get on with implementing Part Three now. This is a position which I also agree with.
Equally, we also must recognise that the world has changed considerably since October 2019. After all, if the Government had implemented Part Three in October last year, children would have been better protected throughout lockdown.
Furthermore, Coronavirus has also presumably stalled the progress of the Online Harms Bill. This is particularly relevant because the decision not to implement Part Three was justified as the new Bill was anticipated to be available in early 2020 for pre-legislative scrutiny. Yet it failed to materialise. In fact, due to the ongoing situation, the Government has not been able to publish its full response to its consultation on its Online Harms White Paper, which closed on 1 July 2019.
In the context of this changing world, the old strategy has therefore been overtaken by events.
Consequently, even if a new bill were published tomorrow, it would still be imperative to implement Part Three immediately because it would take two or three years for a new Bill to be scrutinised and passed and the relevant secondary legislation, developed, scrutinised, passed and then implemented.
The truth is that we can protect children from commercial pornography sites now through Part Three of the Digital Economy Act and should do so. Everything is in place for age verification to be introduced. The necessary legislative framework is there on the statute book. The relevant technology is ready. More importantly, the public wants it. As such, I believe it is imperative that the Government should fulfil its objective to make the UK a world leader in online safety.