Age Verification and adult internet censorship was discussed by the Commons Science and Technology Committee on 13th November 2018.
Carol Monaghan Committee Member: The Digital Economy Act made it compulsory for commercial pornography sites to undertake age verification, but implementation has been subject to ongoing delays. When do we expect it to go live?
Margot James MP, Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries: We can expect it to be in force by Easter next year. I make that timetable in the knowledge that we have laid the necessary secondary legislation before Parliament. I am
hopeful of getting a slot to debate it before Christmas, before the end of the year. We have always said that we will permit the industry three months to get up to speed with the practicalities and delivering the age verification that it will be
required to deliver by law. We have also had to set up the regulator--well, not to set it up, but to establish with the British Board of Film Classification , which has been the regulator, exactly how it will work. It has had to consult on the
methods of age verification, so it has taken longer than I would have liked, but I would balance that with a confidence that we have got it right.
Carol Monaghan: Are you confident that the commercial pornography companies are going to engage fully and will implement the law as you hope?
Margot James: I am certainly confident on the majority of large commercial pornography websites and platforms being compliant with the law. They have engaged well with the BBFC and the Department , and want to be on the right side of the
law. I have confidence, but I am wary of being 100% confident, because there are always smaller and more underground platforms and sites that will seek ways around the law. At least, that is usually the case. We will be on the lookout for that,
and so will the BBFC. But the vast majority of organisations have indicated that they are keen to comply with the legislation.
Carol Monaghan: One concern that we all have is that children can stumble across pornography. We know that on social media platforms, where children are often active, up to a third of their content can be pornographic, but they fall
outside the age verification regulation because it is only a third and not the majority. Is that likely to undermine the law? Ultimately the law, as it stands, is there to safeguard our children.
Margot James: I acknowledge that that is a weakness in the legislative solution. I do not think that for many mainstream social media platforms as much of a third of their content is pornographic, but it is well known that certain social
media platforms that many people use regularly have pornography freely available. We have decided to start with the commercial operations while we bring in the age verification techniques that have not been widely used to date. But we will keep a
watching brief on how effective those age verification procedures turn out to be with commercial providers and will keep a close eye on how social media platforms develop in terms of the extent of pornographic material, particularly if they are
platforms that appeal to children--not all are. You point to a legitimate weakness, on which we have a close eye.
Pornographic Websites: Age Verification - Question
House of Lords on 5th November 2018 .
Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat
To ask Her Majesty 's Government what will be the commencement date for their plans to ensure that age-verification to prevent children accessing pornographic websites is implemented by the British Board of Film Classification .
Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
My Lords, we are now in the final stages of the process, and we have laid the BBFC 's draft guidance and the Online Pornography (Commercial Basis) Regulations before Parliament for approval. We will ensure that there is a sufficient period
following parliamentary approval for the public and the industry to prepare for age verification. Once parliamentary proceedings have concluded, we will set a date by which commercial pornography websites will need to be compliant, following an
implementation window. We expect that this date will be early in the new year.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. I cannot wait for that date to happen, but does he share my disgust and horror that social media companies such as Twitter state that their minimum age for membership is 13 yet make no attempt to restrict some
of the most gross forms of pornography being exchanged via their platforms? Unfortunately, the Digital Economy Act does not affect these companies because they are not predominantly commercial porn publishers. Does he agree that the BBFC needs to
develop mechanisms to evaluate the effectiveness of the legislation for restricting children's access to pornography via social media sites and put a stop to this unacceptable behaviour?
Lord Ashton of Hyde
My Lords, I agree that there are areas of concern on social media sites. As the noble Baroness rightly says, they are not covered by the Digital Economy Act . We had many hours of discussion about that in this House. However, she will be aware
that we are producing an online harms White Paper in the winter in which some of these issues will be considered. If necessary, legislation will be brought forward to address these, and not only these but other harms too. I agree that the BBFC
should find out about the effectiveness of the limited amount that age verification can do; it will commission research on that. Also, the Digital Economy Act itself made sure that the Secretary of State must review its effectiveness within 12 to
Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales)
My Lords, once again I find this issue raising a dynamic that we became familiar with in the only too recent past. The Government are to be congratulated on getting the Act on to the statute book and, indeed, on taking measures to identify a
regulator as well as to indicate that secondary legislation will be brought forward to implement a number of the provisions of the Act. My worry is that, under one section of the Digital Economy Act , financial penalties can be imposed on those
who infringe this need; the Government seem to have decided not to bring that provision into force at this time. I believe I can anticipate the Minister 's answer but--in view of the little drama we had last week over fixed-odds betting
machines--we would not want the Government, having won our applause in this way, to slip back into putting things off or modifying things away from the position that we had all agreed we wanted.
Lord Ashton of Hyde
My Lords, I completely understand where the noble Lord is coming from but what he said is not quite right. The Digital Economy Act included a power that the Government could bring enforcement with financial penalties through a regulator. However,
they decided--and this House decided--not to use that for the time being. For the moment, the regulator will act in a different way. But later on, if necessary, the Secretary of State could exercise that power. On timing and FOBTs, we thought
carefully--as noble Lords can imagine--before we said that we expect the date will be early in the new year,
Lord Addington Liberal Democrat
My Lords, does the Minister agree that good health and sex education might be a way to counter some of the damaging effects? Can the Government make sure that is in place as soon as possible, so that this strange fantasy world is made slightly
Lord Ashton of Hyde
The noble Lord is of course right that age verification itself is not the only answer. It does not cover every possibility of getting on to a pornography site. However, it is the first attempt of its kind in the world, which is why not only we
but many other countries are looking at it. I agree that sex education in schools is very important and I believe it is being brought into the national curriculum already.
The Earl of Erroll Crossbench
Why is there so much wriggle room in section 6 of the guidance from the DCMS to the AV regulator? The ISP blocking probably will not work, because everyone will just get out of it. If we bring this into disrepute then the good guys, who would
like to comply, probably will not; they will not be able to do so economically. All that was covered in British Standard PAS 1296, which was developed over three years. It seems to have been totally ignored by the DCMS. You have spent an awful
lot of time getting there, but you have not got there.
Lord Ashton of Hyde
One of the reasons this has taken so long is that it is complicated. We in the DCMS , and many others, not least in this House, have spent a long time discussing the best way of achieving this. I am not immediately familiar with exactly what
section 6 says, but when the statutory instrument comes before this House--it is an affirmative one to be discussed--I will have the answer ready for the noble Earl.
Lord West of Spithead Labour
My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the possession of a biometric card by the population would make the implementation of things such as this very much easier?
Lord Ashton of Hyde
In some ways it would, but there are problems with people who either do not want to or cannot have biometric cards.
Reforms to the law are required to protect victims from online and social media-based abuse, according to a new Report by the Law Commission for England and Wales.
In its Scoping Report assessing the state of the law in this area, published today [1st November 2018] the Law Commission raises concerns about the lack of coherence in the current criminal law and the problems this causes
for victims, police and prosecutors. It is also critical of the current law's ability to protect people harmed by a range of behaviour online including:
Receiving abusive and offensive communications
"Pile on" harassment, often on social media
Misuse of private images and information
The Commission is calling for:
reform and consolidation of existing criminal laws dealing with offensive and abusive communications online
a specific review considering how the law can more effectively protect victims who are subject to a campaign of online harassment
a review of how effectively the criminal law protects personal privacy online
Professor David Ormerod QC, Law Commissioner for Criminal Law said:
"As the internet and social media have become an everyday part of our lives, online abuse has become commonplace for many."
"Our report highlights the ways in which the criminal law is not keeping pace with these technological changes. We identify the areas of the criminal law most in need of reform in order to protect victims and hold
perpetrators to account."
Responding to the Report, Digital Minister Margot James said:
"Behaviour that is illegal offline should be treated the same when it's committed online. We've listened to victims of online abuse as it's important that the right legal protections are in place to meet the challenges
of new technology.
"There is much more to be done and we'll be considering the Law Commission's findings as we develop a White Paper setting out new laws to make the UK a safer place to be online.
Jess Phillips MP, Chair, and Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, Co-Chair, of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence and Abuse and Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women's Aid, welcomed the Report saying:
"Online abuse has a devastating impact on survivors and makes them feel as though the abuse is inescapable. Online abuse does not happen in the 'virtual world' in isolation; 85% of survivors surveyed by Women's Aid
experienced a pattern of online abuse together with offline abuse. Yet too often it is not taken as seriously as abuse 'in the real world'.
"The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence and Abuse has long called for legislation in this area to be reviewed to ensure that survivors are protected and perpetrators of online abuse held to account. We
welcome the Law Commission's report, which has found that gaps and inconsistencies in the law mean survivors are being failed. We support the call for further review and reform of the law".
The need for reform
We were asked to assess whether the current criminal law achieved parity of treatment between online and offline offending. For the most part, we have concluded that abusive online communications are, at least theoretically,
criminalised to the same or even a greater degree than equivalent offline offending. However, we consider there is considerable scope for reform:
Many of the applicable offences do not adequately reflect the nature of some of the offending behaviour in the online environment, and the degree of harm it can cause.
Practical and cultural barriers mean that not all harmful online conduct is pursued in terms of criminal law enforcement to the same extent that it might be in an offline context.
More generally, criminal offences could be improved so they are clearer and more effectively target serious harm and criminality.
The large number of overlapping offences can cause confusion.
Ambiguous terms such as "gross offensiveness" "obscenity" and "indecency" don't provide the required clarity for prosecutors.
Reforms would help to reduce and tackle, not only online abuse and offence generally but also:
"Pile on" harassment , where online harassment is coordinated against an individual. The Report notes that "in practice, it appears that the criminal law is having little effect in punishing and
deterring certain forms of group abuse".
The most serious privacy breaches -- for example the Report highlights concerns about the laws around sharing of private sexual images. It also questions whether the law is adequate to deal with victims who find
their personal information e.g. about their health or sexual history, widely spread online.
Impact on victims
The Law Commission heard from those affected by this kind of criminal behaviour including victims' groups, the charities that support them, MPs and other high-profile victims.
The Report analyses the scale of online offending and suggests that studies show that the groups in society most likely to be affected by abusive communications online include women, young people, ethnic minorities and
LGBTQ individuals. For example, the Report finds that gender-based online hate crime, particularly misogynistic abuse, is particularly prevalent and damaging.
It also sets out the factors which make online abuse so common -- including the disinhibition of communicating with an unseen victim and the ease with which victims can be identified.
The Report highlights harms caused to the victims of online abuse which include:
psychological effects, such as depression and anxiety
emotional harms, such as feelings of shame, loneliness and distress
physiological harms, including suicide and self-harm in the most extreme cases
exclusion from public online space and corresponding feelings of isolation
wider societal harms
It concludes that abuse by groups of offenders online, and the use of visual images to perpetrate abuse are two of the ways in which online abuse can be aggravated.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will now analyse the Report and decide on the next steps including what further work the Law Commission can do to produce recommendations for how the criminal law
can be improved to tackle online abuse.
Comment: Law Commission must safeguard freedom of expression
Index on Censorship urges the Law Commission to safeguard freedom of expression as it moves towards the second phase of its review of abusive and offensive online communications.
The Law Commission
published a report on the first phase of its review of criminal law in this area on 1 November 2018.
While Index welcomes the report's recognition that current UK law lacks clarity and certainty, the review is addressing questions that impact directly on freedom of expression and the Law Commission should now proceed with great caution.
Safeguarding the fundamental right to freedom of expression should be a guiding principle for the the Law Commission's next steps. Successive court rulings have confirmed that freedom of expression includes having and expressing views that
offend, shock or disturb. As Lord Justice Sir Stephen Sedley said in a 1999 ruling:
"Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not
The next phase of the review should outline how the UK can show global leadership by setting an example for how to improve outdated legislation in a way that ensures freedom of expression, including speech that is contentious, unwelcome and
Index on Censorship chief executive Jodie Ginsberg said:
"Index will be studying the Law Commission's first phase report on its review of abusive and offensive online communications carefully. Future proposals could have a very negative impact on freedom of expression online and in other areas.
Index urges the Law Commission to proceed with care."
The Government has announced the organisations that will sit on the Executive Board of a new national body to tackle online harms in the UK.
The UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) is the successor to the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), with an expanded scope to improve online safety for everyone in the UK.
The Executive Board brings together expertise from a range of organisations in the tech industry, civil society and public sector.
Margot James, Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries said:
Only through collaborative action will the UK be the safest place to be online. By bringing together a wealth of expertise from a wide range of fields, UKCIS can be an example to the world on how we can work together to
face the challenges of the digital revolution in an effective and responsible way.
UKCIS has been established to allow these organisations to collaborate and coordinate a UK-wide approach to online safety.
It will contribute to the Government's commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online, and will help to inform the development of the forthcoming Online Harms White Paper.
Priority areas of focus will include online harms experienced by children such as cyberbullying and sexual exploitation; radicalisation and extremism; violence against women and girls; hate crime and hate speech; and forms
of discrimination against groups protected under the Equality Act, for example on the basis of disability or race.
CEO of Internet Matters Carolyn Bunting said:
We are delighted to sit on the Executive Board of UKCIS where we are able to represent parents needs in keeping their children safe online.
Online safety demands a collaborative approach and by bringing industry together we hope we can bring about real change and help everyone benefit from the opportunities the digital world has to offer.
The UKCIS Executive Board consists of the following organisations:
Commission for Countering Extremism
End Violence Against Women Coalition
Independent Advisory Group on Hate Crime
Internet Watch Foundation
Internet Service Providers and Mobile Operators (rotating between BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Three, Virgin Media, Vodafone)
National Police Chiefs' Council
National Crime Agency - CEOP Command
Northern Ireland Executive
UKCIS Evidence Group Chair
The UKCIS Executive Board is jointly chaired by Margot James, Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport); Victoria Atkins, Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and
Vulnerability (Home Office); and Nadeem Zahawi, Minister for Children and Families (Department for Education). It also includes representatives from the Devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Board membership will be
kept under periodic review, to ensure it represents the full range of online harms that the government seeks to tackle.