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My Lords, we are now in the final stages of the process, and we have laid the BBFC 's draft guidance and the Online Pornography (Commercial Basis) Regulations before Parliament for approval.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.
A Parliamentary committee of feminists has issued a document mainly on the subject of harassment according to their definitions. The Women and Equalities Committee have published a document titled: Sexual Harassment of Women and Girls in
Public Places. It contains a section calling for the censorship of pornography for adults:
92. There is specific concern about the role of pornography in contributing to harmful attitudes to women and girls and providing a context in which sexual harassment takes place, and that it is increasingly being used by young people as a source
of sex education, with negative consequences. One man who participated in our focus groups said, "I think the problem is that not only has [pornography] become normalised, it is also considered acceptable, even expected." This was
worrying, as the research also showed that men in particular--who are far more likely to be regular users of pornography than women --believed that pornography was harmful because it engendered unrealistic expectations of sex.
93. Our research did not find a strong relationship between attitudes towards pornography and attitudes towards sexual harassment, although it did suggest some clear trends that need exploring in further research. For example, people who find
legal pornography acceptable are generally more likely to find sexual harassment acceptable than people who find legal pornography unacceptable. However, our research asked about attitudes rather than behaviours (for example, use of pornography
or sexual harassment perpetration), and research both internationally and in the UK suggests that there is a relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexist attitudes and sexually aggressive behaviours, including violence. We asked
Dr Maddy Coy whether there is a link between men viewing pornography and the likelihood of them sexually harassing women and girls. Dr Coy told us:
There is a meta-analysis of research that shows that. It was pornography consumption associated with higher levels of attitudes that support violence, which includes things like acceptance of violence, rape myth acceptance and sexual harassment,
yes. [ ... ] The basis of some of those studies can be critiqued [ ... ] but the findings are consistent across individual studies and the meta-analysis that pulled them together that there is a relationship between pornography consumption,
attitudes that support sexual violence and likelihood of committing sexual violence.
94. The BBFC told us that it knows through its work with charities that children report that exposure to pornography, much of which is accidental, is impacting on their attitudes and their behaviours. A rapid evidence assessment for the
Children's Commissioner for England in 2016 found that children's exposure to pornography was linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex, belief that women are sex objects and less progressive gender role attitudes.
95. One woman told us that the Government should recognise pornography, sexism and objectification as a public health risk and use the media to inform society of the harms associated with them: "This could be done in the same way the amazing
effort by the Government worked in turning people's attitudes around regarding smoking." Our research suggested that, whilst men may believe that pornography can be harmful, this does not necessarily lead them to think it is socially
unacceptable. This has implications for how the Government develops policy to tackle the harms associated with pornography; focusing messaging solely on harms may not be the most effective approach with men and boys. More research is needed to
develop policies that address these issues.
96. The Government is not consistent in its understanding of the research suggesting a relationship between pornography and sexually harmful behaviour. On the one hand, in a range of ways government policies and media regulation already assume
that some media content is sexually harmful. For example, in introducing the new policy of age verification for online pornography the Government says: "We will help make sure children aren't exposed to harmful sexualised content online by
requiring age verification for access to commercial sites containing pornographic material." The Minister told us that she very much hoped that the policy would have an impact on attitudes towards women and sexual harassment. The draft
consultation on the new statutory guidance on Relationships and Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education states that: "Some pupils are [ ... ] exposed to harmful behaviours online, and via other forms of media, which may
normalise violent sexual behaviours." Chief Executive David Austin told us that, as a regulator, the BBFC takes into account research evidence about the effect of men viewing violent pornography when determining classifications:
For example, we will not classify depictions of pornography that feature real or simulated lack of consent, encourage an interest in abusive relationships, such as sex with children or incest, that kind of content. We definitely take that into
The Government also restricts adults' access to hard copy pornographic films to licensed sex shops and licensed cinemas. It is therefore clear that government policy and media regulation is already based on an understanding that pornographic
content can be harmful.
97. It is odd, therefore, that the Government's written evidence to us expressed doubt about the strength of research suggesting a relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexually harmful behaviours. It stated that "there is
currently limited evidence to suggest a link between the consumption of pornography and sexual violence". The Minister for Women told us that she was commissioning research on the impact of online pornography on attitudes towards women and
girls, saying that:
We have to be careful about the research, which is why I have commissioned this research over and above everything that has gone before. We have to acknowledge the fact that the Crime Survey for England & Wales has shown a reduction in sexual
violence since 2004--05, while online pornography has exploded exponentially. I have to bear that in mind in terms of what we are doing, which is why I want thorough research looking not just at gang criminality, frankly, but also at how this
affects people forming healthy relationships in adult life. [ ... ] I know the Children's Commissioner did some research in 2014 that showed some evidence, but I do not think it could be described as being unequivocal in the links between these
things. I would like to be entirely clear on that.
98. The Government's approach to pornography is not consistent. It restricts adults' access to offline pornography to licensed premises and is introducing age verification of commercial pornography online to prevent children's exposure to it.
But the Government has no plans to address adult men's use of mainstream online pornography, despite research suggesting that men who use pornography are more likely to hold sexist attitudes and be sexually aggressive towards women.
99. There are examples of lawful behaviours which the Government recognises as harmful, such as smoking, which are addressed through public health campaigns and huge investment designed to reduce and prevent those harms. The Government should
take a similar, evidence-based approach to addressing the harms of pornography.
100. The BBFC, the regulator for age verification, believes that, as a result of the new policy, "accidental stumbling across commercial pornography by children online will largely become a thing of the past." However, writer and
commentator Melanie Phillips told us she was more sceptical about pornography websites abiding by the new law because the "commercial impulse is so enormous ." Furthermore, pornography accessed through social media is not part of the
new regime, because it does not come within the definition of 'commercial pornography' under the draft regulations published in 2017, though not consulted upon. As pornography is also accessed through social media, this gap could undermine the
effectiveness of the policy.
101. The definition of 'commercial pornography services' for the Government's policy on age verification of pornography websites should be amended to include social media, to ensure that this policy is as effective and comprehensive as possible.
102. BBFC classification guidelines address content related to discrimination: "Potentially offensive content relating to matters such as race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality may arise in a wide range of works, and the
classification decision will take account of the strength or impact of their inclusion." The BBFC told us that preliminary research to inform new classification guidelines suggests increased public concern about sexual violence. We believe
that the new guidelines provide an opportunity to be clearer about normalised sexism as discrimination, and to name sexual harassment as a form of sexual violence in order to be clear about the regulation of its depiction.
103. British Board of Film Classification policies and guidelines should be explicit about categorising normalised sexism as discrimination. The policies and guidelines should name sexual harassment as a form of sexual violence in order to be
clearer about regulation of its depiction.
A committee of MPs has claimed that the government is not taking the urgent action needed to protect democracy from fake news on Facebook and other social media.
The culture committee wants a crackdown on the manipulation of personal data, the spread of disinformation and Russian interference in elections. Tory MP Damian Collins, who chairs the committee, says he is disappointed by the response to its
latest report. Collins has accused ministers of making excuses to further delay desperately needed announcements on the ongoing issues of harmful and misleading content being spread through social media.
When the Digital Culture Media and Sport Committee issued its interim report on fake news in July it claimed that the UK faced a democratic crisis founded on the manipulation of personal data.
The MPs called for new powers for the Electoral Commission - including bigger fines - and new regulation of social media firms. But of the 42 recommendations in its interim report, the committee says only three have been accepted by the
government, in its official response, published last week.
The committee has backed calls from the Electoral Commission to force social media advertisers to publish an imprint on political ads to show who had paid for them, to increase transparency. Collins also criticised the government's continued
insistence that there was no evidence of Russian interference in UK elections.
Collins said he would be raising this and other issues with Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright, when he appears before the committee on Wednesday.