Government must enforce pornography safeguards
CARE say the Government must go further with the Online Safety Bill | Credit: Alamy
If the Government is ambitious, the UK could become a trailblazer in preventing online harms.
Amidst the raft of new proposals outlined in the Queen’s Speech was the Government’s long-awaited draft Online Safety Bill. This proposal, out for pre-legislative scrutiny, is the UK Government’s answer to illegal, disturbing, and abusive content viewable online, and particularly on social media. The fact that children can be exposed to violent pornography, self-harm, and extremist rhetoric cannot be right. We must do better to protect them.
The online safety plans have faced tough scrutiny. When it comes to regulating online material, freedom of expression will necessarily be impinged upon. In the context of the culture wars, this kind of legislation is a lightning rod. Some will inevitably feel that it goes too far, and others not far enough. A lively debate awaits us on definitions, thresholds, and the parameters of free expression online.
However, free speech concerns are not the only contentious aspect of the plans. A clause in the draft bill seeks to repeal Part 3 of The Digital Economy Act, legislation designed to force commercial pornography sites to verify the age of their visitors and establish a regulator to take robust action against any web site showing extreme pornography, which and normalises violence against women. Part 3 was approved by both houses of parliament. It is ‘oven ready’. It just hasn’t been enforced yet. In fact, after months of repeated delays, the Government abandoned the plans and said they’d come back with ‘something better’.
Surely there is no such thing as ‘too much’ protection?
You might think that Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act will be superseded by the online harms regime. However, at present, this is not the case. The plans as they stand do not include any requirement for age verification and they cover websites which host ‘user-generated content’. Commercial pornography sites that do not host such content could slip through the net, remaining as accessible to children. Far from being ‘better’ than Part 3 of the DEA, the new proposals in some key ways actually fall short in offering weaker protections for young people from online porn.
In addition, the online safety regime will not be ready until 2024. Even if it is the best legislation in the world, children will have to wait three years for protections they need right now. A ‘both and’ approach is possible here – where Part 3 is implemented soon, and the protections added to later under the online safety regime. It is hard to think of an argument against doing this. Surely there is no such thing as ‘too much’ protection?
The irony of Ministers abandoning age verification protections for children via ‘online safety’ proposals has been pointed out by several groups, including the NSPCC, the Age Verification Providers Association and CARE.
In May, a letter with more than 60 signatories including women’s groups, children’s charities and various Peers urged the Prime Minister to change course. And this month, a motion in the Scottish Parliament backed by a cross-party group of MSPs urged the government to act as regulation of this kind is not in the gift of the Scottish Parliament.
Labour MSP Rhoda Grant commented: “Access to some of the most violent forms of illegal pornography normalises violence against women and girls at a young age and will perpetuate the scandal of women in our society suffering abuse, violence and sexual attacks.
“The long list of those calling for the implementation should be a wakeup call that this legislation needs to be enacted and enforced immediately."
I urge Ministers to think again about this aspect of the draft Online Safety proposals. There is significant and growing support for enforcing, rather than abandoning, Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act and avoiding a loophole in protections.
By upholding previous legislation and developing a new, seminal online safety regime, the government can claim the mantle of ‘world leader’ in tackling online harms.