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Sun, 27 September 2020

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It is completely unfathomable to further delay age verification protection for children online

It is completely unfathomable to further delay age verification protection for children online

It is unconscionable that the current situation on age verification should last a moment longer, says Nola Leach.

Nola Leach, Chief Executive | CARE

4 min read Partner content

This autumn term provides the first real opportunity for MPs to call the Government to account and press them to implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act.

October 16th 2019 witnessed one of the most extraordinary Government U-turns of recent times, yet it has gone largely unnoticed by the public at large.

Having led the way in keeping children safe online, making the bold manifesto commitment to ‘… stop children’s exposure to harmful sexualised content online by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material…’, and introducing the first legislation in the world to realise that end (the Digital Economy Act 2017), the Government suddenly announced that it was no longer going to implement the legislation.

To date, the Government has been protected from the political consequences that would have ordinarily followed such a U-turn by two key events.

The General Election saw MPs fighting for their political lives, with little bandwidth left to take the Government to task on age verification.

The national crisis that is Covid-19 has understandably drawn attention away from many issues, including the huge problems associated with the age verification U-turn, that is until now.

While Covid-19 and its associated challenges continues, we are no longer in full blown lockdown in the majority of the country and this week Parliament returns with the intention that it should sit uninterrupted - with the exception of just a one week half term break - until Christmas.

This autumn term provides the first real opportunity for MPs to call the Government to account and press them to implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act and re-instate the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) as regulator.

Beyond honouring the Conservative Party manifesto pledges, there are now three other imperatives, demanding these changes.

The national crisis that is Covid-19 has understandably drawn attention away from many issues, including the huge problems associated with the age verification U-turn, that is until now.

Firstly, the justification for the U-turn is no longer credible in terms of timings.

Last October the Minister acknowledged that the issue was ‘critically urgent’ and that a new Online Harms Bill would be published in early 2020.

As things stand today, however, the Government still has not even responded fully to its White Paper Online Harms consultation, despite that consultation concluding over a year ago. Neither has a Bill been published for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Even if the Government published the Bill next week, there is still no chance of the protection that affords taking effect for at least three years.

In a context where, if the Government re-designated the BBFC as regulator and introduced an implementation date for Part 3, children could be protected from commercial pornographic web sites before Christmas, the rationale that we should further delay providing protection for children on a ‘critically urgent’ issue for three of four years is completely unfathomable.  

There is one thing worse than failing to help protect children from accessing commercial pornographic websites. It is having gone to great lengths to develop world leading legislation to rise to this challenge in order to protect children now, but not bothering to do so.

Secondly, answers to parliamentary questions have made it plain that the protections provided by the Online Harms Bill from commercial pornography sites will be far more limited than those afforded by Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act.

In answer to a written parliamentary question from Fiona Bruce MP, the Government has said that the only protection would relate to commercial sites if they make provision for user generated content.

This will be a very important protection in terms of social media but will render the Online Harms Bill of only marginal relevance to protecting children from commercial pornography sites, the objective of Part 3.

Moreover, in a deeply shocking statement the Government Minister stated in answer to a Written Parliamentary Question : ‘Where pornography sites have such functionalities (including video and image sharing, commenting and live streaming) they will be subject to the duty of care.

Our analysis indicates that where commercial pornography sites do not enable user-generated functionalities, they instead usually require payment, providing a deterrent for children from accessing them.’

The implication of this is that you don’t need to protect children from commercial pornographic sites unless they permit user generated content. This is patently absurd.

Some commercial sites generate revenue entirely from advertising, while other charge for some content but the rest is freely available.

Thirdly, on 16 July, the High Court ruled that the Government has a case to answer in court for failing to implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act which Parliament has passed. Rather than now waste taxpayers’ money defending not delivering their manifesto commitment to protect children when they could do so, it is in the Government’s interest to simply implement Part 3.

If they had done so last year children would have been protected when commercial pornography sites started offering free premium services during lockdown.

It is unconscionable that this situation should last a moment longer.

Read the most recent article written by Nola Leach, Chief Executive - Investing in palliative care will help build a more compassionate society

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