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The Government Must Implement Statutory Age Verification Under the Digital Economy Act Now

Nola Leach, Chief Executive | CARE

4 min read Partner content

The internet operates like the wild west, with little effective regulation in place to protect our young people from harm, writes Nola Leach, Chief Executive of CARE.

In the recent Queen’s Speech, it was announced that new legislation would be introduced to improve internet safety for all. Such intent is to be roundly applauded. The internet is an outstanding resource which creates opportunities for learning, development and for staying connected with friends and family. But it also operates like the wild west, with little effective regulation in place to protect our young people from harm.  

A recent study by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) 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’. Meanwhile, 41 per cent of young people who knew about porn agreed it made people less respectful to the opposite sex.

In such a context, action must be taken. It is right that the Government is planning on bringing forward legislation in this new Parliament. Last year’s White Paper on Online Harms contained a number of laudable policies and at CARE, we support the new duty of care on social media companies towards their users.

But the price for this seems to be confusion and delay regarding statutory age verification checks for pornographic websites. It would seem that the Government wants to put attempts to protect children from pornographic websites on the same footing as attempts to promote safety on social media sites. It is right to aim at protecting children in both contexts. But this strategy is problematic for two reasons.

First, it means delaying protecting children from accessing pornographic websites. The law on this has been passed, while the Online Harms Bill has not even been published, let alone debated, let alone passed, let alone implemented!

Second, the way the Government is proposing regulating social media sites, through a duty of care contract, with errant social media platforms being fined, would never work when dealing with pornographic web sites. As the BBFC pointed out in 2016 when giving evidence to MPs as they considered the Digital Economy Bill, none of the fifty most popular pornographic sites accessed from within the UK is based in the UK. If a pornographic site based in, say, Russia is issued a fine for not having age verification checks, it will just ignore the fine. The only way to protect children in this instance is to have a regulator who contacts the Russian web site and explains that if they want to access the UK market they must do so with robust age-verification checks and that if these are not put in place within a specified time frame, the regulator will block their site. That would have an immediate result in that either the site would be blocked, or more likely, the site would decide that rather than interrupt their income stream from the UK they would sooner introduce robust age verification checks.

To delay introducing statutory age verification – a key 2015 Conservative manifesto commitment – would be a terrible mistake. We must not allow the possibility of protecting children on social media platforms in a year or two years’ time, become the enemy of protecting children from pornographic web sites within months, especially as it is already nearly three years since the Digital Economy Act was passed.  

If the Government wishes to maintain the UK’s standing as a pioneering, world leader when it comes to online safety, it must not allow the situation to continue where we have legislation to protect children but are not using it. That is almost worse than not having the legislation at all and is beginning to generate comment abroad! In November the French President told UNESCO he wants to mandate age verification for pornographic sites in France and beyond.  The UK should continue to actively press ahead with implementing statutory age verification or we will cease to be a world leader in the field and get overtaken by other countries.

It would be easy for the Government to implement age-checks because the necessary legislative framework is there on the statute book. The relevant technology is in place. The relevant regulator is in place. Everything is ready. All the government needs to do is lay the BBFC age-verification guidance before Parliament and set an implementation date. Baroness Howe, a tireless campaigner for online safety, will introduce a new Bill in the Lords on 21 January (the Digital Economy Act 2017 (Commencement of Part 3) Bill) which has the sole purpose of implementing the relevant age-verification sections of the Digital Economy Act. The Government should take full advantage!

Nola Leach is the Chief Executive of CARE  

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