Pornography, age verification and related matters

At the end of February, the Government announced that sex education was to become a compulsory part of the national curriculum. Apparently, among other things,  sexting, self-generated images and the harms associated with pornography are to be addressed within the new arrangements that schools will be making.

Yesterday evening the age verification part of the Digital Economy Bill received its final outing in the House of Lords so I think we can confidently say we have reached an important point of inflection. The government deserves to be congratulated for moving forward on both fronts in step in this way.

When, exactly, the age verification law will come into effect has still to be determined and it is also the case anyway that because the Lords changed the Bill it has to go back to the Commons to see if they agree. I think it is likely they will but unless and until that has happened we should all keep the champagne on ice.

In relation to the age verification provisions, it will, of course, be vital to monitor the efficacy of the new arrangements. As the various clauses came under intense scrutiny in the Lords a few rough edges were revealed in terms of the definitions to be used in relation to the sorts of material which the Regulator ought to disallow on a site that wants to be accepted as being an age verified site.

However, in responding to various points coming from the opposition parties the Minister made two telling comments:

  1. We absolutely do not intend to create a regime that unintentionally legitimises all types of sexually explicit content as long as age verification controls are in place. We are most definitely not saying that material not allowed under other legislation is allowed if age verification is in place.

    That is why (we make) it absolutely clear that content behind age verification controls can still be subject to criminal sanctions provided by existing legislation.

  2. But we concede that there is unfinished business here. Having protected children, we still need to examine other online safety issues ….. my department is leading cross-government work on an internet safety strategy that aims to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online. 

The Minister, not unfairly, made the further observation that the prime focus of Part 3 of the Bill had been to achieve a higher degree of online child safety by establishing an age verification regime for commercial pornography websites. This is a world first for a liberal democracy and goodness knows there is much that needs to be done to get it all working properly and in a privacy-respecting manner.

It was never envisaged that the Bill was to be a trigger for a wider debate about what sorts of pornography are more or less acceptable, whether being viewed by children or not.  But just because children cannot view certain types of material, because they are behind an age verification wall, it does not mean that its continued availability to adults does not constitute a threat to children. Such material might encourage, promote or appear to legitimize or condone  harmful behaviours which either directly or indirectly put children at risk. That was most certainly the view expressed by several Peers who tried, unsuccessfully, to get the House of Lords to adopt a more expansive remit. Nevertheless, in the cross-government exercise to which the Minister referred perhaps these matters can be looked at with a view to bringing in new legislation if necessary.

However, to return to the Minister’s remarks about  ….We are most definitely not saying that material not allowed under other legislation is allowed if age verification is in place.

Does this mean that if the Regulator finds any such material it must require it to be removed? It would look very odd indeed, would it not, if a web site owner were ever charged with breaking the law for publishing material found on an age verified web site when that same site had been given the green light under a system ushered in by an Act of Parliament? Hey ho. It all adds to the gaiety of the nation.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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