At 3.15.p.m. today the Digital Economy Bill 2016-2017 completed the penultimate formal stages of the Parliamentary processes. The House of Lords agreed to all of the amendments to its amendments that had been made when the Bill went back to the Commons yesterday. For people reading this from outside the UK – don’t worry. Very few Brits understand it either. All you need to know is for all practical purposes it’s done. At some point this evening when the Prorogation is completed we will need to start calling it the Digital Economy Act, 2017.
The Bill addressed many different issues but readers of this blog will want to know that age verification is now a requirement for all significant commercial publishers of pornography, wherever in the world they are based and whether or not they style themselves as being “free”. If they are about making money and they want to have access to the UK market they must have age verification. If they don’t they can be fined and ultimately ISPs will be required to block access to them in roughly the same way that they block access to child abuse images. The exact date for the commencement is unknown by me right now. There is bound to be a run in period to give everyone time to prepare for the new regime.
There ends many years of campaigning by the British children’s groups and others to get to this point but great credit must go to David Cameron and the last Conservative Administration (a) for picking up the matter and, uniquely, putting it in their Manifesto for the 2015 General Election and (b) sticking with their promise when they won.
The sterling efforts of Theresa May’s Administration in carrying on what Cameron began must also be acknowledged. However, once again, what was extremely gratifying was the very broad level of support there was for “our bits” of the Bill across all the political parties. Aside from Karen Bradley and Matt Hancock, as the hands-on Government Ministers, particular tributes need to be made to the continued leadership of Claire Perry from the Government’s backbenches, to Fiona Mactaggart, Thangam Debbonaire and Helen Goodman from the Labour Party, Baroness Floella Benjamin from the Liberal Democrats and Baroness Howe from the Crossbenches. Several Scottish Nationalists and members from Northern Ireland similarly were star players. Truly this was an all-Party affair in the end.
Because of the unexpected calling of a General Election the Bill suddenly had to go into the emergency procedures known as the “wash-up” and “ping pong” (again, don’t ask) where the Labour Front bench, in the shape of Louise Haigh and Kevin Brennan, had to reach compromise agreements with the Government. In the past, at this point entire Bills have been lost but that didn’t happen here. Phew!
Even if the Bill hadn’t had to go into wash-up I doubt we would have ended up in a very different place before it reached its otherwise “natural” conclusion.
Everyone appears to be agreed that the definitions of the sorts of materials which the Regulator may require to be removed before a site can be age verified are not satisfactory. We have ended up with them because of ill-judged, inaccurate scaremongering. Anyway the Government accepted a Labour amendment which means that all the definitions have to be looked at again. We can take a deep breath and pause although I think the children’s groups are unlikely to depart from their past practice. If there is an apparent threat to children that is associated with the availability of certain types of material we will speak out but otherwise we will not engage. We have no general view on the desirability or otherwise of porn. We do care about children accessing it.
A code of practice will also be developed for social media platform providers to deal with a range of concerns, not least in respect of the way different types of bullying are being handled.
Nothing stands still. Very soon we will publish Digital Manifesto 2017 addressed to the Parties contesting the upcoming General Election. The manifesto reflects several bits of unfinished business.
Let’s see where this ends up.