Heather Bellamy spoke with CARE about a new Online Safety Bill

Dan Boucher
Dan Boucher

Leading Christian charity, Care, has lent its unequivocal backing to a new Online Safety Bill. Tabled by Baroness Howe, it's the fifth attempt to ensure a change in the law. To find out more Heather Bellamy spoke with Dan Boucher, the Director of Parliamentary Affairs at CARE.

Heather: So first of all, is this Bill all about protecting young people from pornography or is it about accessing other information too?

Dan: I think probably pornography, hard-core pornography particularly are the principle concerns, but no it's not limited to pornography, it covers other categories of adult content as well like gambling and violence.

Heather: How big a problem is it for young people accessing pornography and those gambling sites?

Dan: The Authority for Television on Demand produced important research last March, which was showing that in the previous month 44,000 Primary School aged children had been accessing adult content, which is very disturbing. Obviously a much larger number of slightly older children. That wasn't dealing with things that were being accessed on phones that was simply dealing with stuff that was being accessed on tablets and on computers.

There is a real concern about this and rightly so. Research demonstrates that a lot of children find seeing this material upsetting. It's not a case of them always desperately trying to seek it out and being naughty, but a case of children accidentally stumbling upon it, or being pressured to look at it and being quite upset by what they see. It's incumbent upon us as society to put in place measures to properly protect children.

Now in an offline world there are all kinds of regulations in law that prevent children from being exposed to inappropriate material. There are laws about ages you have to be in order to purchase certain forms of DVDs and laws about sex shops and the like, but in the offline world these laws really don't apply. There are laws against illegal child sex exploitation images when one is dealing with pornography, but generally the same legal protections don't exist. So the question arises as to whether children are more worthy of protection in an offline world than in an online world. The question arises as to whether we are suggesting as a society that children somehow change as they move from the offline world to the online world and don't need as much protection online. Our argument would be that they need absolutely just as much, if not more protection online.

Heather: So what exactly is this Bill seeking to do?

Dan: It has a number of key functions. In the first sense it means that when you set up your computer you face an unavoidable choice about whether or not to put in place adult content filters. So no-one can go through the setup process and at the end of it have not put in place adult content filters. There's a consequence of not being aware of the option, but if anyone does go ahead and not have adult content filters it is a consequence of a very deliberate and express decision that that adult has made. It also would encourage that if you were in a situation where people seem to bypass that question, the adult content filters are turned on by default.

A second and related key provision is if at a subsequence stage there is a desire to lift adult content filters that have been put in place, that robust age verification must be conducted in relation to the person seeking to lift the filters. Because obviously there will be nothing to stop an adult putting in place adult content filters when they set up their computer and perhaps a child seeking to lift them unbeknown to their parent at a later date and them being exposed to material unbeknown to their parents. At the moment the only provision that's in place is that if that happens the internet service providers should send an email to the account holder informing them of the fact that the filters have been lifted. But that's problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly even if you read your emails from ISP's immediately, or very soon after they've been sent, your children would be exposed for a matter of hours to inappropriate content. If it takes you a week to read them then they can have a whole week of being exposed to the inappropriate content. We conducted a polling that shows that about 16% of people would never answer or open an email from an ISP, so they would be completely unaware of what had happened. So age verification - the common sense understanding of it is that you age verify before you allow someone to do something. That's what the Bill mandates.

There are also other provisions in relationship to hard-core pornography video on demand and also just regular 18 rated video on demand and the need for websites that show that material to have robust age verification at the doorway too. One of the challenges is that the vast majority of hard-core pornography that is live streamed into the UK, is live streamed into the UK from outside of the UK via websites that are not based in this country. What the Bill seeks to do is to propose a licensing system whereby if you want to legally purvey hard-core pornography into the United Kingdom you must have a licence in the first instance and one of the conditions of having a licence is that you must have a really robust age verification at the doorway to your websites, so no-one can accidentally stumble upon it, which is the case at the moment. The really hard-core sites that are based outside of the United Kingdom have absolutely no age verification in place at all and anyone can just go straight in and look at all kinds of material and that is obviously unacceptable and the Bill seeks to address that too.

There is also a commitment in the Bill to look at the whole issue of education. Education for online safety is really important, to help parents understand how to use the filters and get the most out of them and understand what they can and can't do. This is important because there are some online challenges that you can't deal with through filters or age verification; more behavioural challenges like sexting and cyberbullying. The only way to deal with them is through education, so that is another plan of the Bill.

Heather: Do you expect there will be the will and the desire in the House of Lords and the House of Commons to pass this Bill?

Dan: This is a Bill that came high up in the Private Members Ballot. It was drawn at number five of 41 Bills, which means it's going to have its second reading on the 17th July. So there would be plenty of time for this Bill to make its journey through Parliament. We know for sure that there will definitely be a debate on the 17th July. This is an opportunity for concerned parents and grandparents and other people to engage with members of the House of Lords to ask them to turn up to speak and to support this important piece of legislation and to send a clear signal to the Government that this is a Bill whose time has come and the Bill that the Government should be doing all it can to support and to see come into the sanction book. CR

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