In politics there comes a tipping point when support for a certain course of action leads to irresistible, concrete change. When it comes to protecting children from exposure to online pornography, that moment was supposed to come in 2019. But it never did.
In the run up to 2019, there had been growing opprobrium about the fact children and young people can freely access pornography sites. Campaigners, charities, and others came together to work on legislation that would protect kids by requiring porn sites to verify the age of users and go further, punishing sites that host extreme and violent content.
The proposals eventually became Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, UK Government legislation approved by both houses of parliament in 2017. It seemed that vital protections for children were just around the corner. However, in 2019, with a rollout just round the corner, the UK Government unexpectedly about turned and ditched the proposals.
It has never been clear exactly why it did so. The more cynical among us might suggest that libertarian voices within Cabinet were uncomfortable with requiring adults to surrender personal information to access pornography sites. What if such information fell into the wrong hands? Who would be exposed? The ‘official’ line was that new legislation had to be developed.
The Tory government has now brought forward draft online safety legislation, billed as the tool that will bridge the gap left in the law by a dearth of age verification. But there is a big problem. The draft online safety regime does not include all commercial pornography sites, and it does not require age verification.
Even if the new plans did include these things, they will not be ready until at least 2024. We are being asked to deny children vital protections for several more years when protections have already been designed and are ready to be brought into force much sooner. This simply is not right.
This week, CARE releases new polling which shows that 8 in 10 UK adults think age verification should be introduced by the government to protect children from exposure to online pornography. The same proportion of people believe that access to porn sites should be limited to those over the age of 18.
The public is crystal clear about the standards it expects for safeguarding in this country. I am sure that many would be aghast if they knew that Johnson’s government had the chance to usher in age verification already but decided against it. What message does this send to families struggling with a child’s exposure to vile pornographic content?
Pressure is growing on UK Ministers to act and implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act now. At the very least as an interim measure until the online safety regime is finalised. In the last few weeks, there have been calls for Ministers to do this by more than a dozen MSPs, Peers, MPs, children’s charities, women’s groups, and many others.
As well as supporting a move to require age verification, critics have highlighted the need for regulation of extreme content, also provided for by Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. Porn consumption is linked to sexual violence towards women and girls. Does the UK government also intend to make women wait for legislation that might reduce incidences of violence and abuse?
Ministers are also facing legal action on their failure to implement Part 3. Father Ioannis Dekas and student campaigner Ava Vakil are claimants in a judicial review proceedings that allege Ministers have failed in their duty of care.
UK Ministers have an opportunity to avoid expensive court action, quiet the concerns of numerous groups and – most importantly – afford children and women greater protection under the law. They cannot ignore this problem any longer. They must act now, without delay.
A version of this article was published in the Sunday National on 20 June 2021.