By Baroness Howe
The prime minister’s speech on protecting children online is very welcome, although perhaps we should not get too over-excited before seeing the small print. The crucial political journey that has to be made is the one from rhetoric to reality, and those of us who have long campaigned for the changes that the prime minister outlined yesterday (and others) will be monitoring developments very carefully.
In understanding where we are today it is important to have some sense of perspective – to obtain this I would turn back to early 2010. A great deal has happened in the last three years.
On February 8th 2010 I moved a very modest amendment to the digital economy bill, requiring that anyone buying access to the internet should be made aware of the prominently placed option of filtering. The idea was very simply that no consumer should buy internet access without filtering, without first knowing that they had the option of filtering. Although many in the chamber supported me, the government of the day did not. How intransigent that position seems now.
In May 2010 the coalition agreement committed the government to the objective of challenging the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, something that embraced child safety online.
In March 2012 I put down my rather more ambitious online safety bill with its dual commitment to an age verified opt-in system for both internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile phone operators (MPOs) and placing an obligation on ISPs and MPOs to make customers aware of online safety challenges. A few weeks later Claire Perry published her seminal independent parliamentary report on online safety which proposed an opt-in system and elicited a positive, and very welcome, response from the prime minister.
At the end of June the government launched its parental internet controls consultation proposing three models of child protection: the so-called active choice system, active choice plus and opt-in. There was a sense in which all these systems would constitute a very welcome step forward if accompanied by robust age verification but on the subject of age verification absolutely nothing was said. This caused major concerns which were reflected by speaker after speaker during the second reading debate on my bill on November 9th.
In the middle of December the Department for Education then provided the government’s response to the many submissions received to its consultation which was, to say the least, underwhelming. It gave rise to a series of articles in which the government was accused of a loss of political nerve. The prime minister was understood to be very annoyed at the way the PR had been handled. A week later he intervened personally with an article in the Daily Mail, effectively overruling the department’s consultation response and committing himself to a new approach that I had never heard of previously, the so-called ‘default-on’ which sounded to me remarkably like opt-in!
Yesterday’s speech is significant because we have actually heard very little in the way of detail since Mr Cameron’s December intervention, and he has now provided some key dates. Apparently agreement has been reached with the big ISPs that default-on will be standard for new customers by the end of 2013 and that by the end of 2014 all existing customers will have been contacted and taken through the default-on options.
Crucially from my point of view there is also an engagement with age verification, although on the basis of Mr Cameron’s speech I cannot tell yet whether what is proposed is sufficiently robust. The success or failure this project will depend on the efficacy of age-verification system employed and that is why it is absolutely central to my online safety bill.
Another key aspect of the prime minister’s speech that is very welcome pertains to the commitment to make sure that streamed video content will be put behind age verification, something I proposed through an amendment to the digital economy bill in 2010.
"And today I can announce we will be legislating so that videos streamed online in the UK are subject to the same rules as those sold in shops. Put simply – what you can’t get in a shop, you will no longer be able to get online," Cameron said.
The principle that what children cannot legally access online should be similarly in place offline goes to the very heart of what those of us campaigning for internet reform have long articulated.
It was good to hear it on the lips of the prime minister.
Similarly, I was very pleased to hear that the six big ISPs will put in place family friendly filters for public wifi by the end of next month.
So where do we go from here?
One of the things that does concern me is that this arrangement is entirely voluntary. We only have the words of the big ISPs to say that they will meet the December 2013 and December 2014 deadlines.
Moreover, who is to say that they will continue to abide by their agreement, or that new companies entering the market will also concur? What will be the status of this agreement in 2020 or in 2030? That is why my bill provides a statutory solution. It is interesting that all the seminal child protection initiatives in the past like the 2005 Gambling Act (which protected children from online gambling) have had a statutory foundation. On this basis I was very interested to see for the first time the prime minister make reference to calling upon a regulatory body in the form of OFCOM which is actually precisely what my bill does. This is very encouraging.
If we really believe that "few things are more important than this", as David Cameron has claimed, then I for one believe that we should provide default-on with the most robust foundation, and that needs to be statutory.
Another weakness associated with the voluntary approach which was evident from the prime minister’s comments is that he has so far only reached agreement with the big internet service providers (ISPs). The four largest ISPs do dominate, but it's possible that as much as ten per cent of the market is unaccounted for. If one works on a statutory foundation, then the law will apply equally to all ISPs and MPOs regardless of whether they are big or small.
All in all I am encouraged by yesterday’s news. We have certainly moved a long way since February 2010. However, it will be vital to make sure that the rhetoric is converted into reality. I for one would like to see things on a robust statutory foundation and am looking forward to the second reading on my current online safety bill which complements a statutory, age verified opt-in system with a robust educational obligation both with respect to ISPs and MPOs and the secretary of state for education.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote is a cross bench peer and sponsor of the online safety bill currently awaiting its second reading in the House of Lords. She reflects above on the prime minister's NSPCC speech.
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