The Government's Digital Economy Bill is being debated in Parliament this week. This provides an opportunity for the children's sector to try again to get some effective protections put in place to help prevent under 18s gain access to pornography online.
At Barnardo's we have always found it surprising that such a moderate adjustment in policy could be so controversial. After all, no-one is suggesting that pornography should be banned or even made off limits for consenting adults. Instead we are simply asking for laws online to more closely mirror protections we put in place in the offline world. These would prevent children accidentally coming into contact with inappropriate or disturbing material.
After all we don't expect children to have to search behind pornographic magazines to get to their favourite comic, or to be bombarded by advertising attempting to get them into an X-rated shop whilst they are walking along the high street. This is why we have safeguards which enforce pornographic magazines to be placed on a top shelf, and which prohibit what can be displayed in a sex shop windows.
Ultimately it is the shopkeeper's responsibility to ensure that minors are not exposed to pornography inadvertently, on pain of losing their license. The Digital Economy Bill seeks to extend this premise so that online pornography sites will be expected to verify the age of those visiting the site. So why are we so uptight about introducing legislation that simply attempts to replicate such safeguards in the online world?
Ostensibly most objections seem to revolve around a notion that any degree of government control of online access represents a compromise of the ultimate freedoms of the internet. This is grounded in a belief that any attempts to in any way restrict internet access at a state level represents the 'thin end of the wedge' on the way to North Korean-style censorship.
But from the perspective of a national charity working directly with young people day in and day out, the threat posed by unfettered access to pornography online, particularly through smartphones, is now is a serious issue. We recently published the report Now I Know It Was Wrong based on the findings of a Barnardo's led Parliamentary Inquiry into Harmful Sexual Behaviour. The Inquiry heard from social workers, teachers, police chiefs and academics who all expressed concern at the negative impact which pornography was having on young people's sexual development. The prevailing view was that pornography was contributing not only to an epidemic of inappropriate sexual conduct amongst young people - a third of sex offences are now committed by under 18s - but also the type of sexual activity engaged in by even very young children was often more extreme.
However, it is not only professionals, but young people themselves who are desperate for this issue to be addressed. An IPPR survey in 2014 found eight out of ten young people felt it was too easy for young people to accidentally see pornography online, whilst vast numbers of young women in particular are concerned that they are expected to look (77%) or act (75%) in a certain way by boys because of what they have seen online. Similarly the Office of the Children's Commissioner's report 'Basically... Porn is Everywhere' found that young people accidentally viewing pornography was more common than it being sought out online.
Yet still pressure from industry threatens to delay or derail what should be seen as responsible and sensible measures to protect children. The Government believes that simply asking pornography sites to agree to age checking measures to gain access to material will be enough, as a regulator will blacklist non-compliant sites and circulate details to payment providers and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who it assumes will then withdraw crucial facilities and advertising revenues.
The Government say ISPs currently block access to child pornography sites on a voluntary basis and believe they will do the same here with non-compliant providers. But the big difference is that child pornography is illegal whereas these sites are not, so this is no guarantee. After all ISPs have not exactly been enthusiastic in extending search protections to their customers by default, and even now this debate rumbles on. Could it be that they are more concerned about causing disagreements in the homes of some of their customers about whether a filter should be on or off, rather than helping safeguard children by making consenting adults who wish to view this material take some active steps to access it. Just as they would have to if they wished to enter a sex shop or purchase a pornographic magazine?
Theresa May talked very tough last week in her conference speech about making sure business interests don't undermine the wider needs of the community. An ideal start would be for her government to ensure the regulator receives the powers it needs to block sites that are not willing to ensure their customers are old enough to view them.