United Kingdom

united kingdom the reward foundation

The urgent need for the introduction of age verification remains high on the political agenda in the United Kingdom. Pressure comes from children’s increased internet access during the pandemic. There are also reports of sexual abuse and harassment in schools. Many of these have been linked to the unfettered availability of online pornography.

The UK Government has published its draft Online Safety Bill, which is currently undergoing the process of pre-legislative scrutiny. The Bill aims to deliver the objectives of the Digital Economy Act Part 3 (which it repeals) in terms of protecting children from online pornography. It also regulates the broader online ecosystem. Sites in scope will have a ‘duty of care’ to their users. They must introduce measures to prevent the spread of the illegal content and to protect users from ‘legal, but harmful’ content. However, there is some uncertainty about how effective the Bill will be in addressing online pornography. Many stakeholders remain concerned.

Is Pornography covered? Not initially

As originally drafted, the scope of the new Bill is limited to ‘search services’ and ‘user-to-user services’. While a number of pornographic services do have a user-to-user element – for example, allowing people to upload their own content – this would leave a significant proportion of pornographic sites outside of its scope. Obviously, this undermines the Bill’s child protection goals. It also created a loophole in the United Kingdom by which other sites can avoid regulation by removing the relevant functionality.

In addition, there were concerns about the enforcement powers being swift enough to ensure a level playing field. This is key to securing compliance. The British Board of Film Classification will bring all its experience and expertise in to support the Government and Ofcom. Ofcom will be responsible for overseeing the new regime. Their job will be to help ensure that the Online Safety Bill delivers the meaningful protections that children deserve.

Where is it up to?

On Safer Internet Day, February 8, 2022, the Government changed track in a helpful way when Digital Minister Chris Philp said in the official Press Release:

It is too easy for children to access pornography online. Parents deserve peace of mind that their children are protected online from seeing things no child should see.

We are now strengthening the Online Safety Bill so it applies to all porn sites to ensure we achieve our aim of making the internet a safer place for children.

The Bill was introduced to the House of Commons and given its First Reading on Thursday 17 March 2022. This stage was formal and took place without any debate. The full text of the Bill is available from the Parliament.

What happens next?

MPs will next consider the Bill at Second Reading. The date for second reading has not yet been announced.

Office of the Information Commissioner

While not directly related to age verification for pornography, a crowd-funded legal challenge has been directed at the Office of the Information Commissioner. It challenges the processing of personal data of children who have used commercial pornography sites.

The law controlling the activities of the Information Commissioner seems to clearly ban the processing of such data. However, the Information Commissioner has not taken any action against the commercial pornography sites. It says the issue will be dealt with in future by the new Online Safety Bill. At present there is a meeting planned between the litigants and the Office of the Information Commissioner. Progress may be slowed by the arrival of the new Information Commissioner, John Edwards, who was previously New Zealand’s Privacy Commissioner.