The Government’s failure to introduce statutory age verification of online pornography meant important protections were not in place during the lockdown period, when they were urgently needed, a Christian advocacy group has said.
The comments came as the High Court gave the green light for a historic legal challenge to the UK Government’s decision to shelve plans to introduce statutory age verification of online pornography through Part Three of the Digital Economy Act.
Age verification companies mounted a legal challenge after the Government suddenly announced last October that it would not implement legislation to introduce age verification to better protect children online. Although they have not been given permission to pursue a legal challenge on the basis of all aspects of their case, in a very important development it has been acknowledged that the Government has a case to answer in its failure to implement legislation that Parliament has passed.
Social policy charity Christian Action Research & Education (CARE), who campaigned for age verification and worked with MPs on the issue during previous parliaments, welcomed the decision and called on the Government to implement Part Three of the Digital Economy Act rather than spending taxpayers’ money trying to defend their unfortunate decision in court.
In 2017, MPs and Peers approved the Digital Economy Act, and Part Three of the Act made historic provisions for introducing age verification on online pornography.
The regulations for age verification were approved by MPs in December 2018 and the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) was designated as the independent regulator.
However, numerous delays with the scheme followed, with the most recent being in July 2019, before the Government announced on 16th October it was not going to implement the age verification scheme at all.
Instead, it said a new Online Harms Bill would be introduced which, the Government claimed, would be ready for pre-legislative scrutiny in early 2020.
This has not happened, and the Government has not published its response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation, which closed on 1st July 2019.
CARE argued at the time that the decision not to implement existing legislation in order to wait for a Bill that had not yet been published, let alone passed by Parliament, would make the delays experienced up until that point seem trivial.
It would deprive children of protections that could be realised by the end of the year and for no good reason. Had the Government done the right thing and implemented Part Three, children would have been protected during the lockdown.
Responding to the High Court’s ruling, CARE’s Chief Executive, Nola Leach, said: “We welcome the High Court’s ruling just moments ago that the UK Government has a case to answer after it abandoned age verification on online porn sites.
“This U-turn was made despite the fact MPs and Peers had approved the scheme when the Digital Economy Act was voted through.
“Given the substantial evidence suggesting consumption of pornography has harmful consequences for children and the shaping of their understanding of, and attitudes towards, sex and relationships, the position of the Government is now completely indefensible.
“There is one thing worse than not bothering to take action to develop legislation to protect children from accessing pornographic websites – it is having gone to great lengths to develop such legislation, which helps keep children safer now, but to then decide not to use it, in favour of some other solution that has not even been published yet in Bill form, let alone passed by both Houses of Parliament.
“Had the Government implemented Part Three as they should have done in October last year, children would have enjoyed access to important protections during the lockdown period, when we know the pornographers worked so hard to increase visits to their sites,” said Ms Leach.
“They were denied this by the failure of the Government which should now urgently re-designate the BBFC as regulator and implement Part Three as quickly as possible.”
Picture: A child’s hand presses a key of a laptop keyboard. (Dominic Lipinski/PA).