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Stop exploitation of children online, Bishop of Oxford urges peers

25 November 2021

Lack of age-checks on porn sites a ‘travesty’ says Baroness Kidron

HOUSE OF LORDS/STOCK PHOTO

FUTURE generations will regard society today in the same way as we view those who exploited child labour in the past, unless we act now to prevent online exploitation, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, has warned peers.

The Bishop was speaking in the House of Lords last Friday in support of the Second Reading of a Bill brought by Baroness Kidron to require Ofcom to produce a code of conduct for any system that sets online age limits.

Baroness Kidron, a member of the advisory council for the University of Oxford’s Institute for Ethics in AI, told peers that, during the first lockdown, she had visited a “distraught head teacher whose pupil had received and shared a video of child sexual abuse so grotesque that I cannot describe it here. By the time we sat helplessly crying in the freezing playground, the video had been shared across London and was making its way up north. It was a primary school; the children involved were not even ten.”

The Age Assurance (Minimum Standards) Bill sought to prevent such exploitation by ensuring that any system that purported to estimate or verify the age or age range of a user was effective. She explained: “I am adamant that we do not use age assurance to dumb down the internet, invade privacy, or lock children out of the digital world. . . But it is failure writ large that children are routinely exposed to material and experiences that they do not choose or have the capacity to navigate.”

It was a “travesty” that most pornography sites did not even have a tick-box for age verification, she said. “The Bill will ensure that any age-assurance system protects the privacy of users by taking no more information than is needed to establish age” and would be subject to transparent and measurable standards.

The issues of risk to privacy and the abuse of data have been raised by objectors to the Bill.

It was not a complete fix for the ills of the internet, but a start, Baroness Kidron said.

Responding, Baroness Harding said that the digital world permitted far poorer standards than the physical world. Age-assurance tools could and should be more sophisticated and used more widely within social media as well as in the hospitality industry and on adult sites.

Baroness Boycott said that good sex education in schools was “woefully lacking”, which led children to explore easily accessible male-orientated pornography. Baroness Bull agreed that this also promoted “unrealistic and idealised” body types.

Speaking later in the debate, Dr Croft said that their descendants would look back on the past two decades of unregulated use of technology “with deep pain and regret, as they reflect on the ways in which children are exposed to harmful material online, the damage which has followed, and will follow, and our tardiness in setting effective regulation in place.

“The evidence is clear that many are emerging from a digital childhood wounded and scarred in ways which are tragic but entirely preventable. The Government has made much of being pro-business in support of the emerging technologies, but, if they are equally serious about making the UK a safe country to be online, they really must do more to be pro-business in ways that protect children.

“We now know with increasing certainty how it is not only other users, so-called bad actors, but many online service providers themselves — not least Facebook, or now Meta — that target children, their data extracted, their identities manipulated, their impulses exploited.

“It should be noted that many of these same service providers say they would welcome clear guidance and regulation from the Government, even while other businesses say they already possess the tools and opportunities to do this both safely and profitably.”

There was no reason for delay, he said.

Lord Parkinson said that, while the Government was serious about protecting children, he would not be supporting the Bill, primarily because it believed that the Online Safety Bill was a better way to do this. The Bill would not, however, “mandate that companies use specific technologies for protecting children online” to ensure “future-proofing”.

Baroness Kidron maintained that this was “not good enough. Time has run out.”

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