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House of Commons logoHouse of Commons

Delegated Legislation Committee

Proposal for Designation of Age-verification Regulator

Thursday 1 February 2018

The Minister of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Margot James)

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the Proposal for Designation of Age-verification Regulator.

The Digital Economy Act 2017 introduced a requirement for commercial providers of online pornography to have robust age-verification controls in place to prevent children and young people under the age of 18 from accessing pornographic material. Section 16 of the Act states that the Secretary of State may designate by notice the age-verification regulator and may specify which functions under the Act the age-verification regulator should hold. The debate will focus on two issues. I am seeking Parliament’s approval to designate the British Board of Film Classification as the age-verification regulator and approval for the BBFC to hold in this role specific functions under the Act.

Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab)

At this stage, I would normally preface my remarks with a lacerating attack on how the Government are acquiescing in our place in the world as a cyber also-ran, and I would attack them for their rather desultory position and attitude to delivering a world-class digital trust regime. However, I am very fortunate that this morning the Secretary of State has made the arguments for me. This morning, before the Minister arrived, the Secretary of State launched his new app, Matt Hancock MP. It does not require email verification, so people are already posting hardcore pornography on it. When the Minister winds up, she might just tell us whether the age-verification regulator that she has proposed, and that we will approve this morning, will oversee the app of the Secretary of State as well.

Question put and agreed to.

House of Lords

See article from hansard.parliament.uk

house of lords red logoParticulars of Proposed Designation of Age-Verification Regulator

01 February 2018

Motion to Approve moved by Lord Ashton of Hyde

Section 16 of the Digital Economy Act states that the Secretary of State may designate by notice the age-verification regulator, and may specify which functions under the Act the age-verification regulator should hold. I am therefore seeking this House’s approval to designate the British Board of Film Classification as the age-verification regulator. We believe that the BBFC is best placed to carry out this important role, because it has unparalleled expertise in this area.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)

I still argue, and I will continue to argue, that it is not appropriate for the Government to give statutory powers to a body that is essentially a private company. The BBFC is, as I have said before204I do not want to go into any detail — a company limited by guarantee. It is therefore a profit-seeking organisation. It is not a charity or body that is there for the public good. It was set up purely as a protectionist measure to try to make sure that people responsible for producing films that were covered by a licensing regime in local authorities that was aggressive towards certain types of films204it was variable and therefore not good for business204could be protected by a system that was largely undertaken voluntarily. It was run by the motion picture production industry for itself.

 L ord Ashton of Hyde

I will just say that the BBFC is set up as an independent non-governmental body with a corporate structure, but it is a not-for-profit corporate structure. We have agreed funding arrangements for the BBFC for the purposes of the age-verification regulator. The funding is ring-fenced for this function. We have agreed a set-up cost of just under £1 million and a running cost of £800,000 for the first year. No other sources of funding will be required to carry out this work, so there is absolutely no question of influence from industry organisations, as there is for its existing work—it will be ring-fenced.

Motion agreed.

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Culture, Media and Sport select committeeA parliamentary committee is trying to get heavy with Facebook and Twitter over the release of details about Russian elections interference.Damian Collins, chair of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee, which is looking into so-called fake news, has given the companies until 18 January to correct their failure to hand over information he requested about Russian misinformation campaigns on their platforms. He said:

There has to be a way of scrutinising the procedures that companies like Facebook put in place to help them identify known sources of disinformation, particularly when it’s politically motivated and coming from another country.

They need to be able to tell us what they can do about it. And what we need to be able to do is say to the companies: we recognise that you are best placed to monitor what is going on your own site and to get the balance right in taking action against it but also safeguarding the privacy of users.

But what there has to be then is some mechanism of saying: if you fail to do that, if you ignore requests to act, if you fail to police the site effectively and deal with highly problematic content, then there has to be some sort of sanction against you.

In a letter to Twitter this month, Collins wrote:

The information you have now shared with us is completely inadequate … It seems odd that so far we have received more information about activities that have taken place on your platform from journalists and academics than from you.

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terry burnsTerry Burns is set to become the new chairman of Ofcom in January 2018. As part of the approval process he was asked to appear before parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. And the topic of conversation was internet censorship, in particular censorship of social media.He was asked his thoughts on whether social media platforms such as Facebook should be recognised as publishers and therefore regulated. He responded:

I think it’s a very big issue. It’s becoming more and more difficult to distinguish between broadcasting and what one is capable of watching on the internet.

However, I think in many ways the main issue here is in terms of legislation and it is an issue for parliament rather than Ofcom.

I’ve been following this issue about platforms versus publishers… There must be a question of how sustainable that is.  I don’t want to take a position on that at this stage. As far as I’m concerned the rules under which we are working at the moment is that they are defined as platforms.

There will be an ongoing debate about that, for the moment that’s where they are. I find it difficult to believe that over time there isn’t going to be further examination of this issue.

Asked whether there was a role for Ofcom to monitor and check social media, Lord Burns said:

I don’t see any reason why if parliament wanted Ofcom to do that it shouldn’t [do so]… I’m not quite sure who else would do it.

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house of lords red logoThe Daily Mail explains that criminals and corrupt politicians and businessmen could escape exposure under a new attempt to restrict Press freedom.A fresh bid to restrict the rights of journalists and the media to inquire into crime and corruption involves attempts to change a data law that is going through Parliament.

One Labour amendment to the Data Protection Bill would mean that the Information Commissioner would have powers to decide whether codes of conduct under which journalists work should be recognised by the new law.

A second amendment would rewrite the new law so that the unjust censorship powers suggested in the second half of the Leveson inquiry into Press standards would go ahead.

Currently the proposed legislation provides an exemption for journalists who access and store personal information without consent when exposing wrongdoing. This means that individuals under investigation by journalists would not be able to interfere with their inquiries or block publication of stories that would bring to light wrongdoing.

However a series of attempts have been made to introduce changes to the Bill which would remove safeguards for freedom of expression, bind journalists and make their inquiries either difficult or impossible.

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house of lords red logoCriminals, corrupt business leaders and cheating MPs could avoid being exposed under a fresh assault on Press freedom.Amendments to the Data Protection Bill going through Parliament would make it easier for the rich and powerful to escape being held to account.

Tabled by Tory peer John Attlee and crossbencher Shiela Hollins, the changes would make it harder to carry out investigative journalism and protect the identity of sources who reveal wrongdoing.

They would affect all publications, from national newspapers and broadcasters including the BBC, to small community newspapers, charities and think-tanks.

Critics also fear that a second raft of amendments is being used as a backdoor route to force publishers to join the injust regulator Impress, which depends on money from the former Formula One boss Max Mosley.

The latest moves threaten 300 years of Press freedom by undermining the principle that journalists have the right to print whatever information they believe is in the public interest, and only answer for it to the courts afterward.

Last night Lord Grade, a former chairman of the BBC and ITV, said: Any legislative move that restricts a journalist’s legitimate inquiries should be opposed. The current laws and codes of conduct are sufficient to protect people from unwarranted intrusion and exposure.

Under the existing Bill, as proposed by the Government, the exemption for journalists depends on whether their reporting is in the public interest, as defined by the Ofcom code, the BBC editorial guidelines or the Independent Press Standards Organisation’s Editors’ Code of Practice. But some peers want to remove Ipso from the legislation and replace it with the injust press censor Impress, which covers only a handful of hyper-local publications and blogs.

Robert Skidelsky, one of the peers seeking to have Impress’s code of practice recognised in the Bill, is a close friend of Max Mosley.

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open rights group 2016 logo The Digital Economy Bill (DEBill) will require that porn sites verify the age of their users in order to prevent under 18s from viewing pornography. Despite concerns that this will leave porn users vulnerable to hacks and security risks, the Government has failed to amend the Bill so that privacy is written into the legislation. Instead, Codes of Practice will place the responsibility for protecting people’s privacy with porn sites not the companies supplying age verification technology.

Executive Director Jim Killock said:

Age verification is an accident waiting to happen. Despite repeated warnings, parliament has failed to listen to concerns about the privacy and security of people who want to watch legal adult content.

As we saw with the Ashley Madison leaks, the hacking of private information about people’s sex lives, has huge repercussions for those involved. The UK government has failed to take responsibility for its proposals and placed the responsibility for people’s privacy into the hands of porn companies.

Censorship regime

The Bill will also enable the creation of a censorship regime as the BBFC will be given powers to force ISPs to block legitimate websites without any judicial process. These powers were added to the Bill, when it became apparent that foreign porn sites could not be compelled to apply age verification. During parliamentary scrutiny, they were extended to include other content, not just pornography, raising further concerns about the threat to free speech.

Killock added:

These new powers will put in place a vast system of censorship which could be applied to tens of thousands of adult websites. The BBFC will be under pressure to censor more and more legal content. This is a serious assault on free speech in the UK.

Almost 25,000 ORG supporters signed a petition calling for the Government to reject plans for blocking legal pornography.

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open rights group 2016 logo Ten years jail for filesharing: or in fact any minor copyright infringement where there is a loss by not getting what one might get or cause a risk of further infringement.Clause 27 of the Digital Economy Bill will mean that more or less any wrongful use where somebody hasn’t paid a licence fee (think of memes) is a crime. Causing “risk” to the copyright holder means almost by definition ordinary file sharing is a criminal rather than civil infringement.

Is the government really intending to threaten teenagers with prison? Why has the Digital Economy Bill been left with such a stupid legal change? Both the government and the Intellectual Property Office said they just wanted to bring online infringement into line with “real world” fake DVD offences. They were worried about the difficulties with charging people who run websites that help people download copyright works.

However, that isn’t how they offence is drawn up: and the government has now been told in Parliament twice that they are both criminalising minor infringements and helping copyright trolls. Copryight trolls, we should remember, specialise in threats concerning file sharing of niche pornographic works in order to frighten and embarass people into payment, often incorrectly, and to our knowledge, have never taken anyone to court in the UK .

The answers have been startlingly bad. Kevin Brennan stated , for Labour:

The Open Rights Group has expressed concern about the Government’s insistence that there needs to be “reason to believe” that infringement will cause loss or “the risk of loss”. Its fear is that that phrase, “the risk of loss”, could capture quite a wide range of behaviour, perhaps beyond the scope of what the Government say they intend. In particular, its concern is the extent to which that phrase will capture file sharing.

Copyright trolls get their profits when a certain number of people are scared enough to respond to those notifications and pay up. Frequently these accusations are incorrect, misleading and sent to account holders who did not sanction any such further file sharing. However, as I understand it, sending that kind of speculative threat to consumers is, unfortunately, perfectly legal. Some are concerned that if the Bill retains the concept of risk of loss, it could aid the trolls by enabling them to argue with more credibility that account holders may face criminal charges and a 10-year prison sentence.

Matt Hancock gave a non-answer:

We recognise that the maximum sentence of 10 years, even if only for the most serious cases, must be carefully targeted. Consequently, clause 26 also makes changes to the existing offence of online copyright infringement to make it clearer when that offence is committed and who should be considered liable. The amendments speak to some of those points.

The concept of prejudicial effect in the existing legislation will be replaced with a requirement that the infringer intends to make a monetary gain for themselves or knows or has reason to believe their actions will expose the rights holder to a loss or risk of loss in money. I will come to the debate around definition of that in more detail.

The point of this clarification is to act as a safeguard to ensure that the increased maximum penalty is applied only to serious criminals who deserve it and will not apply to those who share material accidently or without knowledge of the consequences.

In the Lords, Labour suggested returning to the current definition of “prejudicial effect”: which (as Matt Hancock says) suffers the same problem of being very wide and catching people it should not.

The government have failed to give any serious answers. The Opposition, Labour and Liberal Democrat should be able to see that an egregious mistake is being made, and they have the ability to force a change.

The problem is really easily fixed. The government simply need to put in thresholds to ensure that only significant damage or serious risk is caused. We have an amendment prepared and published.

Why does the government want to help copyright trolls bully grannies and criminalise file sharers whose actions may be idiotic, but hardly criminal? The government needs to fix this before it becomes law and abuse of copyright ensues.