The Online Safety Bill: The story so far

By Naomi Miles, Chair of Trustees, CEASE 

In 2015, the Tory Manifesto promised to protect children from stumbling across hardcore pornography online.

Yet seven years on nothing has really changed. 

Without age verification measures, any child with an online device is just a couple of clicks away from pornography depicting horrific violence, misogyny and abuse. It’s almost impossible to comprehend how we have let this situation continue for so long. 

As Lord Bethell observes,

“when we look back at the unspeakable sexual acts watched by children on the internet every day, we will all hang our heads in shame”.

So what went wrong? 

In 2017, Parliament approved the government’s plan requiring pornography websites to implement age verification measures. Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act (DEA) prevented commercial websites from making pornography available to anyone under the age of 18. This was a vital children protection measure and one long campaigned for by children’s charities. 

So it was a shock when in 2019, the then Culture Secretary, Baroness Nicky Morgan announced that Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act wouldn’t be implemented after all. In an unprecedented move (which happened to be just before the general election) she announced that the government would repeal Part 3 of the legislation in favour of the bigger, more ambitious Online Safety Bill. 

We were assured that this new Online Safety Bill would cover social media sites and thus offer children more comprehensive online protections. But the move delayed age verification by years and in the interim, millions more children have been – and continue to be – exposed to the harms of online pornography. 

We had no choice but to wait and see what the Online Safety Bill would deliver. 

Expecting the Online Safety Bill to give at least the same protections as the DEA, we were devastated to see that the first draft made no mention of online pornography whatsoever. In the midst of complex child protection measures for social media sites, the base-line standard of robust age verification for access to hardcore pornography had quietly vanished.

It was clear from the start that the vast scope of the Online Safety Bill led it to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. Certainly, it was not drafted with pornography in mind. This was evident from the fact that YouTube-style porn sites fell under exactly the same regulations as  all sites where content is uploaded by users. There was a single line in the bill explaining that tube-style sites not suitable for children would have to prevent children’s access; that was all. 

Under the legislation, only one or two of the very biggest pornography sites would come under more stringent requirements but even these were ill-fitted to the particular nature of the pornography industry (for example, the obligation to balance the risk of harm with the protection of user rights, journalistic freedom and free speech.)

The Bill was also problematic because non tube-style porn sites, i.e. pornography sites with only commercially or studio produced pornography, were excluded altogether. In response to widespread outrage on this point, the government shoehorned in a new part to the Bill requiring these sites to adopt age verification measures. Whilst this closed one loophole, it created a situation where pornography sites fell under three different regulatory regimes, depending on their size and functionality. 

In summary, the Online Safety Bill’s approach to the regulation of pornography was, and still is, partial, fragmented and ambiguous. 

This is a wasted opportunity. 

We still believe that the Online Safety Bill has the potential to hold the pornography industry to account and to stem the tide of its multifaceted harms. That’s why we’ve been working so hard, fighting with a coalition of partners including Barnardo’s, CARE and child online safety experts such as John Carr to raise awareness of this issue among both Peers and MPs and to create amendments that will really make a difference.

We have drafted comprehensive new amendments for the regulation of all online pornography, regardless of where it appears and what form it takes, which we will take to the government as this Bill progresses through parliament.

Our Part 5 Amendments:

  1. Add a full, comprehensive definition of pornography 
  2. Demand robust age verification measures for all pornographic content, wherever it occurs.
  3. Ensure that pornography sites do not host any content that would fail to attain a BBFC R18 certificate in the offline world.
  4. Ensure that Ofcom’s enforcement of regulation for online pornography is consistent. 
  5. Demand that age verification measures are introduced no longer than six months after the Bill is passed. 
  6. Ensure all pornographic sites have to guarantee all actors have provided age verification to prove they are over the age of 18.

Our proposed amendment will lead to the regulation of pornographic content within 6 months of the bill receiving Royal Assent. Without it, enforcement of the bill will begin in 2027 at the earliest, and another generation of young people will have been exposed.

Given its ambition to make Britain the safest place in the world to be online, the government must now have the courage to regulate an industry whose explosive, unregulated growth has corresponded with an unbridled escalation in illegal and extreme online content.

A timeline depicting the journey of the Online Safety Bill, from its inception to today.