Like a dog that has been let off the lead after five years under Lib Dem restraint, this Conservative government is all over the place with its legislative programme and that’s before we even start on Brexit. To add to the list of obnoxious new laws such as the new offence of ‘driving while being a suspected illegal immigrant’ and giving the police unfettered access to innocent people’s web histories, the Tories have waded into the swamp of online pornography and they are completely out of their depth.
The Digital Economy Bill, another universal answer to everything they couldn’t get through when we had one hand on the reins of power, professes to protect children from online pornography. Even those like me whose access to porn when I was younger was the top shelf magazines in the newsagent, know that, as with other forms of prohibition, those determined to get their hands on it will succeed. It is far better to educate children how to deal with online pornography when they come across it rather than, Canute-like, trying to keep it away from them.
Nonetheless, if we are to prohibit access to online adult material unless there is an age-verification solution in place, the privacy of those who are being forced to part with their sensitive personal information in order to verify their age, must be protected. We have already seen user databases for a couple of major porn sites, containing sensitive personal information, being hacked and the details traded on the dark web. When details of users of the Ashley Madison site were leaked, it reportedly led to two suicides.
The government’s position is there are already general data protection requirements in place but that is not good enough. The Minister in the debate in the House of Lords this week acknowledged that it was a far more sensitive issue to verify your age to access porn rather than to access an age-restricted gambling site, for example. These personal details are likely to be far more sought-after by hackers and the increasing number of online blackmailers. Everyone from the Open Rights Group to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, believes this is a problem, except the government and the Labour Party. That is why Liberal Democrats proposed an amendment that would have required age-verification solutions to meet strict criteria to ensure anonymity and would have ensured users had a choice of solution to choose from. I forced a vote on the issue but the Tories voted against the amendment while Labour peers sat on their hands and abstained. With Labour support we could have won.
This Bill was only ever intended to protect children from accessing pornography online but the Government allowed a Tory backbencher, at the last minute in the Commons, to introduce an amendment to restrict what adults can see online. With no time for debate in the Commons, by the time the Bill arrived in the Lords, the issues of protecting children by age-verification, censorship of online pornography, what DVDs the British Board of Film Censors grant a certificate to and the kind of pornography the CPS prosecute for, got completely entangled in a Holy mess. We had Peers arguing that allowing the BBFC to block extreme pornography online, where currently there is no power at all, was weakening the legislation, while others argued that what BBFC defines as “prohibited material” did not go far enough. It was a Conservative confusion of their own making.
Against almost evangelical opposition, I fiercely defended a minimal approach to online censorship unless and until a wider public debate concludes that the line, as to what is and what is not acceptable, is in the wrong place. The reason why the CPS do not prosecute people for possessing most obscene material is because society’s views have changed and much of what the BBFC still classifies as “prohibited material” in fact causes no harm to anyone.
Yet again, it is the Liberal Democrats who are sole the defenders of liberty and privacy and on the censorship issue, we prevailed, at least for now.
* Brian Paddick Is Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Home Affairs. He was Deputy Assistant Commissioner in London's Metropolitan Police Service until 2007, the Lib Dem candidate for the London mayoral election in 2008 and 2012, and a life peer since 2013.