My Lords, I speak in favour of Amendment 23, to which I have added my name as a supporter. I spoke on this issue in Committee. As we have now left the EU, we must outline our priorities as a nation, and protecting children online must be high on the list.
Amendment 23 would offer significant protections for UK children online by effecting UK laws relating to online safety in future trade deals. I have been impressed by Her Majesty’s Government’s ambitions and efforts to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. I support the regulatory framework outlined in the Government’s response in December 2020 to the Online Harms White Paper, which is ground-breaking in creating a new duty of care that will make companies take responsibility for the safety of their users.
This amendment is an important part of this new strategy and should be supported. As set out in proposed new Clause 2(a) in Amendment 23, international trade agreements must be consistent with other international treaties and domestic laws on the protection of children and other vulnerable groups using the internet. This would refer to treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognisesthe special safeguards that children need in all aspects of their life, including protection from all forms of violence, and the right to privacy.
Proposed new Clause 2(a) could also refer to the Digital Economy Act 2017, which prevents under-18s in the UK accessing pornography on the internet. During the pandemic, digital technologies have helped us to work and connect with loved ones, but they have also opened up greater risks for children. For instance, during the first lockdown, the Internet Watch Foundation and its industry partners blocked at least 8.8 million attempts by UK internet users to access videos and images of children suffering sexual abuse. At the same time, research by the British Board of Film Classification shows that 47% of children and teens had, during lockdown, seen content that they wished they had not seen.
The risks to children online are growing by the day, and we need to be proactive in tackling these harms and encouraging others to do so by supporting this amendment. In Committee, I was pleased that my noble friend the Minister said,
“we stand by our online harm commitments, and nothing agreed as part of any trade deal will affect that.”
This is reassuring, and I welcome his support. However, protecting children online is such an important issue it needs to be guaranteed in legislation, so that it is not accidentally traded away. This amendment will make sure this cannot happen by ensuring our online protection is a necessary requirement of any future trade deal.
In Committee, my noble friend also said that
“our continuity programme is consistent with existing international obligations, as it seeks to replicate existing EU agreements, which are themselves fully compliant with such obligations”,—[Official Report, 1/10/2020; col. GC 140.]
to protect young and vulnerable internet users. Although I welcome this continuity, my concern is with countries such as the US, which may not have the same standard of protection as we do in the UK and the EU.
As has been mentioned previously, the trade agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada has effectively created a legal shield for tech companies in line with US domestic law. In this agreement, service providers are not liable for content on their platforms or the harm it may cause to users. This fails to hold social media companies to account and risks protecting the big tech firms over children online. Rather than just replicating the existing legislation on online harms in future trade agreements, the amendment will also apply to updated or new legislation. For example, proposed new subsection (2)(c) of Amendment 23 refers to
“online protections provided for children in the United Kingdom that the Secretary of State considers necessary.”
This means that future legislation, such as the upcoming online harms Bill, will be protected in international trade agreements.
The digital space is continually changing and growing at a rapid pace. I am sure that, over the next few years, more legislation will be created for new technologies that we may not even know exist at present. With this amendment, we will ensure that protecting children goes hand in hand with technological innovation.
In Committee, my noble friend the Minister reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to international obligations on protecting young and vulnerable internet users. Supporting this amendment is the best way to strengthen this commitment and make it truly enforceable, as it means that children online will be fully protected within future trade deals, regardless of the make-up of the negotiating team of the day.
Data protection is also central to protecting children online, and proposed new subsection (2)(b) will ensure that the age-appropriate design code is also properly honoured. The code came into force in September 2020, and is a code of practice that explains how online service providers can ensure that they appropriately safeguard children’s personal data.
Data is essentially the building block of the digital world and affects how we use it. Although data is important and useful, it can also be dangerous in exposing children to age-inappropriate content, such as material on self-harm, sexual abuse, bullying, misinformation and extremism. As data travels across borders, it is important that future international agreements are consistent with our leading online protections.
In proposed new subsection (3) of the amendment, a child is defined as
“any person under the age of 18.”
This is consistent with existing UK law and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is important, as the age of a child differs between countries. For example, US domestic consumer law has created the de facto age of adulthood online as 13. I am sure your Lordships will agree that a 14, 15, 16 or 17 year-old is still as much at risk of sexual exploitation, misinformation, grooming, bullying and harmful content online as a 13 year-old. For instance, in a survey by Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2019, 79% of 12 to 15 year-old internet users claimed that they had had at least one harmful experience in the past 12 months. It is important that this amendment is supported, so that any person under the age of 18 can be protected, as, even at 17, a young person is still developing, and harmful experiences online can impact them for the rest of their life.
I applaud the Government’s use of digital technologies to power economic growth across the UK and abroad. This is exciting, but we must exercise caution. To quote the response to the online harms Bill White Paper:
“we must be able to look parents in the eye and assure them we are doing everything we can to protect their children from harm.”
By supporting this amendment, we are making a true commitment to create a safer digital world for our children.