Age controls on online pornography is fantastic news

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The UK Government has announced that age checks on online porn will in fact be included in the Online Safety Bill.

It's easy to miss the huge significance of this. It wasn't that long ago that the government was insisting it had no plans to introduce age checks. But here we are, clearly there's been a change of heart.

If you're familiar with CARE's work, you'll know this is something we've campaigned on for years.

Since 2010, we've sought to raise the profile of this issue in Parliament, working first with Baroness Howe on various online safety bills. Then, in 2016, the Digital Economy Act was introduced, Part 3 of which had provisions for age checks on all commercial porn sites.

That was duly passed in April 2017 and in 2018, the regulations needed to implement age checks were approved by MPs and Peers.

But what followed was months and years of dither and delay. In June 2019, the Government said it had forgotten to notify the European Commission of its plans for age verification (something it had a legal duty to do), so the scheme was delayed again by a further six months.

Then, on 16 October 2019, the Government just ditched age checks altogether. At the time, we were told that 'something better' was coming down the tracks. We were skeptical and so carried on raising the issue and using various parliamentary debates to put pressure on the Government.

Finally, in May 2021, the draft Online Safety Bill was published. But there was no mention of age checks. In fact, pornography was not even on the face of the Bill! Despite all the assurances, in significant ways, the new legislation was going to be weaker than the protections offered to young people via the Digital Economy Act.

Working with Baroness Benjamin – a brilliant campaigner for a safer internet – and Christian Peers like the indefatigable Lord Morrow, we continued to raise the issue in Parliament. In the summer of 2021, our polling showed huge public support for age checks on online porn, with more than 80% of adults saying they supported the policy.

A change in Culture Secretary seemed to signal a shift. In November last year, Nadine Dorries hinted that age checks on commercial porn sites were part of discussions. Various Committee reports said the draft Bill needed to be tougher, although no-one pinpointed age checks on porn in the way we wanted.

CARE kept at it, along with the Children's Commissioner for England, the Association of Age Verification Providers and other campaign groups. Legal challenges over the Government's failure to age verify porn were given the green light.

We were conscious as we did so that all the while, as politicians debated the issues, young people remained exposed and unprotected.

All of that led up to today. Now, after all the twists and turns, we could end up with a new duty of care on social media companies, new regulation to tackle 'user generated' pornography and age controls on pornographic websites.

If this all happens this time round, the UK can legitimately claim to be a world leader when it comes to online safety.

Some people will argue that the 'porn laws' are a despicable invasion of people's privacy. They're the one's who will make no mention at all of the damage online porn is doing to our young people. Moreover, age verification technology has improved and now, by using independent, third-party, audited and certified to comply with the highest standards of data protection and privacy, you can be confident that the new controls will uphold your privacy while protecting your children.

More than half of 11–13-year old's have watched porn at some point. Children as young as seven have stumbled across porn online. The internet is like the wild west, with little effective regulation in place.

Age controls already exist to stop under-18s buying alcohol or cigarettes. Given the evidence that shows how watching porn influences wrong attitudes towards sex and consent, it's a no-brainier to apply age checks to online porn as well.

For anyone interested in campaigning for change in the world of public policy, the journey towards age checks is hugely instructive. Campaigning involves setbacks, disappointments, frustrations and so on.

You must be persistent, faithful and keep at it. You don't need to campaign at 100% all the time. But you need wisdom to spot the right opportunities. CARE's been privileged to work with many others in our work for a safer internet. Building coalitions is also a vital way of bringing about change. We thank God for all those who've taken up this cause and helped persuade the Government to re-introduce age checks.

Now, the work begins to ensure age check controls are implemented as soon as possible.

James Mildred is Chief Communications Officer at Christian Action Research and Education (CARE)