Despite UN Criticism, UK Bill Aimed at Protecting Children From Online Porn Advances

By Kevin McCandless | January 26, 2017 | 9:26pm EST
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)

London (CNSNews.com) – A drive by the British government to restrict children from on-line pornography is set to continue in Parliament next week, despite charges by critics, including the United Nations’ advocate for free speech, who says it would violate human rights.

The Digital Economy Bill, first introduced last summer, is intended to tackle a number of digital issues, ranging from guaranteeing a minimum level of broadband speed to requiring commercial providers of Internet pornography to verify that viewers are adults.

Under the proposal, the British Board of Film Classification would rate material on porn websites in the same way as they give ratings to films on public release.

Under an amendment passed in the House of Commons, the BBFC would ask Internet service providers to block sites with content that goes beyond the “R18” rating, which is used for hardcore pornography.

Murray Perkins, a senior examiner with the BBFC, has indicated that the depiction of violent and criminal pornographic acts would be prohibited both online and off, in accordance with the way obscenity laws are interpreted by British prosecutors.

The bill, which has passed through the Commons and is due to be looked at again in the House of Lords next week, has drawn fierce opposition from many civil liberty groups.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said in an earlier statement the legislation would lead to unprecedented censorship.

“Once this administrative power to block websites is in place, it will invariably be used to censor other content,” he said.

Other groups have warned that an age verification procedure would provide a trove of personal data, with few safeguards, that could be exploited by the government.

This view was echoed in a letter sent to the British government by David Kaye, the U.N.’s “special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

He wrote that the age verification process would give the government access to information on what individuals viewed online. It also would allow authorities to more easily identify computer users, eradicating anonymous expression.

“While I am cognizant of the need to protect children against harmful content,” he wrote. “I am concerned that the provisions under the bill are not an effective way for achieving this objective as they fall short of the standards of international human rights law.”

However, parents’ groups have applauded the bill, saying that it was an important step and long overdue.

Vicki Shotbolt, chief executive officer for Parent Zone, said mobile phone operators in the United Kingdom have had default filters for age restricted content for years.

“If we had seen the ISPs adopt a similar approach we could have got here more quickly and in a straightforward way, ” she said. “This isn’t about reducing anyone’s freedom to access porn. It is simply bringing the online world more in line with the offline.”

The bill has the support of the opposition Labour Party and is expected to become law later this year, though probably not without further amendments.

Another provision of the bill would expand the sharing of personal data between government agencies, a move that the government said would “improve public service delivery.”

Daniel Nesbitt, a spokesman for Big Brother Watch, said on Tuesday that his group still had several problems with the bill.

Government ministers will decide how data is shared, with citizens having no say over their own records, his group contended.

The British government also has a poor record when it came to protecting records, the group noted, with almost 9,000 data breaches in the latest recorded year.

“We’re looking for a lot of changes to it,” he said. “In its current state it’s not fit to pass.”

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