Diana Johnson – 2020 Speech on Online Harms

The speech made by Diana Johnson, the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, in the House of Commons on 19 November 2020.

I pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this debate. Today is World Children’s Day, when we are asked to imagine a better future for every child, and I will focus my remarks on an online harm that the Government could act on quickly to protect our children. Commercial pornography websites are profiteering from exposing children in the UK to hardcore violent pornography—pornography that it would be illegal to sell to children offline and that it would be illegal to sell even to adults, unless purchased in a licensed sex shop.

Three years ago, Parliament passed legislation to close this disastrous regulation gap. Three years on, the Government have still not implemented it. Assurances that the regulation gap will be filled by the forthcoming online harms legislation do not stand up to objective scrutiny. This is a child protection disaster happening now, and the Government could and, I hope, will act now.

Children are being exposed to online pornography at an alarming scale, and during the covid-19 pandemic, there is no doubt that the figures will have increased even more with children more often having unsupervised online access. The issue is the widespread availability and severity of online pornography accessible at home. It is no longer about adult magazines on the top shelf in the newsagent. Contemporary pornography is also overwhelmingly violent and misogynistic, and it feeds and fuels the toxic attitudes that we see particularly towards women and girls.

Back in 2017, Parliament passed part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. Enacted, it would prohibit commercial pornography websites from making their content available to anyone under the age of 18 and create a regulator and an enforcement mechanism. It was backed by the leading children’s charities, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Barnardo’s, as well as the majority of parents. However, in 2019, the Government announced that they would not be implementing part 3 of the 2017 Act. In the online harms White Paper in February, the Government said that any verification

“will only apply to companies that provide services or use functionality on their websites which facilitate the sharing of user generated content or user interactions”.

That is not good enough. Parliament has already spoken. We have said what we want to happen. I expect the Government to build on part 3 of the 2017 Act. It is set out and is ready to go to. They should act on it now.