Written evidence submitted by The Naked Truth Project (OSB0023)
From: Rob Newton (Intern and Schools Associate) on behalf of The Naked Truth Project (NTP).
Dear Members of Parliament,
Thank you for taking the time to read our submission of evidence to the DCMS Joint Select Committee on helping identify gaps and areas for clarification in the draft Online Safety Bill (OSB). Aware of the numerous pressures on the committee in successfully scrutinising this draft bill, we have attempted to present our evidence from our work in a clear and understandable manner. We seek to utilise our expertise from working in the frontline of pornography addiction recovery and schools work (see below) to inform this bill’s scrutiny committee. We hope this aids you to ensure that the bill is as appropriate as possible to prevent online harms.
Yours faithfully, Rob Newton.
Who are the Naked Truth Project (NTP)?
The NTP works to ‘open eyes’ (education) and ‘free lives’ (addiction recovery and support) from the damaging impact of pornography. We work in schools across England and Scotland delivering age-appropriate lessons on the topic of pornography and related issues. We also provide hundreds of clients across the world with addiction/compulsive behaviour recovery sessions each year, alongside partner support.
Why are we submitting evidence to this committee?
The current draft proposals do not address the issue of pornography sufficiently. We find that pornography has and continues to have long lasting harm upon our clients. Ranging from compulsive usage through to addiction, pornography consumption has caused significant psychological or physical harm to our clients, which often started in adolescence. We feel that from our anecdotal evidence, that pornography causes significant psychological or physical harm to children and vulnerable adults. This needs to be addressed in the OSB.
Executive Summary of this Submission:
- Include commercial pornography as an online harm in the OSB. The draft OSB’s lack of comment and applicability to pornography on harm means that the current draft OSB’s effectiveness is severely restricted. This is made more acute given our experience with clients on pornography as a harm to users.
- Expand the scope of the bill to include pornographic website providers to protect children and vulnerable adults such as those from Special Educational Needs & Disability (SEND) individuals, who we find are harmed proportionality more than the average user. This is a problem as 29% of 15 year olds in Northern Ireland for instance accessing pornography daily.
- Ensure that children and SEND users are protected from aggressive pornographic marketing cookies and bot ‘burner’ accounts on category 1 sites. This is made more acute by the large proportion of children who accidentally and unintentionally come across pornographic material, approximately 60% of those who have been exposed.
- Reinstate an ‘overarching duty of care’ to include some form of age verification and strong privacy default settings for children on category 1 provider sites. This will ensure children and vulnerable adults are protected from the online harm of pornography.
- The risk assessment process requires clarity over time scales and resources. The ambiguity over these issues in the OSB leaves children and adults vulnerable to unnecessary exposure that could cause prolonged harm.
- Additionally, clarity over the definition of harm is required. Ambiguity exists in the vertical ‘threshold’ approach to harm definition, which may be counter-productive. Instead, we think that all content with a potential to harm should be considered as though it could cause maximum harm (see point 26 for further explanation).
Commercial Pornography: OSB’s inadequate provisions to protect from harm
1. The provisions for preventing online harm in the bill whilst positive are incomplete. The draft OSB does not sufficiently address preventing online harm vis-a-vis commercial pornography (henceforth referred to as pornography). The OSB’s scope, while dynamic, is too narrowly restricted by being limited to ‘user-to-user’ and ‘search engine’ providers.
- Under current proposals, it is too easy for pornography publishers to avoid proposed regulation by simply removing user-to-user functions, some of which have already done so. It should be assumed that similar providers would act similarly to readily avoid regulation and escape fines.
- The consequences of pornographic publishing sites avoiding regulation would be that children will continue to be freely able to access pornographic content, which can cause serious long lasting psychological harm. We have discovered anecdotally in our work with recovery groups that many porn addictions start during adolescence, anecdotally usually between ages 9-13. The OSB therefore in not covering pornographic content and site providers specifically, is not providing a sufficient duty of care to prevent harm resulting from pornographic consumption. E.g., compulsive behaviours and addiction. This would fail to effectively protect the online safety of children, adults and SEND individuals.
- High levels of porn consumption lead to real-world consequences and harms. The original White Paper for online harms included a clause to prevent online harm transitioning to ‘real-world’ harm. This White Paper clause should be considered being reintroduced. Even the government’s equalities office statistical research found a link between pornography consumption and levels of sexual violence.
- The above is the reason for age restrictions on 18 or R18 content, which includes pornographic content. Online pornographic content should therefore fall under the same restricted access as that of previously established 18-rated content. Some form of robust age verification is therefore required to prevent under age access and provide a duty of care.
- Without some form of age verification system in place, the OSB would mean that the UK is not guaranteed to be the safest place to be online. As we find anecdotally from our clients, porn addicts often first stumble across porn accidentally.
- Therefore, there is a strong case for protecting children and vulnerable adults from pornographic content be addressed in the draft bill. In our work on the frontlines with individuals who have been profoundly harmed by inappropriate content consumption at an inappropriate age.
8. Re-introducing some form of age verification, to be incorporated into a broader ‘overarching duty of care’ package provided by not only providers but also enforced by OFCOM on behalf of the government may alleviate gaps identified by the NTP in the proposed draft OSB.
The Scope of the Bill
- The OSB’s narrow focus on ‘user-to-user’ and search engine providers is insufficient to incorporate pornographic and adult-only content websites. This will not achieve the government’s policy aims to make the UK the safest place to be online. The OSB also needs specific instances of content-focused services to come under the scope of the bill. Namely, pornographic service providers.
- This is not limited to such groups, category 1 providers also need to provide a duty of care in relation to pornographic content on their platforms.
- We are increasingly finding through our school's work that children are accessing pornographic, harmful content on category 1 provider platforms. The current duty of care and scope of the bill does not cover the issue of pornography in Category 1 services sufficiently. Therefore some measure of protections should be included in the OSB which are not currently present. Reinstating these within a comprehensive duty of care framework would make the bill more effective in achieving its aim for the UK to be the safest place online.
- In our work, we find that pornographic exposure occurs through ‘accidental’ exposure, where children are not actively seeking pornography, but view it because it is presented to them through advertisements resulting from aggressive cookies and also from bot ‘burner’ user accounts on category 1 services. This forms the majority of children’s first exposure’s to pornography in the 9-13 age bracket. Any risk assessment associated with a duty of care should assess the risk of unsuitable cookie usage and advertisements for children and ensuring automatic protection from pornographic content, for instance installing default settings preventing such accounts reaching under-18 accounts.
- Whilst providers do currently try and prevent automated ‘bot’ or ‘burner’ accounts, some still exist and cause harm. They provide direct links to pornography website and often formulates first ‘accidental’ exposure for underage children.
- Therefore, risks outlined in points 12 and 13 should be considered in any risk assessment. An overarching duty of care needs to include some form of age verification alongside creating strong privacy default settings for under 18 users to protect children from accidentally encountering the online harm of pornography. This is where the scope of the draft OSB could be improved.
Use of Algorithms and System-approach Processes.
- The NTP would welcome an overarching duty of care that could include automatically setting children’s accounts to the highest privacy settings. This would prevent ‘bot’ or burner accounts contacting them and preventing accidental exposure to such content. This would also need to block inappropriate advertisements to children and vulnerable adults.
An Overarching Duty of Care
- The duty of care proposed in the current bill outlines that the responsibility should be shifted toward providers operating websites. This is a resource-efficient method, yet it risks the bill becoming ineffective.
- The OSB as seen (see points 1-8) does not adequately address the issue of online pornography which the NTP has found to induce detriment harm to both children and adult consumers.
- Therefore there is a demonstrable need for the bill to return to the duty of care as outlined in original versions of the bill, namely an ‘overarching’ duty of care. Such duty of care would be all encompassing and would avoid the lack of clarity currently present in the most recent OSB iteration, as identified by some observers. This would incorporate pornographic content, which we find causes detrimental harm to the clients we work with at the NTP.
Risk Assessments and Timescales: the Risk of Harmful Pornographic Exposure.
- The draft bill requires providers to self-assess risks of harm to children/vulnerable groups from content consumption. It is concerning that in sections 7, 19 (subsections 1(b) respectively), and 62 for instance that no timescale is put on keeping risk assessments ‘up to date’ in the proposed OSB. This presents numerous opportunities for time lags in the evolving harms and the responsive implementation of protections against them.
- This then raises the possibility that children and also adults will not be sufficiently protected against online harms under current OSB provisions. This represents a gap in online safety under the current draft OSB.
- This bill’s risk-assessment approach is also reliant upon OFCOM thoroughly and regularly checking content on the providers of for instance, category 1 sites. This is not guaranteed if OFCOM is not given sufficient resources or support. Provisions for ample OFCOM resources should be clarified in the bill.
- Providers not checked regularly and vigorously resulting from an understaffed OFCOM will see opportunities to bypass certain aspects of risk assessments, which cannot guarantee online safety to users, and opens children to exposure to pornography.
- Thus returning to earlier versions of this draft bill which cited an overarching ‘duty of care’ would be more suitable. Currently, the duty of care is not all encompassing and risks children accessing harmful content. In relation to pornography, some form of age verification should be included as part of an overarching duty of care.
- An overarching duty of care should include commitments by all organisations affected by the bill to uphold online safety of users.
The Definition of Harm: an Alternative Approach
- The arbitrary definition for ‘significant physical or psychological harm’ is counterproductive. The narrow definition of harm in the OSB does not provide sufficient scope for harms found in our work at the NTP.
- Harm is not a vertical ‘threshold’ concept in the assumption that a certain level of exposure to a harm will create significant long lasting harm. We find that harm is horizontally based. When identical content is consumed by non-identical users, some are harmed more than others by the same content, given different circumstances. This should be addressed in the bill.
- Additionally, the work of NTP has found that SEND individuals, for instance individuals with autism, are proportionally more affected by harmful content online. Yet, no provisions are seemingly made for this in the draft bill. We find that the duty of care required by the bill in its current format is insufficient for these groups.
- Therefore considerations should be made vis-a-vis these vulnerable groups. We have substantial anecdotal evidence of clients with these needs who are more vulnerable to pornographic content.
- One way to ensure these protections are rigorous is by reintroducing an overarching duty of care which includes protection against pornographic content by age verification, and protecting vulnerable groups from targeted and aggressive advertising resulting from cookie tracking and bot or ‘burner’ accounts.