Written evidence submitted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation (OSB0037)

 

 

Summary

 

  1. The measures contained in the Draft Online Safety Bill fail to effectively protect children from harmful activity and content because they do not require all pornography websites to implement age verification checks. The Online Safety Bill must legally prohibit pornography websites from making their content available to anyone under the age of 18 and ensure pornography websites are required to adopt robust age verification mechanisms.

 

  1. In addition, the measures contained in the Draft Online Safety Bill fail to make adequate provisions to protect people who may be at risk of commercial sexual exploitation because the draft bill does not prohibit the operation of pimping websites. These is substantial evidence demonstrating that these websites facilitate sex trafficking and sexual exploitation in the UK. In order to protect individuals vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, it is vital that the Online Harms Bill legally prohibits websites from hosting prostitution advertisements.  

 

Evidence

 

  1. The following evidence is provided by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Commercial Sexual Exploitation. The APPG on Commercial Sexual Exploitation works to end all forms of commercial sexual exploitation. The group is chaired by Rt Hon Dame Diana Johnson MP and its officers are: Lord McColl of Dulwich, Fiona Bruce MP, Rt Hon Diane Abbott MP, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, Jess Phillips MP, Ronnie Cowan MP and Carolyn Harris MP.

 

Pornography websites

 

  1. The measures contained in the Draft Online Safety Bill fail to effectively protect children from harmful activity and content because they do not require all pornography websites to implement age verification checks. At present, only pornography websites that facilitate the sharing of user generated content or user interactions will be within the scope of the bill – and even these websites are not mandated to adopt age verification checks. This represents a serious safeguarding gap in the Draft Online Safety Bill that must be remedied.

 

  1. At present, pornography websites are not legally required to implement age verification checks to prevent children accessing their content. Offline, it is illegal to supply pornographic videos, DVDs and cinema screenings to anyone under the age of 18[1]. Hard copy videos and video games containing ‘strong sexual content’ and rated R18[2] by the BBFC can only be supplied in a licensed sex shop[i], and R18 content is prohibited altogether on linear TV[ii]. Yet it is currently legal to supply that same pornographic content to children via a website.

 

  1. Children are being exposed to online pornography on an alarming scale. Government analysis of statistics from 2015 revealed that in a single month, 1.4 million children visited pornographic websites from their desktop[iii]. Approximately half (732,000) of these children were aged between 6-14 years old. Research by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) found that 51% of children aged 11-13 reported they had seen pornography at some point, and over half (55%) of 11- to 13-year-olds who have seen online pornography said they had only ever seen online pornography by accident[iv]

 

  1. The most popular pornography websites provide instant, free access to hardcore pornography. Research by ATVOD found that 23 of the top 25 pornography websites visited by individuals in the UK provide instant, free and unrestricted access to hardcore pornographic videos and images. ATVOD state: “The videos were equivalent to, or stronger than, those passed R18 by the British Board of Film Classification for DVD release. R18 DVDs can only be sold to adults who visit a licensed sex shop, yet the websites made equivalent (and stronger) material available to any visitor, of any age.”[v]

 

  1. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport confirm that many pornography websites feature content that would be refused classification under BBFC Guidelines and may be in breach of the Obscene Publications Act 1959, including “content that depicts, for example, abuse or rape, including sex between purported family members, scenarios involving non-consensual activity, actors presented to appear under the age of consent, and aggressive and violent sex.”[vi]

 

  1. Viewing online pornography can have a deeply harmful impact on children. A survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research found 70% of 18-year-olds felt that pornography can have a damaging impact on young people’s views of sex and relationships[vii]. A poll by NSPCC’s Childline of 12-13-year-olds found one in five had seen pornographic images that had shocked or upset them[viii]. Research by the BBFC found that 29% of children who said that most of the pornography they had seen was intentionally viewed believed that consent wasn’t needed if “you knew the person really fancies you”. In comparison, only 5% of children whose interaction with pornography had mostly been by accident believed the same[ix].

 

  1. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has stated: “..existing research indicates that pornography, and its proliferation on the internet, is a concern amongst young people, as well as their parents and carers. Longitudinal studies have also established possible links between the viewing of hard-core or violent pornography by younger people and increased sexually aggressive behaviour later in life. …One controlled longitudinal study found that male adolescents’ pornography use predicted their perpetration of sexual harassment two years later.”[x]

 

  1. It is illegal for gambling websites to allow anyone under the age of 18 to use their services[xi]. Accordingly, online gambling operators are required to have robust age verification controls in place. Age verification checks are also used to prevent children buying age-restricted goods online[xii], such as tobacco and alcohol. It is remarkable and indefensible that commercial pornography websites are not similarly required to implement robust age verification controls.

 

  1. On 27th April 2017, the Digital Economy Act received Royal Assent[xiii]. Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act enables the Secretary of State to prohibit pornography websites from making their content available to anyone under the age of 18. The Act sets out a regulatory and enforcement framework that applies to any commercial pornographic website accessed by a UK user. The key provision in Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act is section 14(1), which states that: “A person contravenes this subsection if the person makes pornographic material available on the internet to persons in the United Kingdom on a commercial basis other than in a way that secures that, at any given time, the material is not normally accessible by persons under the age of 18[xiv].

 

  1. The age verification mechanisms contained in the Digital Economy Act represent a vital child protection system. The Act stipulates that before allowing an individual to access their pornographic content, a commercial pornography website must first verify that the user is 18 years old or above. Included in the Act are mechanisms for regulating pornographic websites and penalising those that do not comply with the law.

 

  1. Despite the age verification system contained in the Digital Economy Act being ready to implement, on 16th October 2019 the Secretary of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced in a written statement to Parliament that the Government “will not be commencing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 concerning age verification for online pornography.”[xv] When announcing that Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 would not be commenced, the Secretary of State wrote, “The Digital Economy Act objectives will therefore be delivered through our proposed online harms regulatory regime.”[xvi]

 

  1. However, the measures contained in the Draft Online Safety Bill will not apply to all pornography websites, only those which facilitate the sharing of user generated content or user interactions[3]. Moreover, functionalities enabling the sharing of user generated content or interactions can be removed from a website – therein exempting a pornographic website from the regulations. 

 

  1. Additionally, the Draft Online Safety Bill does not propose mandatory age verification even for commercial pornography websites that facilitate the sharing of user generated content or user interactions. The Government has stated (with underline emphasis added):Under our proposals we expect companies to use a proportionate range of tools including age assurance, and age verification technologies to prevent children from accessing age-inappropriate content and to protect them from other harms.”…“Companies would be able to use a number of methods to protect children, including possibly - but not necessarily - age assurance tools, which we expect will continue to play a key role in keeping children safe online”.[xvii]

 

  1. In order to protect children from harmful activity and content, the Online Safety Bill must legally prohibit pornography websites from making their content available to anyone under the age of 18. It must deliver a regulatory and enforcement framework that applies to any pornographic website accessed by a UK user – ensuring pornography websites are legally mandated to adopt robust age verification mechanisms.

 

Pimping websites

 

  1. The measures contained in the Draft Online Safety Bill fail to make adequate provisions to protect people who may be at risk of commercial sexual exploitation because the bill does not designate the advertising of prostitution as illegal content.

 

  1. It is illegal to place a prostitution advert on or in the immediate vicinity of a public telephone (under Section 46 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001). However, at present it is legal for websites to host those same adverts. As a result of this online regulation gap, highly lucrative ‘pimping’ websites currently operate openly and legally in England, Wales and Scotland. The purpose of these websites is to profit from the advertising of individuals for prostitution. The websites charge fees to the individuals that place the adverts, while being free to use by sex buyers. Sex buyers can select women to pay for sex according to their geographical location, with the sex buyer contacting the ‘seller’ directly via a mobile phone number provided in the advert.

 

  1. An inquiry by the APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade[xviii] found that two pimping websites dominate the ‘market’ of online prostitution advertising: Vivastreet and Adultwork[4]. The inquiry found that the use of pimping websites is part of the modus operandi of organised crime groups that traffic women into and around the UK for prostitution.

 

  1. In 2017, nine men were convicted for their role in a prostitution ring that trafficked young Romanian women around the North West of England and Northern Ireland. The trafficking gang advertised the women they sexually exploited on Vivastreet. In total, 11 women were identified as having been exploited by the group. However, some of the Vivastreet adverts placed by the group included photos of women who were not identified by police. Figure 1 shows an advert placed by the trafficking gang on Vivastreet to advertise one of their victims to sex buyers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1:

 

Graphical user interface

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  1. In 2021, the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation conducted an inquiry into pimping websites. The inquiry found that pimping websites are a major facilitator of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation because they centralise and concentrate demand online from sex buyers. The Cross-Party Group concluded: “This ready-made, instantly accessible, open online marketplace incentivises sex trafficking. The websites substantially lower the practical, financial and technical threshold for individual exploiters and organised crime groups to engage in this highly lucrative crime.”[xix]

 

  1. Crucially, the inquiry concluded that opportunities and incentives for third parties to traffic and exploit women via pimping websites cannot be ‘designed out’ of the websites: “Operators of Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites have no realistic or reliable way of ensuring that individuals being advertised for prostitution on their sites are not being criminally exploited by a third-party. ...There is evidence that Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites have allowed individuals to place adverts despite the presence of overt indicators that those individuals were engaged in criminal exploitation. In 2018, it was revealed that a single trafficker had spent £25,000 advertising victims on Vivastreet. Prior to the trafficker’s arrest, Vivastreet had responded to this man’s high rate of spending on prostitution adverts not by calling the police, but by allocating him an account manager.”[xx]

 

  1. The Scottish Parliament Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation recommended that the Scottish Government introduce legislation to criminalise pimping websites. Legislation prohibiting pimping websites is already in force in countries including France and the United States. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, Valiant Richey, stated earlier this year: “Governments should really be considering policy options to shut down these sites as quickly as possible. SESTA-FOSTA, the bill in the United States, is the best example of that. That bill passed and the market declined by eighty per cent in seventy-two hours. We documented the data. Eighty per cent decline in seventy-two hours. I’m not aware of any anti-trafficking legislation anywhere in the history of the world that had such an impact on the market in such a short time.”[xxi]

 

  1. In order to protect individuals vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, it is vital that the Online Harms Bill legally prohibits websites from hosting prostitution advertisements.  

 

Recommendations

 

  1. In order to protect children from harmful activity and content, the Online Safety Bill must legally prohibit pornography websites from making their content available to anyone under the age of 18.

 

  1. In order to protect individuals vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, the Online Safety Bill must legally prohibit websites from hosting advertisements for prostitution.  

 

 

17 September 2021

 

7


 


[1] Hard copy videos are subject to a mandatory classification regime by the BBFC under the Video Recordings Act, while cinema screenings are subject to a similar regime by the BBFC under the Licensing Act 2003. Where content is classified by the BBFC as only suitable for those aged 18 or over, it is a criminal offence to supply the content in breach of this classification.

[2] The R18 category is “primarily for explicit works of consenting sex or strong fetish material involving adults” – BBFC Classification Guidelines. R18 films can only be shown to adults in specially licensed cinemas, and R18 videos can only be supplied to adults in licensed sex shops. R18 videos cannot be supplied by mail order.

 

[3] Regulated services under the Act are ‘user to user’ services and search services. A ‘user-to-user’ service is defined in the Draft Online Safety Bill as “an internet service by means of which content that is generated by a user of the service, or uploaded to or shared on the service by a user of the service, may be encountered by another user, or other users, of the service.” Source: Part 1, Section 1 (1) of the Online Safety Bill.

[4] Vivastreet is owned or controlled by the off-shore holding company W3 Ltd, based in Jersey. Adultwork is owned by CDLB Holdings Inc, a company registered in Panama. It is operated by a company called AWS Affiliate World Systems International Limited, which is registered in Malta and also based in Cyprus.


[i] ‘Child Safety Online: Age Verification for Pornography’, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, February 2016. Accessed at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/541366/AV_ConsultationDCMS_20160216_Final__4_.pdf

[ii] The Ofcom Broadcasting Code, Section one: Protecting the under-eighteens. Accessed at:  https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and-on-demand/broadcast-codes/broadcast-code/section-one-protecting-under-eighteens

[iii] ‘Child Safety Online: Age Verification for Pornography’, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, February 2016.

[iv] ‘Young people, Pornography & Age-verification’, January 2020, British Board of Film Classification.

[v] For Adults Only? Underage access to online porn’, A research report by the Authority for Television On Demand (“ATVOD”), March 2014.

[vi] Child Safety Online: Age Verification for Pornography’, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, February 2016, p.13.

[vii] ‘Child Safety Online: Age Verification for Pornography’, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, February 2016.

[viii] ‘Girl, 13, reveals how online porn turned her boyfriend into a sexual predator, as study finds one in ten children fear they are addicted to watching internet sex’, Daily Mail, 31 March 2015. Accessed at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3019288/Girl-13-reveals-online-porn-turned-boyfriend-sexual-predator-NSPCC-campaign.html; NSPCC Cymru/Wales: A year in review 2014 – 2015. Accessed at: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/annual-reports/cymru-wales-in-review-2014-2015.pdf

[ix] ‘Young people, Pornography & Age-verification’, January 2020, British Board of Film Classification.

[x] ‘Child Safety Online: Age Verification for Pornography’, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, February 2016, p.39-40.

[xi] Gambling Act 2005. Accessed at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2005/19/part/4

[xii] ‘Child Safety Online: Age Verification for Pornography’, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, February 2016. Accessed at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/541366/AV_ConsultationDCMS_20160216_Final__4_.pdf

[xiii] Digital Economy Act 2017. Accessed at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2017/30/contents

[xiv] Accessed at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2017/30/section/14

[xv]ONLINE HARMS: Written statement - HLWS12. Accessed at: https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Lords/2019-10-16/HLWS12/

[xvi] ONLINE HARMS: Written statement - HLWS12. Accessed at: https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Lords/2019-10-16/HLWS12/

[xvii] Online Harms White Paper - Initial consultation response, Joint Ministerial Foreword, Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Home Office.

[xviii] ‘Behind Closed Doors: Organised sexual exploitation in England and Wales’, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, 2017. Available at: https://www.appg-cse.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Behind-closed-doors-APPG-on-Prostitution.pdf

[xix] Online Pimping: An Inquiry into Sexual Exploitation Advertising Websites, Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, 2021, p.19. Available at: https://43b7aa2e-6040-4325-8d69-b57333b95a64.usrfiles.com/ugd/43b7aa_2aa3793584184082877ba83216ca7912.pdf

[xx] Online Pimping: An Inquiry into Sexual Exploitation Advertising Websites, Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, 2021, p.16.

[xxi] Online Pimping: An Inquiry into Sexual Exploitation Advertising Websites, Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, 2021, p.29.