Dame Rachel de Souza says she is ‘passionate’ about getting the likes of Twitter and Facebook to set up truly effective age verification systems

Credit: Anthony Upton for The Telegraph

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Dame Rachel de Souza admits she is not as tech savvy as most of today’s children, but even she was shocked at the ease with which she could access “serious” pornography on Twitter.

Within a minute, the Children’s Commissioner was able to find what she described as “really serious stuff” on the social media platform: pornographic material that she believes is too readily available and widely circulated by children with potentially damaging consequences for their present and future sexual relationships.

It is why the former headteacher says she is “passionate” about getting the social media firms to set up truly effective age verification systems and stop making excuses about why they are unable to prevent young children “stumbling across” pornography and other harmful content on their sites.

“We’ve got to put stronger protections in place,” she says. “Despite all the best efforts of the tech companies trying to clean sites up, it just clearly isn’t as effective as it needs to be.

“These tech companies are so huge. They are such strong businesses, I really want to push back on them and say: ‘Although you are doing many things, the volume of traffic is so huge, you need to do more to keep kids safe’.”

She is due to meet the bosses of the social media firms this week “to challenge them to grasp this nettle of keeping children safe and keeping children who should not be on their sites off their sites and getting unsuitable material off their sites”.

It is part of her new role as commissioned by Oliver Dowden and Gavin Williamson, the Culture and Education Secretaries, to provide them with proposals to “further protect children” before the Government’s Online Safety Bill becomes law, probably not until 2023.

Damaging impact on children

Her task is primarily focused on what measures could be taken now to combat porn online, but it is set within the context of the growing concern about the scale of sexual abuse and harassment of children as revealed by the Everyone’s Invited website.

Described as sparking a MeToo moment in British schools, the site currently features 16,000 stories of sexual abuse, ranging from groping to forced oral sex to rape.

As a former headteacher and now Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel could not be better placed to understand the roots of the crisis. Studies by her researchers estimate half of 11 to 13-year-olds have seen pornography online, often by accident. It rises to two thirds of 14 and 15-year-olds.

At the root of it is ease of access to pornography on social media platforms, which the majority of children have joined by the age of 11, two years before the companies declared age limits for doing so.

The consequences are played out in the playgrounds, classrooms and homes of children with “girls being pestered by boys who have seen this stuff to send them naked pictures”, says Dame Rachel.

At its worst, it goes on to infect relationships: “It gives them a really skewed or strange view of what normal sexual relationships look like. A lot of the content is degrading to women and leads to aggressive and coercive sexual behaviours in real life.”

It can even result in violence requiring medical intervention. “The charity, Five Rights, has actually shown there are some serious medical problems from children normalising violence, where children are acting this out,” says Dame Rachel.

Previous age verification plans

The Government originally proposed compulsory age verification for porn sites that would have banned under-18s from accessing them as part of its Digital Economy Act in 2017.

The requirement even became law before being abandoned by ministers in the face of an intense campaign by privacy groups who argued that the risks of leaks of names of people using the sites was a potential blackmailer’s paradise.

Instead, ministers said they would deal with it as part of the Online Harms legislation now before Parliament. However, these proposed laws do not mandate age verification either on the social media firms or adult porn companies.

Platforms will only be expected to use a range of tools which “might” include age verification, while the regulator Ofcom has no powers to compel them to do so. Porn sites that do not have user-generated content are not even covered by the Bill.

Dame Rachel believes that age verification technology has advanced since 2017 in such a way that it can allay privacy concerns, with methods, for example, that ensure that any personal details are destroyed instantaneously once an age is verified.

“I do think we can do age verification now in a way that protects and handles privacy. That’s always been the biggest concern. I’m looking at models in Germany and France. They’re moving that way we should be leading the fields here,” says Dame Rachel.

The Children’s Commissioner is also at pains to disavow any suggestion that she is trying to restrict adults’ personal freedoms: “I’m not interested at all in what adults choose to do.”

Dame Rachel’s three proposals

In addition to getting the social media companies to voluntarily sign up to robust age verification systems, she is also proposing three alternative legislative measures the Government could take if the tech giants fail to heed her appeals. 

These regulations could then be integrated into the new duty of care laws if and when they are enacted in 2023 or beyond.

The first option would resurrect the shelved 2017 law on age verification for porn sites and instructing Ofcom to produce a code of practice for the social media firms, which would put them under greater pressure to improve their systems voluntarily.

Second would be to fast-track new legislation in the autumn, separate to the Online Harms Bill, which would require commercial porn sites to verify ages and create a voluntary code of practice for social media companies.

Third would be for the Government to back a private members bill by Baroness Kidron, founder of Five Rights, which lays down minimum standards for social media firms to check the ages of users and could require those without them to adopt them.

Dame Rachel says the current laissez-faire approach to porn online is like leaving a loaded gun around for a child to find in the offline world.

“My view is that you wouldn’t leave a dangerous weapon lying around. We need to get proper minimum standards. I would argue for a strong form of age verification and to protect kids from accessing some really damaging material,” she says.