Online Safety Bill

The Online Safety Bill is a Private Members' Bill introduced into the Lords in March 2012, then again in May 2012, May 2013, June 2014, and May 2015.

It contains provisions similar to those expected in the forthcoming Communications Bill Green Paper.

Make provision about the promotion of online safety; to require internet service providers and mobile phone operators to provide a service that excludes adult content; and to require electronic device manufacturers to provide a means of filtering content.


Main Provisions

(note: may not reflect the current text)

  1. Duty to provide a service that excludes adult content
    1. Internet service providers must provide to subscribers an internet access service which excludes adult content unless all the conditions of subsection (3) have been fulfilled.
    2. Where mobile telephone network operators provide a telephone service to (5) subscribers which includes an internet access service, they must ensure this service excludes adult content unless all the conditions of subsection (3) have been fulfilled.
    3. The conditions are—
      • (a) the subscriber opts-in to subscribe to a service that includes adult content;
      • (b) the subscriber is aged 18 or over; and
      • (c) the provider of the service has an age verification policy which has been used to confirm that the subscriber is aged 18 or over.
    4. In subsection (3)—
      “opts-in” means a subscriber notifies the service provider of his or her consent to subscribe to a service that includes adult content.
  2. Role of Ofcom
    It shall be the duty of Ofcom to set, and from time to time to review and revise, standards for the-
      • (a) Filtering of adult content in line with the standards set out in section 319 of the communications Act 2003.
      • (b) Age Verification schemes
      • (c) Filtering of content by age or subject category
      • Before Setting standards, Ofcom must publish, in such a manner they see fit, a draft of the proposed code containing those standards.
    • It shall be the duty of Ofcom to establish procedures for handling and resolution a timely manner of complaints about the observance of standards set under this section.
    • Ofcom may designate anybody corporate to carry out the duties of this section in whole or in part.
    • Section 8 sub section D states that, Ofcom may only designate bodies which are are sufficiently independent of providers of internet access services and mobile phone operators.
  3. Duty to provide a means of filtering online content
    Manufacturers of electronic devices must provide customers with a means of filtering content from an internet access service at an age appropriate level at the time the device is purchased.
  4. Duty to provide information about online safety
    Internet service providers and mobile telephone network operators must provide prominent, easily accessible and clear information about online safety to customers at the time the internet service is purchased and shall make such information available for the duration of the service.
  5. Duty to educate parents about online safety
    The Secretary of State for Education must provide means of educating parents of children under the age of eighteen-
      • (a) the exclusion of adult content from an internet access service under section 1 to protect children;
      • (b) additional online safety measures for electronic devices, including but not restricted to, age appropriate filters; and
      • (c) protecting their child from online behavior that could be a safety risk, including but not restricted to, bullying and sexual grooming.
    “adult content” means an internet access service that contains harmful and offensive materials from which persons under the age of eighteen are protected.


Second reading of the Bill took place on 09/11/2012 in the House of Lords. The transcript can be found here: Second Reading The key developments included:

  • The bill will not attempt to censor the internet, but instead to enhance the methods available for parents to promote child safety.
  • The recognition that ISP's do not currently have the technical capability to define what adult content, or indeed any other dangerous material is. However, there appeared to be a general consensus that they must start taking on more responsibility. An opt-in system for ISP's was suggested.
  • The parents play a key role in this child safety, ensuring that their children are technically savvy and aware of the dangers. If need be, they should take advantage of already existing controls from Talk Talk, AVG and other companies to keep their children safe.
  • Viscount Young of Leckie inferred that the government and companies must work in tandem to ensure that parents are given adequate tools to 'assess the risks to their child.' [1]

House of Lords: Second Reading

The Online Safety Bill 2012-2013 reached the second reading stage on the 9th November, where it was debated in the House of Lords. The subject of the bill is to make provision about the promotion of online safety; to require internet service providers and mobile phone operators to provide a service that excludes adult content; and to require electronic device manufacturers to provide a means of filtering content. It was tabled by Baroness Howe of Idlicote, who opened the debate saying, "I have tabled the Bill because I am concerned that the internet has made harmful material, previously inaccessible to children and young people, now readily accessible."

The following were present and spoke at the debate:

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

Lord Lucas

Baroness Masham

Lord Bishop of Norwich

Lord Swinfen

Lord Haringey

Baroness Brinton

Lord Maginnis

Baroness Massey

Lord Ramsbotham

Baroness Thornton

Viscount Younger

The bill contains 4 main clauses which are as follows:

Clause 1 would require internet service providers-ISPs-and mobile phone operators-MPOs-to provide an internet service free from adult content.

Clause 2 requires electronic device manufacturers to provide a means of filtering inappropriate adult internet content at the time of purchase, where the device connects to the internet.

Clause 3 requires ISPs and MPOs to provide information about online safety. Finally, Clause 4 requires Ofcom to report on the impact of the legislation every three years.

Clause 4 requires Ofcom to report on the impact of the legislation every three years.

The bill proposes that there is an age verification procedure, put into place by the ISPs, from which adults can opt in if they wish to access certain content. The measure has widespread support in the house, particularly from Baroness Masham and Lord Swinfen. The proposed measures raise issues regarding anonymity on the web.

In order for the measures to succeed, websites will have to be blocked and in order to do this, a uniform definition of the term pornography will be required. This definition is put forward by Baroness Howe who cites the Immigration Act 2008 definition, which reads: "If it is such a nature it must be reasonably assumed to have been produced solely for the purpose of sexual arousal." In the eyes of many attending the debate, including Baroness Howe, the ISPs should be responsible for identifying which websites should be blocked. Lord Haringey stipulated that ISPs "need to put their house in order and start to find the most appropriate technical solutions to these problems", going onto argue that the ISPs should not be able to plead mere conduit with regards to how the internet is used. Viscount Younger believed that parents should be held to account, rather than the ISPs however, he agrees with the proposals of the bill requiring manufacturers and sellers of internet enabled devices to ensure an age verification system exists on all they sell.

Voices of Dissent Within the Debate

Lord Lucas was one of the few individuals who questioned the measures, specifically those of ISP liability. He stated, "If you give ISPs the responsibility of defining pornographic...You are making it terribly difficult for organisations not set up for this purpose, to decide whether a website should be accessible."

Baroness Brinton provided a number of issues which will prevent implementation of the bill, making a number of points. She argued that:

A simplistic definition of pornography will cause immense problems in our courts. How do you define arousal and to what level of arousal-partial, full? Is that arousal the view of the average person on the Clapham omnibus, or should the definition cover the various fetishes that people may have? The famous film director Quentin Tarantino is a foot fetishist. There are a number of people who have assessed his use of bare feet in all his films. Clearly they arouse people with the said fetish.

She also questioned the relationship between artwork and the bill and whether or not certain works of art would be blocked.

This limited definition of pornography would exclude much of the world's classic works of art. Thirty years ago I was working with Jonathan Miller on the BBC production of "Troilus and Cressida", which we had set in the Hundred Years War. We used some of the delightful pictures of Cranach the Elder, showing nudes of young women with the barest film of gossamer material across their bodies. Groundbreaking in Cranach's day, this nudity still arouses passion in many who view them, as have thousands of artists over the subsequent seven centuries. Are these images pornographic? Unfortunately under some of the automatic filter systems at the moment, they are.

The Future of the Bill

The bill still has some way to go before implementation, it must pass the committee stage, the report stage and the third reading in The House of Lords and subsequently pass a 5 stage review in The House of Commons.


Baroness Benjamin has put forward an amendment which would change the definition from 'pornographic images' to 'adult content', thus bring it under the terms of the Communications Act 2003. Lord Morrow has also moved an amendment which would insert 'at an age appropriate level' past the word 'content'. The new line in the Bill would now read;"Manufacturers of electronic devices must provide customers with a means of filtering adult content at an age-appropriate level from an internet access service at the time the device is purchased ."

The proposed amendments have been of concern to many, including British Naturism. On their website, potential censorship issues with the Bill are raised;

"The danger here is the lack of any definition of what the words "adult" and "appropriate" actually mean. There are several shortcomings in this Bill that absolutely must be addressed:

  • Appropriate must be defined on evidence and facts, not emotion, myth, and prejudice;
  • Classification must be evidence based;
  • Emotion and prejudice are not evidence;
  • Over-blocking is just as serious as under-blocking, both result in serious harm;
  • It must be clear which filters provide protection and which ones support prejudice and may be harmful;
  • Freedom of Expression is important and must be protected;
  • Blocking of web sites that are not harmful to children is libel;
  • Blocking web sites without justification is just as much censorship as preventing the publication of a newspaper.
  • There must be a practicable means to find out if blocked and to contest the blocking.
Unless there is real protection for Freedom of Expression then the manufacturers, software providers, and ISPs will minimise costs and filter everything that could possibly cause offence to anyone. That will cause considerable harm, not just to Naturism, but to society in general and to children and young people in particular."