Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 535 - 539)



  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for coming to see us here this morning. You are an extraordinarily powerful and interesting organisation and we hope to get a lot of information out of you. We will begin with Mr Maxton.

Mr Maxton

  535. Could I start with a topical question, do you have a view of the Napster decision yesterday in the United States?

  (Ms Gilbert) I think AOL's position has always been that we value intellectual property and we think intellectual property must be protected in the Internet just as it is off-line. I think what the court came down with was really the only sensible decision they could make, given the facts. I think what we are looking for in the future is a resolution which will enable technologies and companies like Napster to operate in a lawful manner, and there is much talk about the move towards a subscription model for music on the Internet and that might provide the solution. That is the challenge for Napster, to run their business in a lawful environment.

  Mr Maxton: One of the dangers is that the open provision which Napster allowed for people—all right, illegally, I will accept that—to swap music means that now record companies will not be really competing to drive their prices down. Recent investigations here have shown in terms of the actual physical market, rather than the Internet market, the record companies are operating cartels to keep prices at a certain level.


  536. As we pointed out a long time ago.
  (Ms Gilbert) I think that is a separate question. I think already the Internet offers a medium through which companies can compete legitimately on price. People can buy their CDs from a number of sites and those will be offered at a discounted rate, but it is a different question to say, "Is it right to incentivise record companies to bring down their prices because they are competing with an illegal product?" I would not go that far, I do not think.

Mr Maxton

  537. Record companies, I discovered over Christmas, compete with each other. WHSmith, for instance, were selling one record I bought at £5 more in their shops than they were selling it on the Internet, which seems a very strange thing to do. Can I look at content. Do you think it is possible for one country to have laws which regulate content on the Internet?
  (Ms Gilbert) These are lots of lawyers questions—I am covering them off! I think that is one of the greatest challenges which we face as the Internet goes forward. We have seen it already starting in Europe where we have to deal with the fact that the vast majority of content still is situated on the servers in a country where there is a very strong first amendment right, and that allows content to be there which in many countries is either illegal or unacceptable. The position we take within AOL is that much of the answer to this will lie in technology and in particular technology which empowers users to make decisions about what they access. For example, AOL has developed its own software tools which enable parents to filter out unacceptable content, and I think the same technology could be applied to help filter out unacceptable content on a broader level. If we look at illegal content, that is really a question for law enforcement and also for international discussion. We have seen a number of initiatives already take off, if we look at the question of child pornography which was a serious concern, there we have broadly on an international level harmony in laws across many jurisdictions, so that in most countries it is illegal to possess child pornography material. We have two levels of activity in the industry to deal with this type of content on the web. We have in the UK an industry-funded body called the Internet Watch Foundation which operates a hot-line where you phone in and say, "I think I have seen something on the web which I think is child pornography and therefore should be removed." The Internet Watch Foundation will look at it and if in their view it is illegal, they notify ISPs who remove the content. For child pornography that works pretty well because it is pretty easy to make a decision about what is or is not illegal child pornography, it is much more difficult to apply that model in the broader context of illegal material. So, for example, someone might write to us and say, "I believe I have been defamed on the Internet" or "I believe a certain piece of content is illegal hate speak", and those sort of decisions are very difficult and complex and our view at the moment is that the best forum for those decisions remains the court, and it is not really the role of ISPs to stand in the middle and act as judge and jury on whether content is or is not illegal.

  538. Presumably if you are the provider you are the same as the publisher and therefore, if someone puts something on a web site which you then allow people to access, are you not legally liable along with the actual person who has put it on? I cannot remember exactly but there was the case of the Pro-Life, as they call themselves, organisation in the States which had to pay out very large sums of money to certain people as a result of what was on the web site, were the providers involved in that?
  (Ms Gilbert) I cannot recall the facts of that case but I think it is worth looking at two distinctions. If we look at the UK, the vast majority of illegal content which is objected to is not hosted, so it is not within the control of the UK ISPs, it is not their customers putting it on the web, it is people in other countries where perhaps laws are more relaxed or where people feel they can place this content with a greater degree of safety. For UK ISPs, under the English legal system to take responsibility for that and to take action is probably technologically impossible and is also not getting to the perpetrator of the crime. If illegal activity is conducted over the Internet by the customer of the UK ISP then there is normally a process in place where the UK ISP will help the police with legitimate inquiries and will act on proper notices to deal with that content.

  539. One other problem that arises is the search machine, if you like. You obviously have your own. One of the problems is that certain words can be put on to a search machine and it comes up with the answers that you do not expect and some of them may very well be things that you certainly would not wish children to see. Do you in any way control your search machine so that it is the two hundredth item down the line that comes up rather than the first that comes up?
  (Ms Gilbert) No, not in so far as I am aware. I think our search facility is done on the basis of the closeness of the search that you are matching. For example, if parents are concerned about their children using search facilities then we have very simple software tools which enable them to add further filters to the content through AOL's parental controls.

  Chairman: Mr Maxton has to go in a moment but could I just ask about that so that I can be very clear about it. I read an article in the New Yorker not long ago in which it said—I cannot remember if your organisation was mentioned, I do not particularly wish to target it, but you are a very authoritative group—that organisations with search engines were deliberately giving priority in their lists to references which could be of commercial advantage to them rather than providing the information to the Internet searcher or browser. That is a serious allegation and a magazine like the New Yorker would not make it without basis. Could you comment on that, and if Mr Maxton feels he has to go in the middle of that—

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Prepared 26 February 2001