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This is a market in which the services offered to consumers move very fast, but change for change’s sake, or simply reacting to what the position is now, is not the way in which to ensure that the United Kingdom remains competitive. We need to anticipate how the online world will develop, and plan accordingly. That is why the Government set up a convergence think tank to examine the impact of convergence on the United Kingdom communications market and its implications for future policy, regulatory and legislative frameworks in relation to broadcasting and telecommunications, and the online world or the internet. We expect the think tank to report to the Secretaries of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and for Culture, Media and Sport early in 2009, and they may recommend new legislation if it seems necessary.

However, some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West are too urgent to be dealt with on that time scale. I am thinking of harmful and antisocial content on the internet which is unsuitable for some categories of users, such as children. Those are highly important issues. That is why the Prime Minister asked Dr. Tanya Byron to conduct an independent review of the risks posed to children by exposure to potentially harmful or inappropriate material on the internet and in video games, and that is why we accepted all Dr. Byron’s recommendations without condition.

It is worth repeating that the Byron review recognised the enormous benefits of the internet, whose technology offers children—and adults—new opportunities for communication, participation and creativity to a degree never witnessed before. It can help children to improve some of the skills that are so crucial to their cognitive development. Inherent in those benefits is the ability to overcome many of the disadvantages and inequalities of real life, which has led some to hail the internet as providing the means to a more democratic media environment. That is the other side of the balance sheet.

Derek Wyatt: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Malcolm Wicks: I will in a moment.

However, along with the benefits come risks. We welcome Dr. Byron’s recommendations, and her analysis of how we can properly manage those risks in a fast-changing new media environment. Later this month, the Government will publish an action plan for implementation of Dr. Byron’s report. We intend to launch the United Kingdom council on child internet safety in September 2008, six months ahead of her recommended time scale.

Derek Wyatt: I was going to ask the Minister what the timetable was. He has not yet said what it is; he has merely said that he will publish an action plan.

Malcolm Wicks: I thought I had just specified the timetable. We will publish the plan in September 2008, after which we will establish what action is required.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West that these are important issues, and if he has found it difficult to obtain a departmental response, I apologise. As a Department, we want to engage fully with Members on the issue. It is vital that we ensure that the regulatory framework as it applies to
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the internet keeps up with changes in the technology, and with changes in the way in which people use it. The Government are acting to secure the protection of children through the Byron review, and getting the long-term framework right by means of the convergence think tank.

I think it important—my hon. Friend referred to this—to stick to the principle that what is illegal offline is illegal online. Enforcement online might be much more difficult than offline, especially where those engaging in illegal activity are based outside this country, but that is no reason to apply different approaches to what is and is not allowed, in particular when it comes to content that is considered undesirable rather than illegal.

My hon. Friend has called for a widely applicable solution based on blocking unpleasant or unlawful internet sites, based on the model of the Internet Watch Foundation. Network level blocking presents some difficulties. In reducing access to such material, we would need to weigh up the costs and potential difficulties against the evidence of benefits, and to compare its potential effectiveness against other options, such as improving filtering tools and pointing people towards sources of support and other positive material.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend raised the distressing issue of suicide websites, and the tragedies that have occurred in her own community. What is being done to protect people from websites that encourage suicide? The Government are deeply concerned about those websites and the influence that they can have on vulnerable people and, particularly, young people. We have accepted the recommendations of the Byron review, including that the new UK council on child internet safety look at whether the law on
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harmful and inappropriate online material could usefully be clarified, and that appropriate enforcement responses be explored. The Ministry of Justice is looking urgently at whether the law in that area could sensibly be strengthened, and will make an announcement shortly.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Minister address a point that was raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) on liability? The Select Committee was told by YouTube that, if it attempted to pre-screen material before it appeared on the site, it would potentially become legally liable for any inappropriate material that was posted. If that is the case, it is surely perverse that the law should make such sites more vulnerable for trying to do the right thing than for sitting back and doing nothing.

Malcolm Wicks: I do not claim to be an expert on the law in that area, but, prima facie, that would seem perverse. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman’s question to the attention of my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice who are, as I have said, looking into these issues.

In conclusion, we need to find ways to protect the young or vulnerable online, but we need to do that in ways that do not unnecessarily impinge on freedom of speech, or try to create some kind of super-nanny internet. We also need to ensure that the internet continues to be able to offer the range and scope of services that people have increasingly come to expect and enjoy.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Eight o’clock.

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