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Westminster Hall

Thursday 13 November 2008

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Internet and Video Games

[Relevant documents: Tenth Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 353-I, and the Government response, CM 7477.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Barbara Follett.]

2.30 pm

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow.

This is an excellent opportunity to debate a subject that is of considerable concern to many people, and it was for that reason that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee decided to hold a major inquiry into the whole question of harmful content on the internet and in video games. During the inquiry, we had seven oral evidence sessions. The Committee visited the Child Exploitation Online Protection Centre, which is run by the Metropolitan police. It also visited Los Angeles and San Francisco in California.

Scepticism is often expressed about Select Committees going off on overseas visits. However, such visits are of value to a Select Committee conducting an inquiry of this kind. It needs to visit and talk to the companies at the heart of many of the issues. During our visits, we had meetings with Google, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Yahoo, Second Life, Piczo, and the two major games manufacturers—EA Games and Activision.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): During the innumerable meetings that the hon. Gentleman had, did he have the opportunity to find out more about how parents can better control their children’s use of the internet? During our last debate on similar matters, I recall that he revealed that his own son had illegally accessed various sites on the internet.

Mr. Whittingdale: That is an interesting point. Access to sites is not illegal. That is one of the matters that causes great controversy. I will come on to parental controls later, because the issue is central to the debate. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter.

The visits that we paid to all those companies were hugely valuable in increasing our understanding. We would not have been able to prepare a report of the same detail if we had not made them.

I pay tribute to the Committee’s specialist adviser, Mr. Ray Gallagher, who was hugely valuable in bringing his expertise to our assistance. I also pay tribute to the Clerk of the Committee. Select Committee Clerks do a hugely important job and seldom get recognised. It is a matter of huge sadness to me that Kenneth Fox, the Clerk who has served the Culture, Media and Sport Committee ever since I became Chairman, has now moved on. He will now assist the Children, Schools and
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Families Committee. I am sure that he will bring to it the same dedication and commitment that he did to us. He was an extremely good Clerk—and will continue to be. I was sad to see him go. His work contributed a great deal to the report, and it is only right that I should pay tribute to him. I also welcome his successor, Tracey Garratty.

The Committee decided to focus on this matter because of the degree of public concern expressed in the media and elsewhere. The obvious concern is the question of harmful content in the form of extremely violent material or highly explicit sexual material and the use of the internet by people who may wish to harm others, particularly children. However, they were not the only concerns. We rapidly discovered other areas of growing concern, such as the encouragement of suicide. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) is with us this afternoon. I am sure that she will want to say more about that matter in her contribution.

Also of concern is the glorification of guns and whether it played a role in the murder of Rhys Jones in Liverpool and in the whole question of gang culture. The other area was anorexia and whether or not websites are encouraging young girls to harm themselves by ceasing to eat. Moreover, there is the question of the use of websites by extremist groups to incite people to join fundamentalist or terrorist organisations. There is also the issue of cyberbullying and the effect that that may have on vulnerable young people. I will come to the separate but related question of games later on.

Almost as soon as we had decided to conduct this inquiry, the Government acted as well by appointing Dr. Tanya Byron to conduct her own review. We were very impressed by the work that she did. Her report came out roughly halfway through our inquiry, and we were then able to take evidence from Dr. Byron and explore some of the recommendations that she made. We were conscious that we did not wish just to duplicate her work. We have attempted to build on her recommendations and to identify what, in our view, were some of the most important issues that the new UK Council for Child Internet Safety should address.

During our inquiry, there were two dramatic “Panorama” programmes, both of which focused on the activities of paedophiles in using social networking sites to establish contact with young people—ostensibly posing as young people themselves. It was the ease with which somebody could pretend to be a 12 or 14-year-old girl and strike up a friendship on the internet with another, but with very different motives. They would seek to groom that person to engineer actual, physical contact. Following those programmes, at least one person was identified, prosecuted and convicted. There is no doubt that such activity is a growing problem, and that, too, was something that we wished to address.

I want to preface everything that I say by making it clear that in my view, and in the view of the Committee, the internet is an extraordinary development that is overwhelmingly a force for good. The internet has featured in almost every inquiry that the Committee has undertaken in recent years—whether into gambling, tourism, ticket touting, or the future of the creative industries. It has revolutionised life, and there is no going back. We cannot disinvent it; nor would anyone want to. It has rapidly become a research tool, a source of information and knowledge, a means of communication and a
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convenient method of purchase. We do not wish to give the impression that we think that the internet is a bad thing that has to be controlled, even if it were possible to do so. None the less, the truth is that it can be abused. The purpose of our inquiry was to focus on those areas in which abuse can take place and to consider ways in which it can be tackled.

At the very extreme end, there is universal agreement over questions such as child sexual abuse, extreme obscene content and material designed to incite racial hatred. Everyone will agree that such things are unacceptable and that sites promoting them should be identified and taken down. The Internet Watch Foundation, which has focused on those specific areas, has been very successful. If any website that makes available images of child sexual abuse is identified, it is immediately reported and access to it is blocked by the internet service providers, which all sign up to the IWF and its requirements. Equally, sites hosted in the UK that are identified as having material of that kind are taken down. That is something that works reasonably well already. We were impressed by the IWF’s work.

We were also extremely impressed by the work of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which stressed to us that, in simple terms, what is illegal offline is likely to be illegal online. CEOP actively pursues criminals via the internet. We were shown work that CEOP had done that involved looking at pictures of children who were being sexually abused and using old-fashioned detective work to identify the locations. In one case, by seeing the packaging of a sofa in the far corner of a picture and identifying which brand it came from and where the brand was supplied, CEOP eventually managed to find the individual concerned and rescue the child.

At the same time, we were given a demonstration of the volume of material circulating through peer-to-peer file sharing. Before we arrived, one of the officers working at CEOP had entered a search term—I will not say it, but it is a commonly used search term for locating extreme child pornography—that returned some 80,000 different computers on which such material could be found and transferred through peer-to-peer file sharing. It is a huge problem. CEOP concentrates, obviously, on identifying the hubs in the file sharing system, obtaining their addresses and visiting the people concerned.

A great deal is being done already. However, it is much more difficult to deal with material that might be deemed perfectly suitable for adults but is inappropriate for children. We are familiar with that problem. For instance, in the film industry, films have long been classified as 18 or 15. In other words, there is no problem with adults viewing them, but the rules prevent children from seeing them.

Equally, there is the problem that what is unacceptable in some countries may not be unacceptable elsewhere. I refer, for example, to images of people brandishing guns. In this country, we are worried about that, because it may contribute to gang culture; in America, it is almost a rite of passage to be shown brandishing a gun. It is something that people are proud of as a constitutional right, and putting up a video of oneself doing so is regarded as completely unremarkable. A lot of companies
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are global, so they must wrestle with the fact that there are different concerns in different countries.

Much of our conclusion was based on the fact that evidence of harm does not necessarily exist. If one looks for empirical, hard, factual evidence that viewing a particular video or playing a video game has led someone to go out and commit a crime such as a rape or an act of violence, there is very little. Our view was therefore not that we should necessarily say “In that case, we cannot act,” but that we should act on the probability of risk. Where there is a probable risk that someone would be influenced by exposure to such material, that is sufficient cause for intervention to protect that person from being exposed to it.

Tanya Byron did a great deal of work on that. Her other conclusion, which was shared strongly by the Committee, was that we cannot completely insulate children from material that might pose a risk. Part of educating children involves teaching them how to deal with risks. If we insulate them to the extent that they never encounter risks, they will not know how to deal with them.

Dr. Byron gave a good analogy. She compared helping children learn how to use the internet and computers to teaching them how to cross a road. The first time, we hold their hands, stop with them and make them wait until the lights change and it is safe to cross. Later, perhaps, we let them do it but watch them. It is a gradual process until we are confident that they understand the risks and know how to deal with them. A similar system for educating children to deal with risks on the internet is certainly the most desirable outcome. Unfortunately, it is not always possible, because parents themselves are often not aware of the risks. They may actually be less knowledgeable than their children about how to deal with them and what technological solutions exist. I shall return to that point.

In looking at the existing structures, we were told by a number of witnesses that another body that has done extremely good work is the Home Office taskforce, which represents many different parts of the internet industry. The taskforce has produced reports on social networking sites, for instance, which recommend codes of conduct and guidelines. It was put to us that we should not try to reinvent the wheel. Although it is a good thing that the Government are setting up the new UK council, they should not just start afresh but should build on the work done by the Home Office taskforce.

One concern about the Home Office taskforce was that its work was generally not very well known. There was also the question of resourcing. The UK council has already achieved a higher profile, which is obviously a good thing, and we strongly welcome its establishment. It needs to move rapidly to establish an agenda to agree with the industry what areas must be addressed as a priority.

There is a question of Government responsibility. It was striking to discover that different Departments have lead responsibility for different aspects of the problem. Indeed, when we came to take evidence from the Government, it was originally suggested that four Ministers should give evidence. That seemed a little over the top, so only three came: from the Home Office, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. However, the Department for Business, Enterprise and
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Regulatory Reform was obviously involved, and a case could be made for the involvement of the Ministry of Justice. Indeed, the Ministry of Justice just responded to a part of our report dealing with assisted suicide. I hope that one of the tasks of the UK council will be to bring together all the different bits of the Government in a clear cross-Government agreement.

We were slightly puzzled by the question of the chairmanship of the UK council. I understand that it is proposed to share it between the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Home Office; but we are, of course, pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport here this afternoon. We felt strongly that the DCMS should have at least as great an input into the work of the UK council as the other Departments. I look forward to hearing her tell us more about how she will work with the council.

We also felt that CEOP, which must continue to do its law enforcement work, needed more support in terms of resources. Its work load is increasing dramatically; the number of reports of abuse is growing, and its resourcing therefore needs to grow equally if it is to keep on top of things. It is extremely important, for instance, that CEOP should be able to respond swiftly to a report of possible abuse. If a child reports contact from somebody who may mean them harm, that must be dealt with as quickly as possible. It is not acceptable that it should sit for three days. I do not believe that that is happening at present, although some reports are tagged as less of a priority and not addressed for some while due to lack of resources. That was a matter of some concern.

There were specific areas that we felt needed to be addressed. The first was making information available to internet users—young people and, indeed, all users—about the material that they may encounter. One of the problems in dealing with material on the internet is that it is impossible to employ a watershed, unlike, for instance, material on television, which, if it is adult material, will usually be shown after 9 pm.

Equally, it is very hard to have age classifications for material on the internet. The only way, in terms of age verification, is if it is material that has to be paid for and therefore the user must have a credit card to do so. Generally, that will mean that the person concerned is over 18. However, an awful lot of such material is available for free and although there are different computer programmes that will now employ age verification, they are not by any means used universally and there is a huge amount of material out there for which no attempt is made to verify the age of the person trying to access it. We thought that there needed to be clearer rules or guidelines on the labelling of content, and that is an issue that the UK council should address.

In a way, it is a paradox that we spend a great deal of time worrying about the potentially harmful effect of material that is broadcast on television. The example was given to us by the chief executive of Ofcom of the debate that took place within Ofcom about whether it was appropriate to have a scene in “EastEnders” that depicted violence, which would go out at 7.30 pm, and whether that scene was too extreme for young people to see, and, if it was, whether it should be cut in some way. At the same time, of course, there is the internet where such content is available without Ofcom having any ability to step in and say, “That is unacceptable.” Anybody who wishes to find violent or sexual content on the internet does not have to look very far before they do so.

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Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I wonder if my hon. Friend has had discussions with the BBC about the programmes that it puts online. For example, there is a vigorous debate at the moment about the amount of swearing in post-watershed programmes, which, of course, people can then watch at 9 am on the BBC iPlayer, even though, as far as I am aware, the iPlayer does not contain any bleeping of swearing or any guidance for parents about whether a programme is suitable for their children to watch, because it is not guided by the watershed.

Mr. Whittingdale: My hon. Friend raises an interesting question. It is fair to say that I have had discussions on a number of subjects with the BBC in the past few weeks and that is one of them. He makes an important point, because it demonstrates why the watershed itself is becoming less and less meaningful. Now that we have video on demand, the iPlayer and personal video recorders in many homes, the idea that children cannot access material because it was originally transmitted at 10 pm is becoming ridiculous. That is not to say that we should abandon the watershed; I do not think that we should. However, we should be realistic and accept that it is not going to prove a particularly effective means of protecting children. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.

We talked to various content providers that are responsible for online video content. Obviously, the most well known of all is YouTube, and I think that it is fair to say that we had a vigorous discussion with YouTube. YouTube is responsible; it has a clear view that its site should not be used for material that shows sexual content or very violent content. However, we had a slight discussion with YouTube—indeed, an argument—about how it dealt with that type of material and whether it could do more to identify it before it was made available.

The issue of pre-screening is very difficult and two concerns were raised with us about it. The first was the sheer volume of material. YouTube argued that 10 hours of video content are uploaded to its site every minute; in fact, I think that that figure has now gone up to 12 hours a minute. YouTube argued that that made it impossible for its employees to sit and look at all that material before it went online. The second concern that YouTube had was a legal concern about the effect of the e-commerce directive. It was concerned that if it attempted to identify potentially illegal material before it was shown, then it would become liable if it failed to spot something that was subsequently put online.

The Committee was not wholly convinced on either of those counts. It seemed extraordinary to us that the law could possibly suggest that an attempt to remove inappropriate content could lead to a liability for prosecution whereas standing aside and doing absolutely nothing about such content left YouTube protected and not liable to prosecution. That seemed utterly perverse and I find it hard to believe that that really is the case. If it is the case, it needs to be tested rather quickly and addressed, so that it is not the consequence of the e-commerce directive.

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