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13 Nov 2008 : Column 340WH—continued

Equally, there is the question of whether a company can screen all the material that is uploaded. I accept that it is plainly impossible to sit and look at the 12 hours of material that are uploaded every minute. However, we felt that that did not mean that YouTube
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should not make an attempt at least to identify material that was likely to contain unacceptable content, or material that would possibly contain unacceptable content.

In particular, we were alarmed by the report of a video of a gang rape that was uploaded on to YouTube and viewed 600 times before it was taken down. We were even more concerned when we discovered, in the course of taking evidence, that the video had been flagged by a user as inappropriate and that YouTube had failed on the first occasion to take it down. Therefore, although the YouTube method of relying on its users to tell it when they come across inappropriate material is undoubtedly effective and results in the vast majority of such material being taken down, we felt that more could be done. We were impressed by one or two other companies, particularly MySpace, which told us that it pre-screened material before it was made available.

Obviously, there are other concerns. I had a meeting with some Finnish MPs two days ago who raised the serious issue of the man who murdered a number of children, having been shown brandishing a gun on YouTube just a few days before. I understand that YouTube is now changing its rules about showing videos of people brandishing guns. However, this is a difficult issue because, of course, nobody was to know that that man was going to do what he did. In retrospect, it is very shocking to look at his video, but the video itself is relatively harmless. What is shocking is what he went on to do after uploading the video. I do not in any way dismiss the problems attached to the issue of pre-screening.

There are possible technical solutions. For instance, computer software can now identify large quantities of flesh tones in a video. That is not to say that such videos are necessarily pornographic, but if they are identified they can perhaps be quarantined until somebody looks at them and decides whether or not it is permissible to show them.

I know that a lot of these companies are devoting resources to this area. However, we were slightly concerned to learn that the industry standard for the take-down time of inappropriate material is 24 hours, which seemed to us to be too long. Again, that is an issue that the UK council should look at.

One area of the internet that is growing in usage, particularly among young people, is social networking sites. Virtually every teenager in Britain is now a member of Bebo or Facebook and that is a part of their way of life. In the main, social networking is of great benefit: it is a means of communication; it saves parents a huge amount of money on telephone bills, as children can have instant messaging conversations that are entirely free; and children can make friends. All of those things are very valuable, educational and part of the process of growing up, and they are to be welcomed.

However, one of the concerns—perhaps the major concern—about social networking sites is that a lot of the users are unaware that when they post information on them it may not be visible just to the people whom they want to see it. In many cases, it is visible to anybody. It is very alarming to discover the extent to which young people are putting up details about themselves—where they go to school, their mobile telephone number, their interests, the name of their dog and all of these things—on a social networking site and not restricting
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that information to the people whom they want to see it. The person who was identified on “Panorama”, for instance, had been able to strike up a conversation and talk about favourite pop groups or dogs and make friends because that person had used a social networking site to access that information about the person with whom they were communicating.

One thing that we felt very strongly was that, rather than waiting for the user to decide to restrict such information, the default setting for social networking sites should be set so that, at the very least, information is available only to the user’s nominated friends. If users want to make that information made available more widely, it would be a matter for them. The assumption should be that people use social networking sites to tell their friends, not the entire world, about what they are doing. It would be easy to change default settings in that way.

There is an issue with the direct reporting of abuse. We were particularly impressed by Microsoft’s Messenger service, through which the user can click a single button to be taken directly to CEOP to report a potentially abusive contact. There was argument among other providers as to whether it is necessary to go directly to CEOP via one click, or whether it is better to offer a range of bodies that might assist. We received evidence from CEOP that that service is valuable, and we think that it should be commended.

Providers such as Microsoft told us about the parental controls that they have installed in products such as the Xbox. There is not just the facility to apply filters. In the latest version of Windows, parents can obtain a record of every site that their child has visited. They can block not only individual sites, but sites that are classified under headings to do with sex or violence, for example. A range of parental controls are available, but it is part of the problem that most parents are blissfully unaware of them. Even if they did know about those controls, they probably are not capable of setting them. As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) suggested, a large part of the problem is helping parents to understand how to use the technological solutions that are available.

We were impressed by the commitment that almost every major industry body, including internet service providers, social networking sites and hardware manufacturers, has shown regarding the protection of young people, but there is no commonality. Each has its own standards, some of which are tougher than others, and there is no agreement on the minimum take-down times that should be required. We feel that a self-regulatory industry body is still needed in that case. We were told time and again that the answer to the problem is self-regulation, not Government regulation, and I agree. If at all possible, I prefer self-regulation, and I think that a lot of good work is being done.

There is a single, self-regulatory body for advertising and the press to which all of the industry’s players sign up as members and accept a code of conduct that applies across the board. Such bodies provide a highly visible place for people to go if they wish to register a complaint or raise an issue. Those bodies can adjudicate when there are complaints, publish their findings and publish statistics on performance, so that people know how different companies compare. That is the common approach in most self-regulatory systems, but not in this area, in which every company does its own thing. In
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order to increase consumer confidence, there is a strong case for having an industry body to implement the recommendations of the UK council, with agreement, across the industry. That part of the structure is missing, and we feel strongly that that should be addressed.

We also feel that more needs to be done on media literacy and the education of children and parents. There is a case for having a single site, possibly on the Directgov network, to which people can go to learn about the various available options. There is also a case for drawing up a single leaflet to be supplied with every piece of equipment, be it a new PC, a new computer programme or any other component part, so that the same message is put across to parents and young people. Those recommendations could all be addressed by the UK council, and would increase child protection in that area.

I am conscious that others wish to speak, so I shall not speak about the final part of the report for too long.

Mr. Don Foster: Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to his final comments, when he will no doubt discuss the British Board of Film Classification and related matters, may I ask a question? The Committee praised a number of existing bodies such as CEOP, but its report expressed specific concerns about the funding of CEOP and the chairmanship of the intergovernmental body. The Government response did not address the funding or the role of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the joint chairing of the body. Does he not want to comment on the deficiencies of the Government’s response?

Mr. Whittingdale: I did touch on those issues, although I did not point out the Government’s failure to respond fully to them. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Committee expressed concerns about those things, and I hope that the Minister will rectify the Government’s failure to respond.

The hon. Gentleman anticipated entirely correctly that I want to talk about video games in the final part of my remarks. I know that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who chairs the Select Committee on Home Affairs, has several concerns about this issue, so he has arrived at just the right moment.

Part of the problem with video games, as with video content, is that there is no hard evidence to prove that playing a game will lead someone to go out and commit a crime or physical attack. Nevertheless, we agree that there is a probability that it could occur, and there is anecdotal evidence to support that view. The Video Recordings Act 1984 provided that games should be classified, that it is necessary to restrict certain games to people over a certain age, perhaps 15 or 18, and that there would be games that should be banned entirely. That system has been generally successful since then, although there is often controversy about individual games. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has expressed concern about particular games in the past, and might do so again this afternoon.

Mr. Vaizey: I invite my hon. Friend, in the tone of his remarks, to make the point that when we talk about harmful video games and films, we are talking about a small minority. Does he agree that it is incumbent on hon. Members to remind the House as often as possible,
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when they talk about video games, that we have a most successful video games industry in this country, which employs thousands of people?

Mr. Whittingdale: My hon. Friend is entirely right. The video games industry is increasingly important and generates more money than the film industry. It is something that we are very good at. We are a creative nation, and many of the most successful games were developed here. We strongly support the games industry’s efforts to ensure that it remains strong in this country and is not poached by other countries such as Canada, which is attempting to attract it there.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Let me apologise to you, Mr. Bercow, and to the hon. Gentleman for missing his earlier remarks.

The fact remains that some of those games, even though they are a minority, are very violent. The hon. Gentleman and I have both commented on the video internet game “Kaboom” in which people replicate the activities of a suicide bomber. It cannot be right that the makers of those games should choose such storylines to provide entertainment, especially on the internet, where our children and under-18s can access them more easily than if they were going into a shop to buy them, as with non-internet games?

Mr. Whittingdale: This is a very difficult area and “Kaboom”, which has been around for a little while, is an interesting example. It is a remarkably crude, cartoon-type game and is not in the least realistic, as many games now are. It is undoubtedly tasteless and might be offensive to a large number of people. I suspect that it is probably distressing to anyone who has suffered a bereavement as the result of a suicide bombing. Does that mean that it should be banned? I am not convinced that it should, because it is so crude, and other games pose greater concerns.

Mr. Vaizey: May I make a point to my hon. Friend? In his response to the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), he has implied that “Kaboom” is somehow a legitimate video game that breaches the boundaries of taste, but it is not. It was created by an individual in his bedroom. To say that we should ban “Kaboom” is, with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, slightly missing the point.“Kaboom” is not subject to any legal constraints. It cannot be submitted to a regulator to be classified, because it is made by an individual, effectively illegally, outside the mainstream, just as violent pornographic films or child abuse photographs are. It is not at all part of the mainstream video games industry.

Mr. Whittingdale: I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that he noted that I did not say it should be banned, even if that were possible.

The games that clearly can be classified are those that are produced as a result of the efforts of thousands of people, with a huge level of investment. It is interesting that the most successful game in recent times, which caused queues around the blocks and had a massive launch around the world, was “Grand Theft Auto IV”. That game is rightly classified 18. It has content that is not appropriate for children—indeed, the level of violence,
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the abuse of women and many other aspects of it make it an adult game. It is quite realistic: computer graphics can now look much more like real action, and games look much more realistic than those that we grew up with, such as the original “Space Invaders”, which was primitive compared with what is now possible.

There is general agreement that it is desirable to have a classification system for games to identify those with adult content, and in one or two cases to ban them if they are too extreme—“Manhunt 2” is a classic example of that. One then reaches the argument, which was one of the most difficult that the Committee had to deal with, between the British Board of Film Classification, which currently has responsibility for classifying games, and the industry-led system, PEGI—the pan-European games industry system, which is used across Europe and is a self-imposed regulatory system. PEGI offers more information, using little graphic symbols that tell consumers about the content.

Two arguments impressed the Committee when it considered that issue. First, the BBFC has long experience in the area—it has been classifying games ever since the Video Recordings Act 1984. The BBFC has developed great expertise and become better at what it does, and it has adopted symbols that are universally understood. Many parents are not familiar with video games and do not really understand them, because they were not around in their youth. However, they understand an 18 film certificate, which has been around a long time, so everyone knows the meaning of the 18 symbol in a red circle on the front of the game. That is a valuable resource because it means that parents can, using their existing knowledge, say, “No, that is not a suitable game for you; you are not allowed to buy it.”

That phrase, “not allowed to buy it”, brings me to the second strength of the existing system, because of course the BBFC symbols are enforceable in law. We have been told that retailers will abide by the PEGI system where that is used, but in this country it is illegal for a trader to sell a game rated 18 to someone who is clearly under 18, which does happen.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I read the Committee’s report with great interest and am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Does he feel that the focus on British sales of and standards for games conflicts with other parts of the report, given that the entire thrust of the industry is international? I play video games—I declare an interest—and am just as likely to buy or download them from abroad as from Britain. I suspect that in a few years it will be quite difficult for even the purchaser to know whether he is buying from Britain; he will just go to a website and place an order. A British-only system is surely a little archaic in that respect.

Mr. Whittingdale: That is the alternative argument. It is true that more and more games are likely to be made available online, but that is not to say that the BBFC system cannot be applied to them. Indeed, the BBFC is now successfully classifying online games, although not in all cases, I agree. Some games were always going to be made available from remote sites far outside the scope of any regulator. However, it is easy to develop a system in which there is an agreement by distributors to classify
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online games, which are then kitemarked for consumers so that parents in particular have the relevant knowledge when their children say they want to play them. It is true that PEGI is a European system, but the film classification system in this country is British, of course, and it has dealt with the fact that the vast majority of films viewed here sadly do not originate here. They come from Hollywood. Nevertheless, the BBFC system works.

The other strong argument is that the law is necessary. In my county, trading standards officers recently went out to make test purchases of 18-rated games using a 14-year-old. I am afraid a large number of stores failed the test and were told that they would be prosecuted if the failure were to recur. Not everyone will comply with a voluntary system—the force of law is needed to back it up, and the BBFC system offers that, through the provisions of the Video Recordings Act 1984.

Dr. Palmer: I notice that in, paragraph 199 of the report, the Committee responds to Microsoft’s point by making the analogy with films. Surely the big distinction between games and films is that a film made in, say, Poland is unlikely to be available in any easily accessible form to someone living in Stratford, whereas the opposite applies to computer games. I can see that, up to now at least—I am not sure whether it will be the case permanently—sensible national regulation has been possible, but the video games industry cries out for international regulation. The main trouble with PEGI, it seems to me, is that it is only European.

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. May I make the point that interventions, although they have without exception been of impeccable quality, are becoming increasingly lengthy?

Mr. Whittingdale: I am aware that I have perhaps occupied the Committee’s time to the point of pushing my luck, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am sure that, in the future, games will be made available online—indeed, films are now increasingly available online. That poses huge challenges to the enforcement of age verification standards and controls on inappropriate content. However, attempts are being made to adapt both the BBFC and PEGI systems to that fact, and the BBFC argued strongly to the Committee that it was better equipped to deal with the matter because it had the experience, expertise and resources needed. It was confident that it could take on the online challenge.

The Committee felt that the system that has been in place, administered by the BBFC, has been proved to work, and that that system, which commands the confidence of consumers, should be the one to remain. However, the argument is continuing. I know that the Government are consulting on the matter and the consultation is about to end. I am sure that the Minister will be interested to hear the views not only of the Committee, but of one or two hon. Members present this afternoon who may take a different view.

I have given a summary of several different issues highlighted in the report. We look forward to hearing a little more from the Minister about the Government’s response, beyond what was set out in the formal published response, which, as the hon. Member for Bath suggested, fell short in one or two areas.

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3.18 pm

Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I shall try to be brief, because I know that many other hon. Members want to participate. As the Committee’s report said, the internet is becoming more and more a part of our lives: for communications, research and commerce, it is now an indispensable tool. However, anyone who regularly watches television or reads the press is likely to have become aware of growing public concern about the internet’s dark side. That was something that the Committee particularly wanted to address.

As the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), has said, there is particular anxiety about the use of social networking sites and chat rooms for grooming and sexual predation. Although those environments may appear to a child to be relatively private, with defined boundaries, a user’s profile or an online forum may be open to thousands or even millions of other users who are all able to view, even if they do not actively participate.

We had an example of that type of problem in my constituency this very week. To quote from the Lancashire Telegraph, under the headline “Tory candidate’s mock website shows social networking dangers”:

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