Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Tenth Report

2  Opportunity

8.  This inquiry flows directly from the growth of the Internet into a mass medium for communication, and distribution of creative content. The Internet is no longer simply a resource for information and research and a path for e-mail traffic: it has become an interactive social forum, a means for supplying entertainment, a way of allowing people to work more flexibly and a tool which many use almost daily to manage finances and to buy goods and services. It has provided new scope for people to air their views freely and openly. While the benefits have increased, however, so have attendant risks. The Internet is a public space, something which may not be readily apparent, particularly to children; and this inquiry has explored ways in which the inherent risks might be managed.

9.  The last three years have seen exponential growth in the use of the Internet to transmit creative content. Audio-visual material from a vast range of providers, including programming from traditional broadcasters, is available on the Internet. In addition, films, music, games and images can all be downloaded with ever greater ease as broadband speeds increase. We considered the impact of some of these developments in detail in our Report on New Media and the Creative Industries.[4]

10.   Underlying the use of the Internet for the transmission of creative content is the widespread availability of broadband and the faster connection times offered. The Government told us that 99.8% of households are now able to access broadband,[5] and 88.4% of all Internet connections in September 2007 used broadband.[6] Digital files containing audio-visual material are large and, in practice, can only be distributed using the higher connection speeds available through broadband. 49.2% of all Internet connections in September 2007 had a speed greater than 2Mbps, compared to 35.5% of connections in December 2006.[7]

11.  Research by Ofcom published in 2007 indicated that 99% of children accessed the Internet, most often at home and at school:

  Any access: 8-17 year olds Most often access: 8-17 year olds
PC / laptop at home 81% 65%
School / college 86% 26%
Library 12% 1%
Internet cafe 3%  
Friend's house 23% 2%
Relative's house 11% 2%
Mobile phone 7% 1%
Any internet use 99%  
Don't use the internet 1%  
Use internet but not at home 18%  

Source: Ofcom - Children, Young People & Online Content, October 2007; survey base of 513 children aged between 8 and 17

12.  Along with the faster broadband speeds which are now becoming more widely available, the Internet is more and more frequently being accessed by devices other than computers, such as mobile telephones, iPods, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and games consoles. All allow access "on the move" and, for children, free from parental supervision. O2 cited figures showing that 50% of 10 year olds and 90% of 12 year olds have mobile phones.[8] The Children's Charities' Coalition for Internet Safety (CHIS), in its response to the Byron Review, referred to research by Childwise[9] suggesting that 96% of children in the UK had access to mobile phones by the age of 11 and that "more or less a third" were using mobile devices to access the Internet.[10]

13.  The appeal of access through portable devices is likely to grow as the range of devices increases. The Internet Watch Foundation told us that, in Japan, there was more access to the Internet via mobile technologies than from fixed access points and that there was "every reason to think that this trend will apply to the UK as more and more portable electronic devices come on stream".[11] T-Mobile told us that consumers valued the ability to generate their own content and update their personal social networks wherever and whenever they choose.[12] Mr Bartholomew, Head of Public Affairs at O2, described the Internet access facility on the iPod touch and the iPhone as "fantastic" and "like having a computer with a smaller screen".[13]

Social networking and video-sharing websites

14.  For the purposes of this inquiry, perhaps the most significant development of the last two or three years has been the growth in social networking and the ease with which users can upload and share content, principally images, comment and videos. A great deal of this content is created by users themselves, hence the term "user-generated content". This "new generation" Internet is frequently termed Web 2.0: Google told us that whereas Web 1.0 "was characterised by static websites, download of content, limited use of search engines and surfing from one website to another", Web 2.0 "represents a fundamental shift away from this model, towards a more dynamic and interactive Internet where content is generated by users, uploaded by others and enjoyed within online communities".[14]

15.  In 2005, the concept of a social networking website was largely unknown. In the last two years, there has been an explosion in the number of users of such sites to converse online with friends. Orange told us that participation in the UK in social networking sites was the highest in Europe, with 24.9 million unique[15] visitors, amounting to 78% of the total online population in the UK.[16] T-Mobile told us that social networking and interactive sites were at the forefront of driving mobile phone usage: eight out of the twenty websites most frequently visited using mobile devices are social networking sites.[17]

16.  Bebo, a social networking site popular in the UK and targeted at people aged under 30, told us that social networking sites have strong benefits and that Web 2.0 services (i.e. those based upon sharing of material among online communities and dissemination of user-generated content) offered enormous creative opportunities, not least through citizen journalism, as well as providing a forum for developing digital literacy and the ability to express yourself online and to make "informed choices". Bebo suggested that such services created "social capital" and filled a vacuum in community engagement.[18] MySpace argued that social networking performed an important function in the sociological development of young people, assisting them in forming an adult identity and expressing themselves.[19]

17.  Some sites are designed purely to host images and videos. Flickr, launched in 2004, was one of the first sites to become prominent in the UK; between 3 million and 5 million photos are understood to be uploaded to Flickr daily.[20] Other sites include YouTube, which describes itself as "a leading video hosting site and the premier destination to watch and share original videos worldwide".[21] Approximately ten hours' worth of content is uploaded to YouTube every minute.[22]

18.  The popular appeal and astonishing growth of YouTube and other such sites has made them assets worth acquiring at a time of industry consolidation. Flickr was acquired by Yahoo! in March 2005; YouTube was acquired by Google in autumn 2006 for $1.65 billion; and Bebo was acquired by AOL in March 2008 for $850 million. We note that one social networking website, even though it does not currently attract large advertising volumes, has been valued at up to $15 billion—Facebook.[23]

Video games

19.  The intricacy of video games now available on DVD and via the Internet is in stark contrast to the primitive games (such as Space Invaders and Pacman) which marked the birth of the genre. Games can be played on dedicated games consoles, personal computers (PCs) and other devices; they have highly realistic graphics and are now labyrinthine in their complexity, offering many levels of play and options within each game. According to the Government's written submission, 59% of the UK population play video games, the average age of gamers is 28, and one in four women play video games.[24] We understand from ELSPA that one in three men plays video games.[25]

20.  Increasingly, games are played online, with players competing against others in real time. Online games may be constantly updated, with new features being introduced by games publishers. Some games, known as MMORGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games), are virtual worlds with possibly thousands of gamers logged in from separate computers or games consoles, each assuming the role of a fictional character, often playing a role or undertaking a quest or activity which can unfold over a series of weeks. The industry forecasts that online gaming will, in time, overtake downloadable or hard-copy games.[26]

21.  The UK has a thriving video games industry. According to ELSPA (the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association), approximately 35% of software sold in Europe emanates from creative studios in the UK; and the UK industry employs around 22,000 people and attracts significant inward investment from the US and Japan.[27] Until recently, the UK's position in the games industry (in terms of revenue generated) was second only to that of the US and Japan, generating sales in excess of £2.3 billion in 2006";[28] the UK has now been displaced into fourth place by Canada, which offers significant tax concessions to stimulate the industry locally.[29] Despite this, witnesses from ELSPA (representing games publishers) and TIGA (representing games developers) described the outlook as "very positive" and believed that the industry was set to grow.[30]

22.  Various witnesses stressed the potential benefits of games. Mr Carrick-Davies, Chief Executive of Childnet International, told us that playing video games "improves children's confidence, their sense of social standing [and] their ability to multi-task".[31] The Government gave examples of how games had been used in curriculum-based learning and training of the military in communications and decision-making skills; and it said that video games could engage and motivate learners, including those disaffected or previously hard to reach.[32] Tiga (a trade body for games developers) also pointed out that so-called "serious games" are being researched for possible use in military, educational, health and training applications.[33] The Interactive Software Federation of Europe noted that video games can provide a "playful way to hone IT skills".[34]

23.  Dr Byron, in her report, acknowledged that there are potential educational benefits to some video games, particularly in terms of motivating pupils, but she argued that these should not be overstated: "Most researchers and certainly educationalists would argue that using a video game…to aid learning is not in itself the key to success. It is the context around the child and the technology (i.e. the skills of the teacher) that determines whether it becomes a successful learning experience".[35] Professor Livingstone, who jointly undertook on behalf of Ofcom a review of research into potential harmful content, also questioned the strength of evidence that playing video games benefited children.[36]

Virtual worlds

24.  One of the best-known examples of a virtual forum is Second Life, a three-dimensional "world" in which participants can assume a virtual persona (or "avatar"), meet and communicate with others, create "anything you can imagine", trade virtual goods on a virtual exchange, acquire virtual "land" and build upon it.[37] The Government told us that virtual worlds offered benefits to both the consumer and to public and private sector organisations: it observed that the National Physical Laboratory had been using Second Life for scientific knowledge transfer with colleagues in NASA, and that universities and other bodies were piloting the use of Second Life for use in healthcare and other fields of research.[38]

4   Fifth Report of Session 2006-07, HC 509-I Back

5   Ev 342 Back

6   Office for National Statistics 20 November 2007 Back

7   Office for National Statistics 20 November 2007 Back

8   Carphone Warehouse Mobile Youth Report 2006, Ev 66 Back

9   A market research agency specialising in research concerning children Back

10   Ev 8 Back

11   Ev 45 Back

12   Ev 60 Back

13   Q 136 Back

14   Ev 116 Back

15   A "unique visitor" is a unit of traffic to a website, in which each visitor is counted only once in a given timeframe Back

16   Ev 69 Back

17   Ev 60 and 61 Back

18   Ev 144 Back

19   Q 383 Back

20 13 November 2007 Back

21   Ev 115 Back

22   Q 313 Back

23   Ev 281 Back

24   Ev 342 Back

25   Information supplied by the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) Back

26   Q 462 Back

27   Ev 164 Back

28   Ev 164 Back

29   Q 627 Back

30   Q 452 Back

31   Q 3. See also Microsoft Ev 32 Back

32   Ev 343 Back

33   Ev 163 Back

34   Ev 386 Back

35   Byron Review, page 155 Back

36   Professor Sonia Livingstone Q3 Back

37   See  Back

38   Ev 343 Back

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