Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by THUS Plc

1.  INTRODUCTION

  1.1  THUS plc is a leading provider of Internet, data and telecoms services in the United Kingdom. Our Internet services are principally offered under the "Demon" brand in the UK. We do not operate in the (we acquired a mobile reseller business from YC) video games market, so our submission focuses purely on Internet content.

  1.2  Although our primary focus is on business users we do have some residential dial-up and broadband customers. Businesses will have concerns about their employees accessing harmful content on the Internet, but the way they approach these risks are different from how residential consumers use the Internet.

  1.3  THUS tackles the management of Internet content issues in a number of ways:

    —    Our Acceptable Use Policies (see http://www.demon.net/helpdesk/producthelp/aup/index.html) set out what we feel are acceptable uses of the services we provide. They incorporate use of the Internet as well as the use of our hosting services, so it is clear to our customers what may happen if someone complains about content they place on our web or Usenet servers.

    —    As well as a Network Abuse team who enforce the Acceptable Use Policies, we have a team who specialise in dealing with Internet content issues. This means that any concerns about content hosted on our servers are dealt with effectively and quickly.

    —    We are founding members of the Internet Watch Foundation and take their database of illegal child abuse sites hosted outside the UK to block our customers' access to these sites.

    —    We engage with government, law enforcement and other agencies via numerous forums including the Internet Crime Forum and the Home Secretary's Task Force on the Protection of Children Online. We also work with government departments such as BERR and the Home Office to discuss issues and legislation.

    —    We believe education and awareness is an appropriate way to address concerns about inappropriate content. To this end we have for a number of years participated in Junior Citizen Events organised by Surrey Police delivering a "how to be safe online" message to 10 and 11 year old school children. We have also delivered Internet awareness presentations to parents, foster carers and teachers.

  1.4  The Internet offers users a wealth of information and unprecedented access to communications. Most users' experience of the Internet is a pleasant one and not marred by unacceptable behaviour or unsavoury content. We do recognise though that this may not be the case for all, so we welcome this chance to submit evidence to this Inquiry on harmful content.

2.  TOOLS

  2.1  We strongly believe that most Internet users are unlikely to "stumble" upon content which they might consider harmful. The Terms of Reference for the Inquiry lists a number of types of content that could be considered as "harmful" but unless an Internet user is seeking out material related to racial hatred, extremism or extreme pornography, etc, we believe they are unlikely to find it accidentally.

  2.2  Various tools exist to help users who are concerned about such accidental access. Some are packages which run on users' machines, others may be provided by their service provider.

  2.3  The effectiveness of client side packages varies. Some will use lists of sites that have been categorised by the software supplier, whilst others make use of labelling functionality. Every method of controlling content will have its advantages and disadvantages; lists are only as good as they are up to date and labelling systems require web site owners to label (correctly) their websites. There are also issues around usability, with some packages apparently being outside the capabilities of an average parent. These issues are being addressed by the Home Office Task Force for Protection of Children Online who have been looking at ways for improving such offerings and the BSI have been working on a PAS for online protection systems which will provide best practice guidance for vendors or filtering software.

  2.4  The alternative to client side control is server side, where the Internet provider runs a service to carry out the filtering. The most significant development in this area has been the Government's initiative to encourage consumer ISPs to filter sites identified by the IWF. Such systems take a list of web sites from the IWF known to contact indecent images of children and block their users from accessing those images or sites. However, such systems are only effective in blocking accidental access as those determined to access such content will always be able to find a way round such systems. Furthermore, their desirability for consumers is limited as undoubtedly the cost of implementing such systems is passed onto the consumer via the service charge.

  2.5  The most effective tool is education and awareness. If users of the Internet are aware of the risks then they can empower themselves to protect themselves. They may choose to do this by using filtering software, by controlling their children's access to the Internet or simply acting responsibly themselves. But, education and awareness is a continual programme as the Internet offers new functionality and new ways of expressing opinions and content.

3.  REGULATION

  3.1  Any activity online is dealt with in the same way as it would in the real world. The real world laws apply equally online as they do offline. There are some particular pieces of regulation that deal with certain aspects of the online world (E-Commerce Regulations, Audio Visual Media Services Directive dealing with broadcasting online, Terrorism Act dealing with notice and takedown of terrorist web sites, etc) but generally speaking these are specialist regulations.

  3.2  The E-Commerce Regulations play an important role in how the Internet is regulated in the UK.[13] Specifically Regulations 17-20 and 22 set out the responsibilities and limitations of liability for those providing Internet services in the UK. There are issues of clarity about how these regulations are interpreted, buy they are the foundation in law underpinning the enforcement of ISPs' Acceptable Use Policies.

  3.3  It is these Regulations that have meant that the bulk of objectionable material is no longer hosted in the UK. With support from UK ISPs and work of organisations like the Internet Watch Foundation, the UK is not a haven for child abuse imagery and other illegal material.

  3.4  However regulation in the UK only goes as far as controlling the activities of the UK industry or the UK user, it does nothing to control the availability of content hosted outside the UK where in some circumstances it will be illegal. No amount of control or regulation in the UK will change this and initiatives like blocking systems will only prevent accidental access to those who want to be protected, it will not stop those who are determined to seek out the content from doing so. But that does not matter as UK law sets out the boundaries within which UK citizens should operate.

  3.5  If material of concern is available outside the UK to those who want to access then no amount of ISP control or regulation will prevent them from accessing it. To prevent people from willingly accessing it, the best approach is to legislate against the possession of such material—this is what has happened with extreme pornography. The provisions are within the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, the intention is that it will be illegal to possess certain types of pornography.

4.  SUMMARY

  4.1  THUS therefore believes that if the concern is accidental access to the material then the tools are available to users concerned they may accidentally access it; equally individual self control and moral code will prevent people from seeking it out.

  4.2  If the concern is that people are willingly accessing this material, the only way to combat and stop this is to change the law on possession of these types of material because no amount of enforced control or filtering of the Internet will prevent them from accessing it.

January 2008






13   Statutory Instrument 2002 No 2013. The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002. http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2002/20022013.htm Back


 
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