Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Family Online Safety Institute

  The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI)[41] is delighted that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee saw fit to conduct a new inquiry into the potential risks from harmful material on the Internet and in video games.

  FOSI commends the Committee for looking at the wider effects of undesirable material online and recognises the phenomenally huge task that the Committee has undertaken.

  It is important too that the Committee will be looking in context at the benefits offered to consumers of all age groups and the opportunities provided to the economy by the Internet, video games and mobile phones.

  As you will see from our response here, FOSI has been working in this area for almost a decade, recognising the importance of engaging all stakeholders on all levels, realising the real risks and ultimately encouraging working together for a safer internet.

  FOSI's last Annual Conference in December 2007, was entitled Rights and Responsibility—Child Protection in a Web 2.0 World, so as can be ascertained from the title, we covered issues that this and the recent Byron Review are looking to understand better.


  FOSI is an international non-profit organization that actively works to identify and promote best practices, tools and methods in the field of online safety. The organization facilitates the meeting of thought leaders in technology, policy and education, culminating in its Annual Conference. FOSI also incorporates the work and mission of the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA), the world's leading content labeling system for the Internet, providing families with the tools they need to protect their children and ensuring continued freedom of expression for content providers. FOSI is headquartered in Washington DC and has additional locations in the UK, Germany and Austria. For more information on FOSI's work please see Appendix I.

  FOSI is grateful to have the opportunity to respond to the Byron Review and looks forward to seeing the final report in March 2008.


  In the UK there are now more than 10 million broadband internet connections, providing adults and children with a great tool that offers new ways of communicating and playing games, as well as a vast resource of information and possibilities.

  However, as in any walk of life, there are risks attached to using the internet, particularly for children, who may not be aware of the dangers. These risks include:

    —    children accessing inappropriate or adult content;

    —    solicitation by sexual predators in chat rooms and by email;

    —    online or cyber bullying or harassment;

    —    piracy of software, music or video;

    —    disclosure of personal information;

    —    spy-ware and viruses;

    —    excessive commercialism: advertising and product-related websites, and

    —    illegal downloads, such as copyright-protected music files.


Children accessing inappropriate or adult content

  One of the areas that is becoming apparent and is only now beginning to be understood, is the effect of children viewing inappropriate material on the internet that is adult, sexual, hateful or violent in nature, or encourages activities that are dangerous or illegal. There were 63.4 million unique visitors to adult websites in December of 2005 and the largest group of viewers of internet pornography is children between ages 12 and 17.[42], [43]

  Children often seek out such material using search engines, but may also come across it on the Web via chatrooms, email or even instant messaging if they're not looking for it. A testimony by a leading US academic highlighted the dramatic social effects of minors viewing adult content, suggesting that it prevented people from forming proper relationships.[44]

Social network sites and chatrooms

  A topic that has been covered in the press is when people create a new online identity. People can be anyone they choose to be when they're online, so adults can pretend to be children and vice versa. As a result, when you meet people in chat rooms or interactive games, you never know who you're talking to, but may swap information or arrange to meet, which is dangerous, as you never know who it is you're chatting to.

  Paedophiles may use chatrooms, online games, email, and instant messages to gain a child's confidence and then arrange a face-to-face meeting.

  FOSI certainly believes that education through schools, parents and teachers is one of the best ways to tackle the responsibility of an individual while online—internet safety education should be as widespread as the "stranger danger" message that children are taught at home and in schools.

  There is a perception that tools cannot help in the fight against grooming. Not so. Companies like Crisp Thinking are developing and improving tools that can detect grooming. This is done not by analysing what they type but how they behave. How long they wait in the chat room before joining a conversation, how long before they invite another user into a private chat room and so on.

Online harassment and cyber bullying

  Although a relatively new phenomenon, many children now report having received messages via chat, online games, email or SMS that are belligerent, demeaning, or harassing. Online bullies are typically other young people and more than 10% of UK teenagers said they had been bullied online, and 24% knew a victim.[45]

  Parents have taken the following steps to protect their children online:

    —    83% had installed Anti-Virus software;

    —    69% of parents said that their PC is in a public room;

    —    58% said that they supervised their children's internet usage;

    —    37% said that they had implemented password protection;

    —    29% had installed parental controls from their ISP;

    —    27% are using content control software, and

    —    only 1% of customers stated that they had taken no steps.

Parental controls

    —    45% of parents have implemented parental controls or content controls;

    —    32% of parents that had not implemented parental controls or content controls supervised their child's access, and

    —    15% of parents have moved the PC to a shared room.


    —    88% of parents believed that the ISP parental controls were effective, and

    —    87% of parents believed that the content control software was effective.[46]

  In an attempt to keep their families safe in an online environment, almost half of parents have put some type of control on what their children are allowed to view; many parents view the material themselves in order to maintain a safe environment for their kids, as one can see from the percentages above.

  With the clear growing number of reported cases of threats to minors online, the amount of protection that parents seek from industry and government also grows. FOSI believes therefore that the offering of tools to parents are certainly an essential part of the solution, but again alongside a culture of responsibility that needs to be encouraged by all stakeholders, from the child and its parent at home to the teacher at school and by government, children's charities and industry.


So what can be done? How can users enjoy a better online experience? How can children be guided towards the best of the Internet and how can we make it less likely that they'll become victim to the pitfalls?

  FOSI is not only a child protection advocate but it also is shaping online technology. Through its membership of the World Wide Web Consortium it chairs the Protocol for Web Description Resources Working Group (POWDER).[47], [48] This new technology is designed to make it easy to identify websites that meet specific criteria such as those that:

    —    have high quality educational content;

    —    are accessible to users with visual impairment or reduced physical movement;

    —    will function effectively on mobile devices;

    —    are medically or scientifically accurate;

    —    are licensed for free access;

    —    are about a specific subject, and

    —    are child safe.

  These are all positive descriptions that can be identified and authenticated by machines that aggregate content and deliver it to users with specific preferences. Most of the use cases are centred on the self-interest of the content provider—that is, the aim is to create a commercial incentive to declare where the "good" content is (and it is up to the user or service provider to define what "good" means).[49]

  POWDER is closely tied in with a project co-funded by the European Union's Safer Internet Programme, called Quatro Plus. This will make it easy for trustmark operators to make their seals of approval machine detectable and to automate the "click to verify" system which currently relies on the end user noticing the logo and clicking it to find out if it is genuine. After Quatro, search engines and others will, if they choose, be able to use authenticated trustmarks and other descriptions to improve their services.

  In this way FOSI believes that it will be much easier for content and service providers alike to "do the right thing" alongside the continuing efforts to help prevent them and their users from doing the wrong thing.

  POWDER and Quatro Plus will be rolled out in the first half of 2008 and FOSI will use these technologies for its ICRA labelling system.


  The ICRA system was established in 2000 to offer content providers a means of declaring whether certain types of content are or are not present on their websites. In the original model, the machine-readable code that content providers attach to their material is then read directly by a filter through which parents can choose what types of content they do or don't wish their children to access. This system survives through tools like our free ICRAplus filter and the Content Advisor function in Internet Explorer.

  However, FOSI recognises that this is at best a partial solution. The technical developments outlined above are part of the ongoing evolution of the system but there is more to do. During 2008, as POWDER is adopted as the new technological base, we will be encouraging the online community as a whole to use the ICRA vocabulary to describe any website they wish.[50] These descriptions—in effect user-generated tags with controlled vocabulary terms—may be used directly in filters but, as we have seen with the existing system, they may also be used indirectly by the filtering companies. Many filter software providers use ICRA labels, where found, to help them to compile their database of websites and we expect this to become more important with the advent of POWDER which can be used for a whole raft of content selection and promotion systems.

  In addition to the user-generated ICRA labels, we will continue to offer the ICRAchecked service. The core ICRA model encourages content providers to label their own material. In response to concerns about mislabelling, FOSI introduced the ICRAchecked service in which the label is compared with the content it describes and, if found to be accurate, is added to the database of ICRAchecked websites. The system finds expression in the Custom Search Engine on the FOSI website that offers age-based ratings for websites that are ICRAchecked.[51]

  An important feature of the ICRA vocabulary is that it is designed to be as neutral, objective and international as possible. Like the PEGI game rating system, its strength is that it is designed to be understood by consumers from many countries. Indeed, likely future uses of POWDER and Quatro Plus are the PEGI Online and BBFC Online trustmarks that allow users to see that, if a game or move on that site shows a PEGI or BBFC rating, then it is done with the full knowledge and approval of the relevant body.


  There is currently no one solution to protect children online. Technology, education, regulation and self-regulation all have their part to play. The internet is a new phenomenon, which whilst being a great tool for everyone is presenting new risks, especially for children. The challenge we all face is to find the right balance between fear of harm and the benefits of tapping into everything the Internet has to offer.

  The problem used to be just what children could see or download from the Internet, but now there is the issue of what they can upload about themselves and others, and what they might come across in an interactive online game that also has social networking site capabilities, such as Sony's new game "home."

  There are continuing headlines over social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Bebo, but these are only the tip of the iceberg, with the use of mobile phones, webcams and digital cameras to document and publish the intimate details of children's lives is an emerging problem.

  We used to talk about gatekeepers, walled gardens and corporate social responsibilities. However, these notions are difficult to translate into the new multimedia world. The biggest players have already started the ball rolling, but for newer services, from search through social networking to online gaming, it's simply not feasible to review all content.

  There are already many systems and tools, such as ICRA and parental control filters, but these need to be combined with other tools such artificial intelligence, URL blocking lists, word and image screening to piece together a comprehensive method to block unwanted material. On the flip side, it is in everyone's interest to promote the best of the Internet, to celebrate its diversity and opportunity and to make it easy for everyone to have a positive online experience.

  The most important thing about tools is that people have to use them in order for them to be effective. Not just use them but understand what they can and cannot do. The famous recent case of a 16-year-old Australian "cracking the government approved filter" made headlines around the world.[52] What is less well known is how he did it—he guessed his Mum's password. No technical skill required. This is where FOSI believes education plays a role, but the message has to be consistent. There is currently no one single public education message that will deal with this issue. Unlike the very simple "Smoking Kills" health warnings on cigarettes, messages must be created and directed separately at parents, teachers, and children, across a wide range of ages, socio-economic groups and abilities.

  Parents must also begin to show an interest in the Internet and be aware that simple slip of the keyboard or an innocent online search can take them off into areas that they would never allow them to go in the "real" world.

  A common theme in FOSI's work is to focus on the best of the Internet. Any discussion of online safety inevitably focuses on the negative aspects that can all too easily lead to a feeling of it being a "bad thing" and something from which everyone, children in particular, must be protected. On the contrary, it is a space where creativity can find expression, where people can communicate for the better and come into contact with the full richness of human endeavour and experience. It is to be applauded and encouraged, not denigrated and its proponents castigated.

  This is an international issue and one where the goals continually shift as new technologies and services rapidly appear. As yet there is no silver bullet to make the internet entirely safe, but each party is contributing to make the online world a safer place for children.

February 2008

41   FOSI is formerly known as ICRA, the Internet Content Rating Association. Back

42   comScore Media Metrix, January 2006. Back

43   Family Safe Media, 15 December 2005. Back

44   Prepared testimony by Professor James B Weaver III at the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing on protecting Children on the Internet, 19 January 2006. Back

45   MSN/YouGov survey, March 2006. Back

46   GFK, using a base of 502 parents with children aged six to 16. Back

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