Memorandum submitted by Family Online
The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI)
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 ResponsibilityChild 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
piracy of software, music or
disclosure of personal information;
excessive commercialism: advertising
and product-related websites, and
illegal downloads, such as copyright-protected
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.,
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.
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 onlineinternet
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.
Parents have taken the following steps to protect
their children online:
83% had installed Anti-Virus
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
29% had installed parental controls
from their ISP;
27% are using content control
only 1% of customers stated
that they had taken no steps.
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.
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.
THE FOSI RESPONSE
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).,
This new technology is designed to make it easy to identify websites
that meet specific criteria such as those that:
have high quality educational
are accessible to users with
visual impairment or reduced physical movement;
will function effectively on
are medically or scientifically
are licensed for free access;
are about a specific subject,
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 providerthat
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).
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.
ICRA LABELLING AND
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
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.
These descriptionsin effect user-generated tags with controlled
vocabulary termsmay 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.
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
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
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
What is less well known is how he did ithe 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
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.
41 FOSI is formerly known as ICRA, the Internet Content
Rating Association. Back
comScore Media Metrix, January 2006. Back
Family Safe Media, 15 December 2005. Back
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
MSN/YouGov survey, March 2006. Back
GFK, using a base of 502 parents with children aged six to 16. Back