Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


26 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q20  Mr Sanders: There is an awful lot of talk and speculation about potential risks of online content, but the actual risks do not seem to be very well researched or proven. Are people getting overly concerned about risks that are only anecdotal at this stage?

  Mr Carrick-Davies: I know Sonia will have lots to say about this, because there are real challenges about getting evidence that we just need to rehearse and remind ourselves. First of all, this is such a new medium, so it is very hard to say, has it grown? If you ask me, has cyber-bullying grown; ten years ago, children were not actually texting, but there is no evidence of inappropriate texting at that stage. So fundamentally, it is a new environment, so we are in new territory and it is difficult. Secondly, there are real problems about the ethics in terms of: you are working with children and young people, do you expose children to harm and then compare that with another group of children? Very difficult to look at how does harm manifest itself in a child's life, to say nothing of the fact that every child is different. The third point that is really important to recognise is children have real difficulties in disclosing harm, for very, very good reasons. Let us just think about the fact that we are parents here in this room. If my child says they have come across inappropriate content, are they going to be scared that Dad is going to go (indicates) round the back of the neck, not that I would ever do that, but the fear of being told off, the fear of getting somebody else into trouble, the fear that this wonderful, exciting, brilliant technology that is part of their life is going to be taken away from them, these are very real challenges. So I am not wanting a cop-out and saying just because evidence is hard, we do not go down that route; we have to apply, we have to base our rationale, our decisions on sound evidence. It is coming together slowly, but John's point is the absence of evidence of harm does not necessarily prove that children are not being harmed, so with that caveat, that there are real challenges and difficulties in looking at the evidence, we need to say: what is the evidence? Sonia's work with the UK Children Go Online report, that carried out studies with children and parents, comparing their experiences back in 2004 and 2005, which John and Childnet were supporting, showed very real evidence that parents underestimate children's negative experiences online, for some of the reasons I have just mentioned there about disclosure.

  Q21  Mr Sanders: Is not one of the answers to this actually quite simple, and you guys actually have got a major role to play in it, which is actually to just keep banging home the message, time and time again, not to allow children to have their access away from other people in the household; in other words, not to have a monitor and a computer in a bedroom, but to have it somewhere accessible, where other members of the family are passing by. Would that not actually do more to keep children out of harm than any other measure you could take? Yet neither you nor the industry seem to be willing to go down that route of simple advice to parents.

  Professor Livingstone: I think as a simple message to parents, it is worth reiterating clearly, but one of the things that research also shows is many parents do put the computer in a living room or in a public place, and children still find a way of using it when no one is looking over their shoulder. I think we have to be realistic about the situation, particularly for young teenagers—I think if we are talking about 9-year-olds, there is less of an issue in terms of parents knowing what their children are doing, but if we are talking about young teenagers, what parents are trying to do then is precisely to give children the kind of independence to explore and to make some of their own decisions, and learn to cope with some of the risks that they encounter, that means that they cannot as parents be always looking over their shoulder, looking at their MySpace, checking their emails and so on, and much of what goes on on that screen, which is very fast and furious from a parent's point of view, is quite hard to understand, as you look over their shoulder. So I think children are motivated necessarily to evade some of that kind of scrutiny, and parents are not particularly well equipped in many homes to understand what is going on on the screen, even if they do casually see it. I would rather say that a crucial message or a crucial thing for us to think about is the way in which parents need to encourage their children to cope with some of the material they encounter, but what we do not want is an environment in which those risks are radically extreme and completely outside anyone's ability to cope. So of course children, let us say, a 13-year-old, one might expect to see certain kinds of images of nudity or pornography, but perhaps not some of the violent pornography that would be more than one could expect a 13-year-old to cope with. The question I would say is rather how do we empower parents to encourage their children to explore so that they become resilient and able to cope with certain kinds of risks, many kinds of risks, without coming across the kinds of shocking content that some children are seeing and a minority are saying is upsetting.

  Q22  Mr Sanders: But would it not be a start to actually focus a major campaign saying that, because it seems to me that is not a message that is coming across from anybody, and yet it could do so much good in terms of reducing the risk.

  Mr Carr: You would have to take it at least one step further and remind the parents to keep the screen facing outwards, because if the screen is facing in towards the wall, as soon as the parent walks into the kitchen or the living room or whatever, one click of the mouse and the whole screen changes, whereas if the screen is facing out into the room, the parent will see what is on the screen the minute they walk in the room.

  Q23  Mr Sanders: Come on, most people would have it against the wall because that is where the electrical socket is.

  Mr Carr: No, just the screen. It is just the very practical point about the way the screen is facing, because if it is facing towards the wall—the screen, nothing to do with where the socket is—then it is pretty much useless, because the child will be able to minimise the screen and their homework will be on it by the time you get round.

  Q24  Mr Sanders: But you could minimise the screen anyway.

  Mr Carr: I am just saying, it is slightly easier—

  Q25  Mr Sanders: Are you saying it would not help?

  Mr Carr: No, I agree.

  Q26  Mr Sanders: So can we stop the sophistry and—

  Professor Livingstone: It has been said.

  Q27  Mr Sanders: Let us actually have a campaign, let us see you guys leading it.

  Mr Carr: With respect, it has been said from the very beginning. First of all, over 20% of children now have Internet access on computers in their bedroom anyway, and with the growth in handheld devices, mobile phones which have Internet access, the salience of that point is less than it used to be. There is a second point—I mean, nobody disagrees with it, but it is just increasingly less relevant, because there are so many other ways in which youngsters can get access other than through a standard PC in their home, eg a handheld device, eg a mobile, eg a laptop. Schools are encouraging children more and more to have these handheld devices and laptops, so the physical location is not so easy to solve as it used to be. In addition, just bear in mind, if you have three or four children, and there are families with even more, and they all have to do their homework, every evening of the week, we hope, all good children are sitting down to do their homework between, say, six and eight o'clock or whatever, and you have three or four children, each wanting to get on the PC at the same time, what do you do then? Lots of families now have two and three computers for their children to use to do their homework. Do you have two or three computers in your living room? It means you do not have a living room.

  Q28  Mr Sanders: I do accept all these points, every one of them stands up to scrutiny, but all we are hearing is reasons why things cannot be done. What we need to hear is what can be done. One of the things that could be done is that advice, there are other things that we do not know that need to be done, that is what we want to hear, so that we can recommend, in order that we can protect people from harm.

  Mr Carr: I think it is a lot to do with the age of the child; they have a right to privacy, and they have a right, as they get a bit older—certainly for very young children, I agree with you 100%, I think it is a matter of judgment for each family to decide when the child has some right to start to explore on their own.

  Mr Carrick-Davies: Just one final quick comment on this, because I know we are going to come on to a session on media literacy, and what is needed is a whole range of educational awareness, not merely to parents, but to children and young people, but I do appreciate your question, and I do think that sometimes it is the obvious question that you can ask a parent to start that dialogue. I do not think children just want a set of rules, because the whole point about children growing up is often breaking those rules and pushing the boundaries. The point John and Sonia made very eloquently is that this is all moving to a mobile platform, and I know that you will be talking to the mobile operators soon. We have a narrow window of opportunity, if you like, where children are going to be using these big grey boxes sitting on desks. In another five years' time, we will not even see that sort of stuff, we will not even see laptops that big, it will all be personal, portable and private, three Ps to always remember about this space. But my point is that if parents can start thinking about the location, and John and myself and Sonia, if you have heard the news reports for the last 10 years, I have been in this environment for 10 years, we have been banging on about location, especially for webcam based computers in children's bedrooms: absolutely not appropriate, get it out of the bedroom, you have heard us say that, but it is counter-intuitive, because the very nature of the technology is a private medium. You know how hard it is to even get your children to sit down and watch television together. Let us have a reality check: this is a private medium, and therefore, children will want to do it on their own. So that question that you ask is absolutely brilliant, but it needs to be the start of a process, not just simply the rule or the advice.

  Q29  Rosemary McKenna: Surely children must be exposed though to some risk. I mean, I actually think there is a concern about children not being exposed to risk by being allowed to be out and play the way children did in the past, so what is an appropriate level of risk for children on the Internet?

  Professor Livingstone: Well, the psychologist's answer is anything they are not yet mature enough to cope with, and not able to learn to encompass, is inappropriate. That means that we are dealing with a content environment to which people respond in very, very variable ways, partly depending on age, but also depending on vulnerability. One of the difficult issues is that even if you look at children of the same age, some will laugh off something they have seen, and others will be upset by it, and the discriminating factor probably lies in the rest of their lives, in their relationships with their family and the other difficulties that they face in their daily lives. So response to the same content is very variable, and worryingly, it is the children who are more vulnerable to online content who probably have the fewer social supports in the rest of their lives, and precisely do not have the parents or other adults that they can discuss these things with. So there is a kind of compounding of vulnerabilities if you like, for a minority.

  Q30  Rosemary McKenna: That illustrates the difficulty with this whole inquiry, as to how do you manage that, how do we come up with the report which says yes, there are ways of dealing with this whole issue.

  Mr Carr: I think you often hear, or I have often heard parents say things like, "Oh, everything is OK, Little Billy is not out playing on the street with the bad lads any more, it is wonderful now we have got the computer with the Internet, he is up in his bedroom doing his homework all the time". Part of this is about getting across to parents that when you bring the Internet into your home, you are bringing the rest of the world into your home, and getting these messages across to parents and helping parents understand how they can support their children and guide them.

  Rosemary McKenna: We also want to be able to protect children from harmful content, that is the bottom line.

  Q31  Philip Davies: The bit I do not understand about this is that some people will watch certain things and it will make no difference to them whatsoever, whereas some people will watch some violent thing and they might replicate it somewhere. The bit I do not understand is therefore, it is not the content that is the problem, it is the individual, or it is something within that individual that is the issue, not the content in itself. So how do you get to the stage where you regulate content when, for the vast majority of people, perhaps even 99% of people, that content is not doing them any harm whatsoever?

  Mr Carr: Well, this is at the heart of all of these things, everything hinges on the individual, which is why I was saying in response to the last question that a lot of what I think is the major public policy challenge is helping parents to understand what the nature of these issues are, so that they in turn can help their child deal with it, because every child is different. You cannot just say, it will be like this, and it is the same for everybody, because it plainly is not, and parents are going to be best placed to make judgments about these things for their own individual children. You are absolutely right, there is not a simple line that you can draw and say, "Yes, no, good, bad", it is complicated.

  Professor Livingstone: Between the content and the individual, there is, you know, something we might call cultural or community norms or expectations of how to respond to certain kinds of content, so if one has a society in which certain kinds of, let us say, violent representations are routinely laughed off and understood to be in the world of fantasy rather than reality, for most people, that is not going to be harmful. If one has a set of content to which we have, as yet, no articulated response, people do not know how to respond, it is often unexpected or without a framework for interpretation, then there are different kinds of risks, and one of the difficult things about the Internet is that all kinds of diverse content—you know, we could not just worry about violence, we might worry about websites that encourage anorexia, for example, we might worry about race hate sites, there are all kinds of content there that children might and on occasion do encounter before they gain the kind of cultural interpretation that says, "This is funny, this is fantasy, this is problematic but here are your resources for thinking about it, this is upsetting because it is unexpected, we try to avoid you finding that". So partly it is the very diversity of what is available on the Internet that is the challenge, by comparison with, let us say, what children might find in some other media.

  Q32  Philip Davies: It is all subjective, is it not? What you might consider to be harmful, I might consider to be funny. If you were to ask 11 people on the Committee what they thought was appropriate and inappropriate, we would probably have 11 different answers. So the point is, which comes partly back to Adrian's point, whatever you do, you cannot substitute parental—it is up to each parent to decide surely what they think is right for their child, what their values are that they want to bring their children up with; you cannot get away from that base, can you?

  Mr Carr: That is absolutely true, but what we know from Sonia's research and other research is that parents feel very much at sea when trying to understand how to do the right thing for their child, and how to set the right framework of Internet use or whatever in their home for their children, and it is one of the reasons why we, for example, within the Children's Charities have advocated that safety software should be preinstalled on every new computer that is sold into the domestic market, and set to a high level of security, so that there is at least something there when the parent turns on the computer for the first time that will screen out certain types of image. For many families, those basic settings that would be in place on day one will perhaps not be appropriate, and they would have the opportunity to change them. What I think is wrong about the situation we have at the moment is nothing is there, and so in a sense, when the manufacturers sell the computers into the domestic market, they are leaving it to chance, in a way, that the parent will find out that there are issues, act on it, act wisely, and be able to transmit to their children those sorts of values and issues. So I think something being there at the beginning would help a lot of parents, and actually, apart from anything else, it would be a major learning opportunity for them if there was a piece of software or some safety stuff there when they turned on the computer for the first time.

  Professor Livingstone: Can I just follow that up? I am trying to imagine the parent willing to implement exactly the kind of domestic regulation that you suggest, but I ask myself, how does the parent know that, for example, cyber-bullying images or beheadings or pornographic images are there on YouTube? Does the parent feel empowered to say to the child, "You must not use YouTube", which is in a sense to kind of ostracise him from many jokes that go around in the playground, so how do they even know it is there? What mechanisms are then available to them to prevent their child getting access to that kind of content rather than all the other benefits that are there? This is not a medium in which parents have subtle skills, or indeed in which there are subtle resources provided to say, "Yes, you can have this content; no, you can have that content". Then, if I put that into the context of a young adolescent who is already not telling their parents that they are trying smoking and not coming home when they are meant to at night, fearful that if they do tell their parents, the computer will be taken away, I struggle to see that in many households there will be a good basis of both knowledge and trust that will allow that kind of reliance on parents to work as we would wish.

  Mr Carrick-Davies: One final reflection on this, if I may. You have to ask the question, where is the voice of the parent heard? We started the discussion about the media and often the media will be very good at illustrating parents' concern at point of tragedy but, just picking up on what Sonia said, I do not think that parents do understand the services that their children are using because I do not think the companies that are providing those services, which are broadly attractive for children and young people, are very good at actually explaining or illustrating or making their terms of services accessible, child-friendly, simple, understandable at the point of start-up and induction. A parent would have a choice if they knew that most of the content on You Tube would be for a certain audience or that you have to be a certain age to actually set up a channel or that for social networking services it would usually be targeted for a child of a certain age. So I do think it is incumbent on the industry to be more proactive in making good quality terms of reference for their services more accessible, more easily available. We have done this with the mobile industry. The mobile industry have done a great deal of work in this country in identifying a code of practice which gives parents greater choices. The problem is parents do not know that there is internet filtering at the point of purchasing a phone or that a phone could be set as a child phone at the start of the contract. I think that is part of the education case. I am sorry if I am adding another layer of complexity but I do hope you appreciate that some of us have been grappling with this issue. Oh, that it would be so simple to have a simple silver bullet, a rule, but what we have to find out and the task for this Committee is looking at the granularity of these issues and thinking what we can do quickly that will make maximum impact.

  Chairman: We are getting a little short of time so can I ask that not everybody answer every single question?

  Q33  Paul Farrelly: I just wanted to come back to regulation, which Adam first touched on. There appears to be a consensus, particularly with the internet with its worldwide scope, that self-regulation is the best possible approach. I just want to explore the extent to which you think it is working and whether you agree with that. Clearly, in areas of what you can say, there is a growing body of libel law which is developing with respect to the internet that would not allow Google and You Tube to say, for example, "Nothing to do with us, guv," which was their reaction to the gangs videos that were on when the young lad was killed in Liverpool. The Internet Watch Foundation lists three areas where people have to watch out because the legal sanctions are already there with the criminal law: child abuse; criminally obscene content, however you define that; and incitement to make racial hatred. Do you think that list should be made more explicit and clearer through legislation or regulation, for instance, with respect of the whole issue of incitement to violence, be it cyber-bullying, the misnamed "happy slapping" and some things more extreme? I would just like to gain your views on that area.

  Mr Carr: Add to the list? I think the police have said in relation to the specific point you have made that they feel that there are limitations on their powers to act, for example, in relation to incitement to violence or incitement to suicide and things of that kind, so to that extent—and I do not know if you are going to be calling anybody from the police—we would be broadly sympathetic to that point of view. As for extending the categories, journalists ring you up every other week saying "Should we ban suicide websites? Should we ban anorexia websites?" It is a matter for Parliament in the end to decide what the laws of our country are. My point at the beginning was that, in the absence of a particular topic being illegal, it is very difficult to see how you could ask the industry to make a decision off its own bat. If Parliament thinks something should be illegal and makes a new law, the industry will respond. In the absence of a clear law, however, I think it is always going to be a bit messy.

  Professor Livingstone: Can I disagree with that? Just to go back to the point I made earlier, my understanding is that the industry is already making all kinds of decisions about when to permit a certain kind of website to continue or to change the content. All kinds of content regulation is going on under the banner of self-regulation. My preference would not be to, as it were, restrict freedom of speech and say more things become illegal but to have a more clear and transparent and coherent code whereby the kind of speech is managed, not necessarily to ban it entirely or to make it illegal but to make it, say, so difficult that the casual surfer does not come upon it. That is my understanding of precisely what we do in the broadcasting code on television. We do not say things cannot be said; we say they should not be something that you come upon without warning, accidentally, without realising what you are getting into. We could go a lot further down that route, I think, before deciding certain content should be illegal.

  Q34  Paul Farrelly: If I can pursue that, if you then make complaints, a member of the public or a member of your organisations, under self-regulation, unless the police intervene, it is up to the company to decide whether to remove that content. You mentioned the avenue or potential avenue of appeal, which there is not now. How would you grapple with that issue in practical terms?

  Professor Livingstone: Could we have an independent body that oversees and reports on the effectiveness and the accountability of self-regulatory codes?

  Q35  Paul Farrelly: What is your answer?

  Professor Livingstone: I would say I think it is an idea worth pursuing. I would like to know if this has been attempted in other countries or in other areas of regulation. I am not a regulation expert. I know primarily about what children do in their house with the internet but it seems to me that there are principles of regulation which perhaps should very clearly be applied, especially when something as important as freedom of speech is at stake.

  Q36  Paul Farrelly: You mentioned that there are decisions being taken all the time by the companies as to what to put on and what not to put on, so it is not a case of "Not us, guv" but there are two ways to ratchet this up: they can employ banks of people themselves, which might affect their business models and their profitability.

  Professor Livingstone: Banks of people are already employed. That is my understanding.

  Q37  Paul Farrelly: If you want to increase the banks, or you can have banks of people like yourselves being Mary Whitehouses of the Viewers and Listeners Foundation, making complaints regularly on a coordinated basis but then how do you measure together the response of the industry to see actually whether they are taking much note of what you are saying and what the complaints are?

  Mr Carrick-Davies: I really want to look at this issue in some detail because I think it is very good that the industry have said that they have banks of people looking at moderated content, that they will take things down but anecdotally we hear, especially from schools—and schools are places which actually provide often a filtered and protected environment. Here is a statistic from the Southwest Grid for Learning, which is the provider of Internet connectivity for schools in the south-west region, about 2,500 schools across the whole of the south-west region, which did some research and they asked of those schools that had complained to social networking providers about inappropriate, harmful, and offensive content, how many of them had taken it down. 41% of schools were unsatisfied with the response that they had had from social networking providers about their complaints, complaints that were well done, put together properly through the mechanisms that were there for them. So I do believe that these companies need to be seen to be doing more to respond promptly. I am delighted to say that the social networking providers are working under the auspices of the Home Office Task Force on guidance looking at best practice which will cover the issues about better reporting, better education, better design and better removal of content. Let us see what happens in that space but it is a very important point that we need to monitor and see how effective that self-regulation is.

  Q38  Paul Farrelly: If I can ask you what more things do you think ISPs and content providers and also mobile phone companies can do, what one, two or three things can they do better, in the opinion of each of you?

  Professor Livingstone: Provision of clear information to parents and children that people can understand. That is number one, the positioning of that kind of information at the point where it matters. I take John's point about what happens when you first buy your computer and you get the information but you also need it on the sites, on the social networking sites, a reminder when you are using Instant Messaging: "Are you sure you want to send that photograph?" I think there is a lot of just-in-time, at-the-right-moment information that could be and should be provided.

  Mr Carrick-Davies: And much greater choice. Why do we not see the market providing a phone with limited functionality for a parent who says "I want to see the benefits of a child using a phone for safety reasons but I don't want the camera phone or the internet enabled at this stage for a nine- or a ten-year-old child"? Why do we not have greater granularity of choice? You can say that the industry is finding it very difficult to advertise or market programmes for children because of the Stewart Report but we need to get beyond that. We need to say that parents will actually prefer choice and if they can go upstream in terms of the service that they provide, with companies going upstream and providing better filtered products, I believe parents would actually migrate to those services. At the moment there is not the choice, I would argue.

  Mr Carr: I think the pre-installation is a key thing. I would also say—this is very much more prosaic—a lot more stuff on bits of paper telling a parent "If you want to find out how to keep your child safe, go to the following website, click through and do all of that" is not always the best way, whereas if you have simple messages, well presented on bits of paper, that is an environment that they are much more familiar with and much more comfortable with.

  Q39  Paul Farrelly: I would like to ask one final question on a recent case. Recently a young girl was convicted of aiding and abetting by taking pictures on a mobile phone of an assault that led to a death. This whole area is a very tricky area because it covers what you can show as a television company and how far you are involved. It is a very tricky area but I am sure many of the content providers will now be looking at the risks that they run and just trying to check in law where they stand if in these instances custom and practice is that these people do this to be able to upload it to sites so that everybody can see it. In this sort of instance, that practical instance, would you prefer a change in regulation or the criminal law to make the risks clearer as to whether in those sort of instances, if they show those scenes if they are uploaded, they could also potentially be charged with aiding and abetting an offence?

  Mr Carr: I think that the argument is running now. I am very sympathetic to it. I take what Sonia was saying earlier about the way in which informal mechanisms of content management and editorial things are happening all the time within the industry, but when you get to categories, when you are talking about people with categories of incidents of the type you have just mentioned, I think there clarity on the part of the law is essential.

  Professor Livingstone: I am unclear whether your purpose is to try to find a mechanism of ensuring that crimes are resolved better or whether there is an additional risk posed by the presentation of certain kinds of material.

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