Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 46-59)


26 FEBRUARY 2008

  Chairman: Can I welcome our next set of witnesses, Matt Lambert from Microsoft, Peter Robbins, the Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, and Heather Rabbatts, the Chair of the Media Literacy Taskforce.

  Q46 Mr Sanders: This is to Matt Lambert. Your submission outlines the range of Microsoft tools that parents can use to filter out harmful content. Other evidence says that these tools are not widely used. Is this the case?

  Mr Lambert: Yes, it is the case that they are not very widely used. It is disappointing, and that is one of the reasons why we have said in our submission to you and also to Byron that we very much feel that public education, driven by government, with the support of companies, appropriate NGOs and other experts, including perhaps to some extent the police and law enforcement, should actually get out to schools, to teachers and to parents and drive awareness, either with public information campaigning or, I think more appropriately, through schools and other places where you can talk to young people, to parents, to responsible adults who have responsibility for children and tell them that these tools are available—not just on Microsoft, of course; there are generic filtering tools available in other operating systems and of course by many other competitors to Microsoft in the internet security safety area offering tools which work very well with Microsoft Windows and other operating systems. I think there is a low take-up but there is not, interestingly, low awareness that tools are available. Parents are not acting on that.

  Q47  Mr Sanders: What is Microsoft doing to try and ensure that there is a common and consistent system of parental controls among all software and games providers for parents?

  Mr Lambert: We work with industry associations, including, particularly in the gaming area, which I think is perhaps where you are thinking there, to encourage consistent advice about games rating with the PEGI system, the Pan-European Games Information system. We work with other associations on a cross-industry basis. For ourselves, what we try to do, I think, the onus on us is to recognise that parents are disadvantaged. Some survey work we did showed that 90% of children reckoned they knew much more about this than their parents and that is the case with most people I know. Certainly it is my situation, even though I have worked in the industry for 20 years. My kids out-manoeuvre me on Xbox quite frequently. It is difficult but we have to make these systems as simple as possible so that when they open up the Xbox for the first time or when there is Vista you will find one of the things you can get here is parental guidance about the family safety settings. We have a unique responsibility that we recognise because typically Internet Explorer is a gateway for many people to the internet in the first place through Windows Vista, a lot of people using our online services with Windows Live MSN and, of course, Xbox, which is increasingly a live experience online for many people as well, including young people. We try to have a commonality of simple, straightforward controls which parents and responsible adults can actually understand and set, and they are password-protected so that they can set a rating level available for children or they can say "This is the type of content I want my children to see. Here are some specific websites I want to block. I only want them to play online for a certain amount of time and I do not want them to use Instant Messaging at all," if you want to take a very restrictive approach. All of that is available. It is actually quite simple and straightforward.

  Q48  Mr Sanders: We heard earlier that some parents confuse a classification with a skill rating.

  Mr Lambert: Yes.

  Q49  Mr Sanders: You may laugh but actually it is quite important.

  Mr Lambert: I am not laughing. It is not amusing.

  Q50  Mr Sanders: It is not you. I was criticising my Chairman, which is probably not wise of me! Would it not make sense to actually have a skill rating level alongside a classification so that you could remove that ambiguity?

  Mr Lambert: You are aware, I am sure, that there are two types of rating.

  Q51  Mr Sanders: No, I am not.

  Mr Lambert: Let me explain then. In the United Kingdom we basically operate two systems in parallel. One is the PEGI rating, which I have already referred to, which has rating from three-plus upwards. We also have the BBFC, British Board of Film Classification, which takes the same approach that it takes to films, which I think most people are aware of, X-rated films, PG, and so forth. It takes the same approach to games. Very typically, that rating comes in at 15, and primarily what they are doing is saying a game is actually inappropriate under British law, harmful content and so forth, is unacceptable, therefore this game is not acceptable and it is not released in the United Kingdom, so they have that role but also the ratings often apply so you can see if it is an 18-plus, 15-plus and so forth. So the two ratings run parallel. To come back to your original question, the PEGI rating is also age-appropriate. There is a game I was playing the other day with my eight-year-old, appropriate for three-plus. It does not help that I am 44 and I had not a clue what I was doing, but that is another story. It is telling you broadly that this is a game that is appropriate for this age but it will also tell you clearly that only 15-plus is advisable. I think the problem here, and I think it was referred to in the last session, is that you have a situation where the games ratings are not taken as seriously, typically, as the cinema film ratings, and I cannot explain that phenomenon. It is not the case the parents are not aware of these ratings. We have done a bit of research. We surveyed 4,000 people across Europe, including a thousand people, broadly speaking, in the United Kingdom, a statistically relevant survey, and we found that 79% of parents were aware of an age-rated video rating system. They understand that it is there but they do not always operate it. I think possibly that is because, typically, parents did not play games like this when they were children; a lot of older parents certainly did not have them when they were children. This is a world that they do not fully understand. Microsoft does not wish to preach to parents; it basically wants to make the tools available and publicise them. Parents must decide, I think, the appropriate rating for content and games and so forth for their children, and each case can be different up to a point. The Government has to say at a point certain types of material are unacceptable or unacceptable for certain age groups, so there is a role for government but I do think we need to educate parents and say that there is stuff which is inappropriate, there is a good reason why it is rated and they need to take a bit more interest in this. That, I think, is actually for governments. That is why I say Microsoft does not preach to parents. That is for politicians and governments to decide but we stand willing and ready. I think you have heard mention a couple of times in the previous session that we are very active in terms of training programmes, getting out to schools and so forth, talking to them about these issues. A couple of years ago we went out to 100 schools in this country. I think we saw 30,000 children aged 14 and above. I myself trained about 900 kids in terms of giving them advice. We need to do this as a rolling programme. That is the advice we have given to Byron. It applies to games rating and we stand ready and willing to work with the rest of the industry, government and anyone else who wants to get involved to get out to schools, to talk to parents, to talk to teachers, to talk to young people, tell them the dangers. We must put the thing in context though. The internet is a good thing. We think gaming is a good thing. It should be fun and it should be part of pleasurable activity but there have to be limits and boundaries, and we think it is up to parents, teachers and responsible adults to decide where they lie.

  Q52  Chairman: One quick last question to Microsoft. You heard in the previous session the suggestion that the default setting for a new computer should be set at the maximum level of security. Is that something you would be willing to consider?

  Mr Lambert: No, it is not. I know John Carr very well. We have a huge amount of respect for him and we have worked with him on many things, including at the moment looking at age verification and how we could do more around that area, but I do not agree with him about this issue. It is simply this. We set our ratings for search, for example, at the moderate rating, so that blocks on Windows Live search most sexual content. You put in some obvious word, looking for sexual content, and you will get a warning that this content is inappropriate. As I have already said, we also have the tools which allow parents to take a more interventionary approach and block entirely, and clearly, you can just shut off the internet. Where does the default lie? This is the question I asked John Carr and the charities, many of whom we work with as partners. Are you saying we stop the internet and when you buy a computer you have to switch it on, or are we saying that we set it at a very high level which blocks most content, which is pretty much close to blocking the internet altogether, in my view? How long would people accept that? First of all, they would blame us. We would have to explain to our customers "You have to do this to turn it back on." John would say, "I know, but that is an acceptable level of pain," but the reality is that consumers will complain, they will go elsewhere, they will simply use other technology which neither you nor I can control and, in my view, the net result of this is you will do more damage and there will be more open access to inappropriate content. The right way, I believe, is to work in a self-regulatory regime but in a co-operative system, such as I have proposed to Byron and I have mentioned here, that we work, not just Microsoft about as a cross-industry thing, which I know the industry, ISPA and others are very willing to take part in, to raise awareness and make these tools as simple as possible. We will take any amount of advice from MPs here and any customers. If you do not think the thing is simple and easy to understand, and you do not find it readily available, and clearly available, we are listening, and we will change it in the next system and we will backdate it where we can. You can download OneCare and backdate it on previous systems if you do not have Windows Vista. We try to make it simple and straightforward but blocking wholesale and setting at a high level is equivalent to blocking and Britain would be looked at as being in the Dark Ages if you set that kind of legal restriction, in my view.

  Q53  Chairman: Can I turn to Peter Robbins. The IWF produces a list of banned websites and ISPs block access to them. It was suggested to us that actually it was comparatively simple to get around these blocks. Would you accept that?

  Mr Robbins: The decision that the internet service providers, mobile operators, search providers took to voluntarily take our list was based on the fact that they were trying to protect consumers from stumbling across these types of websites and these types of images. It is true to say though that there are ways of getting round it and therefore criminals who want to download indecent images of children will indeed find their way round these types of systems, but the thrust of the initiative was about protecting consumers as a whole from stumbling across these types of websites.

  Q54  Chairman: So you would have to be pretty sophisticated to be able to overcome the block?

  Mr Robbins: You do have to have some knowledge about other means of getting round it, yes.

  Q55  Chairman: The IWF is an industry-led body, self-regulatory. Do all the ISPs accept your banned list?

  Mr Robbins: As John said earlier, 95% of domestic broadband consumers currently access the internet through six, seven or eight companies, all of whom take our list. There is a tail, equivalent to roughly 100 companies, that are the smaller ISPs that do not currently take the list but, to be fair, there is some confusion about how the smaller companies may be protected by virtue of activities upstream by some of the bigger providers. It is not clear to the downstream providers whether or not they are covered from the upstream providers. The way in which the industry has agreed to tackle this is to invoke a self-regulatory verification system, which we are developing with the industry, whereby they will be given data by us to enable them to check their services to see whether or not you can break through the service and, if you can, then of course there is a break in the system. So a small ISP will be able to take some data from us, check it to see whether not it breaks through the system and, if it did, they would know they are not covered upstream and therefore they have some responsibility to try and deal with a blocking mechanism for that.

  Paul Farrelly: I am sorry, Chairman. I did not understand a word of that.

  Q56  Chairman: Perhaps you could clarify. At the same time, are there any small ISPs that actually take a view that because—I do not know—they believe in freedom of expression on the internet, they deliberately do not wish to block access to sites?

  Mr Robbins: I do not think that would be the case that any company would not take the list in relation to child sexual abuse websites but I think there are issues for them in relation to cost and effectiveness, but cost I think is an issue that they have with government over this, yes.

  Chairman: Perhaps you could just clarify the upstream and downstream, for me as well actually.

  Q57  Paul Farrelly: There are 100 people who do not abide by your list and seven or eight that do. To what extent do the "wicked" people go to the 100 and be able to access the sites?

  Mr Robbins: Yes, that is a good question. We do not know, of course, how many individuals access the internet through those types of ISPs that may not be taking our list or blocking. Let me just give you an example. If BT is blocking, which it is, and you buy your internet service connectivity as a reseller or virtual ISP who resells connectivity within a village, within an area, then if you know that you are on the BT network, you know that you are covered by virtue of their decision to block using our list upstream. However, the way in which the internet access gets sold and resold, it is not always clear to two or three virtual ISPs downstream of BT that they actually are on the BT network. That is not easy to determine at the moment and that is something that we are working through now with those small ISPs to try and establish where they may be covered upstream.

  Q58  Paul Farrelly: Are the police, for instance, quite relaxed that these smaller ISPs exist so that all the rotten apples end up in the smaller barrels and they can watch it more closely?

  Mr Robbins: No, I do not think so.

  Q59  Janet Anderson: If we could just stay on the subject of self-regulation and potentially harmful content that is not illegal, do you think self-regulation works or do you think there should be more formal regulation or legislation?

  Mr Robbins: The situation with the three areas of remit that we deal with, if we just dealt with criminally obscene adult content, which is within our remit, it is very rare for us to find any of that type of content hosted in the UK. Recently there was an interpretation of the Obscene Publications Act which meant that, if there was adult pornography of an explicit nature on a landing page, which is the front page of a website, which was hosted in the UK, that a child under the age of 18 could see, therefore it may fail the Obscene Publications Act definition of "deprave and corrupt", we could issue a notice to that service provider to take that website down. That was an interpretation of the law which has only been made in the last couple of years and, indeed, since we started issuing notices in regard to that, the numbers of adult pornography websites with explicit content have now reduced significantly and we have not had to issue any notices in the last six or seven months. So as the industry takes its notices from us, it takes content down, the word gets around and the volume goes down but, of course, what has happened is that the majority of porn sites are actually now hosted outside of the UK and, in terms of adult pornography, we do not have any relationships with any other government or any other hotline in the world to put them on notice about these types of websites with explicit content for them to do something about it or to take them down, because they could be legal outside the UK. If you take Holland, there are plenty of porn sites in Holland which are legal which in the UK would not be allowed. So there are issues in relation to where the content moves to, where it is hosted, and then obviously what the UK can do about that. Incitement to racial hatred is also within our remit but, again, it is very rare for us to find any of that type of content in the UK, and if there was, we would issue a notice and it would be taken down immediately, and the police would be allowed, obviously, to get on with their investigation with regard to that. Of course, the complaints that we get, we trace them to other parts of the world where they have different laws and different views about what incitement to racial hatred might be, therefore they will not take any action to take them down. The question then is, how do you regulate that type of content in the UK if people can obviously access websites around the world? I would say that the majority of those websites are relatively static. The porn sites and the race sites, or the interpretation of what are race sites, are static. They generally are within filter systems that you can buy as commercial products, so providing you tick the box on your computer and make sure that you do not want to see porn or race or whatever, they are usually quite effective. The reason why we provide a list to ISPs of child sexual abuse websites, and the difference between that and other types of content, is that these sites move all the time. They are taken down by authorities around the world, there is co-operation around the world and, of course, we have networks and hotlines around the world to tackle that but, because of the pressure they get, they keep moving all the time. Consequently, filtering systems cannot keep up with the pace at which they move as much as they can when they are general porn sites and race sites. Consequently, ISPs take the list from us, they block it at a network level, and they block it because it does not give anybody a choice about what they can and cannot see. That is not the same with pornography, because you and I can see it; it is not an offence for us to view it; it is not an offence for you and I to look at race sites, wherever they are hosted in the world. The Government are currently proposing some legislation in relation to extreme pornography where they are minded to make it an offence to possess certain types of extreme pornography. The next step in regulating, in criminalising access to extreme pornography, is that you have to stop people from seeing it and therefore making it an offence to possess. The Obscene Publications Act does not currently make it an offence to possess it unless you are going to distribute it; the same with race, unless you are going to distribute it or incite people to do things. So government are having to think about how you can control the content and then make it an offence to see it.

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