Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)


26 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q60  Janet Anderson: So you think there is a need for some legislation?

  Mr Robbins: If you could decide what was harmful, if anyone can decide what is harmful, then of course it would be helpful to people to know where the framework is and where the parameters are. From everybody who has spoken in front of me today, none of us are sure where you would actually draw the threshold levels for those sites and who would make those decisions. That is the challenge we all see.

  Q61  Janet Anderson: You mentioned countries around the world and the way these (child sexual abuse) websites move around. Are there particular countries where this is a problem?

  Mr Robbins: Yes.

  Q62  Janet Anderson: Would you like to name them?

  Mr Robbins: There have been problems in Russia. There were no reciprocal arrangements with the Russians in relation to taking down or having those types of websites investigated. There has been more co-operation recently, and indeed, one service provider in Russia, which was commonly known to be posting this type of content, has actually disappeared for the time being. That has meant that many of those websites have now moved. They appear now to be hosted in the US, or many of them have moved to the US. In defence of the US, or if I can just clarify, actually, it is a massive country with millions of servers and, consequently, given the space that they have and the amount of internet space that they have, of course people go. It is cheap to host over there and put your content over there. They have a serious volume problem. We understand why these people move their content temporarily on to a server there before they think the police are going to catch up with them, and then they will move it on. That is the challenge and that is why there is an issue about the US.

  Q63  Chairman: You talked about the areas you cover, which in a sense are the ones which will command general agreement that this is unacceptable and everybody can work together.

  Mr Robbins: In the UK, yes.

  Q64  Chairman: But the debate is now moving into other areas. I will just give you two examples—there might have been many—of calls for action against websites which tell people how to commit suicide, particularly young people, and secondly, the Prime Minister has flagged up concerns about sites which are acting as recruiters for extremist, potentially terrorist organisations. Are those areas where you think potentially you might be able to operate the same system, to have a list of websites which the ISPs would then block access to?

  Mr Robbins: I think the model that we have can be applied to many other areas of content, provided, of course, that the thinking in relation to it is not necessarily the criminal law. Let us just take suicide websites, for example. I am not clear that there are any suicide websites in the UK advocating suicide which would bring them into conflict with the legislation as we currently have it. They are hosted outside the UK. There is no reason why either our organisation or another organisation could not set up a hotline for the public to report these types of websites to, for them to be assessed, and then for somebody, an organisation, a caring organisation, for example, to make representations to those website owners, to the government of the countries where they are, that actually these are affecting children, et cetera, and get them taken down in that way. There is no reason why that cannot happen. Without laws you can still do these things. I still think the model can be replicated in other ways. It is easier, of course, if there is criminal law involved because people take down and remove and all that sort of thing. In terms of blocking, those websites will be static so they will be in filters; they will be in the commercial types of filters, I think, because they will fit into one of the filtering categories, so therefore they are known. If you are perhaps expecting a list to be provided to service providers, mobile operators, search providers at a default level, if you like, at the network level so that they are the ones that are blocking it and nobody has a choice to switch access to them on or off, then there are problems about whether or not you and I should be prevented from looking at something that we can legally look at. We may not want our children to look at them and it may entice children to go and do things but, nevertheless, where do you draw the line there? With child sexual abuse content, of course, it is an offence for any of us to look at it. It is not the same with these other types of content. I think that is an area where there is difficulty once you want to put a list on a network where there is automatically a default on to stop you and I from looking at it.

  Q65  Chairman: Do you see the right place to tackle this problem at the ISP level or perhaps at the individual PC level? We had a demonstration from Microsoft about how you can actually tick boxes for categories of different types of content to say whether or not you wish to filter all of those out at the PC level.

  Mr Robbins: I cannot think of any other sensible suggestion other than it does seem to me to be in the hands of parents and carers and the family as such to set the parameters under which their children should be operating. I cannot think of an alternative solution to that.

  Mr Lambert: Can I just add one other comment, Mr Chairman? I think there is an element here of sites where there is a clear intent to advocate, say, terrorism or suicide for others. That would almost certainly be in breach of the standard terms and conditions for most of these hosting services. Certainly if it were something we were hosting and it was clearly advocating terrorism, that would be in breach of our terms and conditions and if we were aware of it, we would take it down. Where there is a grey area, there is an opportunity for hosting organisations to intervene.

  Q66  Paul Farrelly: Just on that point, Mr Lambert, I hear your answer on that, yet, with respect to your content-hosting operation You Tube, after the death of the teenager—

  Mr Lambert: We do not own You Tube.

  Q67  Paul Farrelly: I am sorry. It is Google. When Google were challenged when these videos glorifying gang violence, acting as adverts to "join our gang", were shown, their response was to shrug their shoulders and say "It is not our responsibility. We are not a censor, neither before nor afterwards." Clearly, that is a judgement for them to take. What is your view on that sort of attitude that says "We should not be asked to censor this sort of stuff" when in fact censorship goes on all along with respect to some of the other things that we were talking about?

  Mr Lambert: With respect to Google, you are offering me an open goal! I am not going to kick the ball straight into the middle of the net. I think that is a matter for each individual company. That is my answer to that. They each have to look at what is appropriate, what the laws are and what else they need to do. All I can say is that Microsoft takes an approach where we look at the law as it stands and we also look at what we think is a responsible duty of care, particularly where young people are concerned, which is, I think, the prime focus for us.

  Q68  Paul Farrelly: We heard in Seattle with respect to your Xbox that there were certain video games involving gang violence that you would not encourage people to develop on that platform or develop yourself because it was not good for your brand.

  Mr Lambert: We take specific choices not to do certain types of content. You are probably aware from your visit that we also give each of our developers and anyone who is involved in the marketing or any part of it, if they do not like a game, if they find it unacceptable, they do not have to work on it. There is no effect on their career; they are just moved to something more palatable to them personally. Incidentally, we take a very specific attitude on this, and I think this is common across the games industry, if I may say so, that they do not market games inappropriately. I am actually not just speaking there for Microsoft; I think I can speak from a broader industry point of view. They are not targeting inappropriate games at younger children. I really do not think that is the case. There might be a case for Byron or yourselves to look at the way that retailers operate. By and large they are responsible about this but you might want to think about whether there is an aspect there. That is clearly an area where the law could intervene, if you wanted to raise the penalties, for example, for ignoring the age ratings and selling to minors.

  Q69  Paul Farrelly: Given your responsible attitude towards games development and Google's on-the-record attitude with respect to You Tube, they are not really coming up to your standards, are they?

  Mr Lambert: You might say that. We have our own standards. We think they are quite high. Others can choose whether they try to meet them or not.

  Q70  Rosemary McKenna: Can we move on to media literacy, Heather? There seems to be a consensus developing that media literacy and education are a large part of the strategy for dealing with harmful content but some say that the effectiveness of this approach has yet to be proven. Are people jumping on the bandwagon because it is an easy answer?

  Ms Rabbatts: No, I do not believe that is the case. Just making reference to my colleagues' comments, I think what they amply demonstrate to this Committee, and indeed the experts giving evidence earlier today, is the sheer pace of change that we are witnessing in the world of the Internet and that the biggest safeguard is to enable people to understand and be able to be responsible and adults in terms of their responsibilities, as parents to children, and indeed, as Mr Lambert was saying, as children constantly outwit their parents at the latest sets of technical devices. I absolutely believe, and it is the view of the Taskforce, that linked with self-regulation and intervention where appropriate, our biggest defence to enable people to participate in what, let us be clear, are very creative opportunities—millions of people are taking advantage of their access to the world in a very different way, most of them positively—what we need to ensure is that they understand how they can protect themselves. I think we are in the early days of ensuring that people have appropriate skills. As Professor Sonia Livingstone mentioned earlier, we are getting some of those messages through. It is about being able to act responsibly in terms of understanding those messages. There is work under way both with the regulator, Ofcom, and ourselves as we start to chart over the forthcoming years whether we as citizens are becoming media-literate. I do not think it is the easy answer. I think it is complex and you have to look at how we educate children, and indeed adults, to navigate themselves through what is a very complex world.

  Q71  Rosemary McKenna: Would a media campaign be effective?

  Ms Rabbatts: I certainly think that finding ways to inform the public on different levels, be they campaigning, be they the responsibilities of my colleagues, such as Microsoft, they are all important ways in which we convey those messages. I also believe, and certainly some of the work that the Taskforce has been involved in, by working with the BBC or Channel 4 or the Film Council, those bodies that are responsible in the public space for moving media content, they are providing practical tools, examples of how young people can participate in this world in a safe environment. So I think it is about a multi-layered approach in terms of education, from formal in terms of what we are now discussing in terms of the curriculum, in terms of adult education and in terms of broadcasters playing their role in terms of ensuring that citizens can both participate but also be critical and protect themselves from harm.

  Q72  Rosemary McKenna: Would you like to comment, gentlemen?

  Mr Robbins: I do not have any easy answer to this either. I think it is an issue of literacy. The speed at which these devices and the speed at which technology is changing is challenging us all. My staff and I are challenged every single day with all types of content, where it is, how we trace it, how people get access to it, which device they have. It is complex and that is the world that we are in now. I agree with all the previous speakers that it needs to be tackled at different levels. How you get one message out given the various areas of understanding is the challenge that we all face.

  Q73  Rosemary McKenna: Of course, the question is then how would you measure the success of the campaign, or is it just continually working with people as they buy new equipment? Would putting a requirement on the providers of the equipment help?

  Mr Robbins: I think any information that is provided at the point of sale is important. We all know when you go and buy a device, when you unpack it, there is quite a lot of information in there. There are disks of all sorts, bits of paper of all sorts, and of course, you do get lots of messages as you fire up the machine and start to work your way through it. I have to say that, whatever product you buy these days, there is so much information and instructions about it and it is about reading, understanding and applying that, and I confess I find it difficult with all sorts of appliances that I buy, because they are so sophisticated. It takes weeks and months sometimes to work out how they all work.

  Q74  Rosemary McKenna: In the mean time, the kids have got it all up and running!

  Mr Robbins: Yes.

  Ms Rabbatts: They do it without even reading the manuals. Going back to the point, we are at early days. Ofcom are obviously responsible for looking at how we are promoting media literacy and trying to get an assessment of how we are changing. There is work being undertaken in terms of evaluation and toolkit to enable all the different initiatives that are currently in play in terms of media literacy being able to be quantified and be subject to more empirical interrogation. I think we will continue to learn in this area and what is important is that there are ways in which we all come to understand that body of evidence that is available to us so that we can hone those messages more effectively in the future.

  Mr Lambert: Can I follow very briefly on the question? There are two angles to your question. I have commented on the onus on the companies to try and make the technology simple and straightforward, and customers always have a view on that and they should give that view very firmly to all the companies, and they do to us readily, as you know, but I do think in terms of public information, one of the problems we have here—and I say this as a parent as well as representing my company—it is extremely confusing. There is so much information coming out. One of the things I have said to the Byron review and I think also to you in the past is that the onus is on government to try to funnel all of that into a simple set of campaigns. There is actually an existing GetSafeOnline, and it has subsidiary campaigns which apply to child safety, which most of the industry gets behind and the Government gets behind but not even every part of the government knows that it actually sponsors this GetSafeOnline campaign. Somebody in government has to take responsibility and say "It is up to the Government to call the industry together, figure out for each age group, and for parents and teachers the right messages for each of those groups", because they are all subtly different, and then get them out. We all know from our own experience of public education—"Clunk click every trip", the Green Cross Code—

  Q75  Rosemary McKenna: Is that not an Ofcom responsibility rather than a government responsibility?

  Mr Lambert: It could be, yes.

  Ms Rabbatts: I think Ofcom as a regulator does have a duty to promote and it may well be that in the next Communications Act you may wish to consider broadening some of those duties. I think the need for clarity of simple messages is overwhelming. What we have to understand is that the message today will be pretty redundant by tomorrow. So whatever we decide to put in play, I think we all have to understand we have to work at much greater speed and flexibility than previous regimes of self-regulation, regulation and education have encompassed because of the nature of the devices we are now talking about.

  Q76  Rosemary McKenna: Can we move on to risk for children? Is it healthy for children not to face any risk at all?

  Ms Rabbatts: I think for children—and I am sure you will be talking to experts in this field—what we have to understand and what they have to begin to understand, and parents should be guiding them, is how they keep themselves safe. That is the first issue. We do not let our children just walk into the roads without stopping, at pelican crossings. The first thing to think is: "I am entering into this world; what is the safety that I, as a parent or responsible adult, owe to my three, four, five-year old? It is then for children themselves to begin to understand how they manage risk, and that is a very challenging domain. I think it has been mentioned previously that children can be aware that they are entering into risky areas but they make the decision to continue to do so. That is the changing nature of boundaries that are happening in young people's lives. I think that is a very big and complex question. I absolutely believe that children need to be protected and the fundamental way is by their parents acting responsibly and not leaving them alone in bedrooms for hours on end, whatever the filtering systems they may have. We cannot abdicate parental responsibility to some other force that is out there. I then think it is necessary, whether it be schools, whether it is about media literacy, for it to become more enshrined in our curriculum going forward about how you navigate your way into this world and understand risk. I think that is a very large and complex subject.

  Q77  Rosemary McKenna: How do you get that message across to parents? There are still adults with very little understanding of the internet.

  Ms Rabbatts: Yes, and we know that, with young people who are vulnerable, often one of the common traits that they are sharing is that they lack responsible adults in their lives. Young people who become at risk of exclusion at school or offending, one of the criteria that I know from my work in local government in the past is that we see an absence of responsible adults. In some ways this is no exception, this world that they are now living in. So it is about adults understanding how they need to protect their children. That is why I think media literacy in terms of adult media literacy is an important component in terms of how we ensure adults, as they open those boxes, have very simple messages around how they might help to protect their children going into some of these worlds. The other important dimension that we should not lose sight of is that this is also a very creative world. There are many advantages to participating in this world. So you have to have a balance of a message between protection but also enjoyment, fulfilment and learning about how I can be part and parcel of the communities and the democratic society in which I am participating.

  Q78  Chairman: Would you agree with the recommendation we heard from Stephen Carrick-Davies in the last session that the key thing which could be done is to address this in the curriculum at quite an early stage?

  Ms Rabbatts: We have worked at the 14-plus level in terms of some of the new diplomas being introduced in education. I think in terms of young children, becoming media-literate, be that creative, be that being able to participate but also having critical understanding is an important part of the curriculum going forward. Clearly, there is work under way and I think this is an area of opportunity for there to be collaboration both with the Department for Children, Schools and Families and also the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to collaborate together in terms of understanding how media is operating in the world and linking that to a curriculum offer that can be effective. I do think that there is an opportunity for us to do much more work in that space going forward.

  Q79  Chairman: I have two rather separate, quick questions. First of all, Peter Robbins, you described how your organisation tackles child pornography on an international scale with hotlines between countries and co-operation. Is it correct therefore to say that essentially, although these things do move around and pop up, we are essentially on top of the problem in that particular area of child pornography?

  Mr Robbins: I would say that we do have confidence now that we have identified a core of 2,500 websites which constantly move, have organised crime below them, that now need to be tackled by joined-up law enforcement work across the world. Yes—you never solve these things but nevertheless, the collaboration between governments and NGOs and the private and public sector has brought about a position, I think, where that is not under control but is being tackled.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 31 July 2008