Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-89)


26 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q80  Chairman: It would be fair to say then that those people who, when we raise concerns about these other areas, say "The global internet is impossible to regulate, it is all over the place, you cannot possibly stop a server in some obscure Pacific island" or whatever, you have demonstrated that if the will is there, it can be done.

  Mr Robbins: If there is a will, it can be done. That is true.

  Q81  Chairman: So really the problem is persuading people to address some of these other areas with the same degree of concern that everybody agrees needs to be shown to child pornography.

  Mr Robbins: Yes. I think that is fair to say but, at the same time, we know how long it has taken us to get from 1996 to 2007, where we are aware there is some common agreement. There are still countries where it is not an offence to possess child sexual abuse content and therefore there is still quite a long way to go in some countries for them to catch up as well. That is with an area of content which not many people would want to argue the case against. As soon as you move into all these other areas that we are faced with, we do not see any common agreements anywhere. There are disputes and debates about this everywhere we go. As soon as this default system of blocking was introduced by ISPs, of course, their worry was about what more we would be added to the list. That becomes a technical challenge to companies. One of the problems Australia is going to have is that if you keep adding hundreds of websites to their list, the way in which the technology currently works means it does start to slow traffic down, which is a challenge for everyone, as consumers, who are then not getting the speeds which they want as well. It is not as simple as default at the network level. Do not forget, our list is only somewhere in the region of 1,200 or 1,500 to 2,000 maximum on a daily basis. It keeps moving up and down, fluctuating, but there are tens of thousands, if not millions of porn sites. If you wanted to block those out, you cannot do it at that layer which I am talking about. There is no consensus or agreement around those either.

  Q82  Paul Farrelly: We were going to get back to what is harmful or not in terms of content. I think we have covered that. I am interested, as a parent of young children, in boundaries and laws. With young children, if you are a good parent, you set boundaries. You do not take the risk that a certain type of behaviour leads to harm in the future as that individual develops. You just say "That is wrong." Should we not just set clearer boundaries without getting into the debates? For instance, I have mentioned adverts on places like You Tube that serve to say gang culture is a really good thing. Should we not just lay down the law and say this is unacceptable, it may be potentially harmful, we do not want to go there and this sort of content should not be hosted?

  Mr Robbins: You are looking at me as if I know the answer to that one as well. My organisation has an independence and we do not have an opinion about what you have just said. I understand, as an adult and a member of society, what you are trying to convey there, and I think there have been some examples recently where some companies who have had their adverts that in some way or another appear on certain types of web pages that do not want to be associated with are taking a view about that, because of the way advertisements are served up and how they are delivered across different platforms, but my organisation does not have a position on that, I am sorry to say.

  Q83  Paul Farrelly: Can I just pursue this? I do not know whether it is illegal. I used to be a newspaper journalist. I do not know whether it would be illegal for my old paper, the Observer, to have an advert in there from Mr Gangster saying "Come and join my motley crew because we are far better than the lot down the road" but I am sure the newspaper would not take it and the newspaper organisation would make sure that if it did, it was pretty much condemned. Is there not an inconsistency there in self-regulation? Advertising is self-regulatory.

  Mr Robbins: I think you are going into areas which I do not think I am qualified to comment about or to form an opinion on. I understand the point that you are making in terms of whether a brand wants to be associated with some other type of activity but those are decisions the people who purchase the space and sell the space need to come together on and if there is a way that that can be understood, that the Observer does not want to be associated with—I do not know—a social networking site, for example—

  Q84  Paul Farrelly: My question is about consistency in self-regulation across different spheres of the media. Heather, you wanted to come in.

  Ms Rabbatts: I was just reflecting on the introduction to your question, which was a contextual point. Outside of the boundaries of criminal law, I think what you are beginning to put forward is really a sense of an individual's moral compass, that as a parent, as parents, hopefully we have a view, which is that you do not leave a three-year-old unattended in front of a computer for hours on end or 20 minutes without knowing they are watching something or doing an educational game and you know exactly what they are doing. I think there is absolutely a responsibility on individuals and citizens around their moral compass and how they are parenting and protecting young children. The other point that you make is a difference in terms of how self-regulation acts in the print world as opposed to an online and media world, and I think we have to appreciate that we are talking now about two very different spheres of influence. We have traditions that have grown up in print, we have evolving traditions in the online world, and part of the role of this Select Committee and indeed its investigation as it listens to evidence is understanding how we are beginning to try and understand intervening in a global community, where boundaries of regulation that used to be applicable in a practical sense, in the real world, are just not in the world that we are now living in.

  Mr Lambert: It is certainly possible to make those choices. For example, I cannot remember if it is a legal requirement or not but the Committee of Advertising Practice gives guidance on age-appropriate advertising, including certain types of advertising about types of food and so forth, and we respect that on our Instant Messaging, on our live services generally. I do think companies can make a choice and they can recognise local guidance or indeed, obviously, law, as I have already said. You have to recognise it is obviously an international, global thing, the internet, and what is acceptable for children here in Europe, or in the United Kingdom specifically, is completely different in many other parts of the world. It is tough to do it globally. Where a company is local or has local facilities, such as we do, you can take that choice.

  Q85  Chairman: There is one final area I just wanted to come back to, which I think is probably more for Matt and Heather: video games. I think we have heard there has already been quite a lot of agreement amongst witnesses that consumers are confused by the fact that they have two different rating systems. Would you share that view and, if you do share that view, do you have a view as to which of the two classification systems is preferable as a universal one to recommend?

  Mr Lambert: I have not seen evidence that shows that they are specifically confused about the two systems. It may be true but I have not seen the evidence for it. What I have seen evidence of is that parents are aware that there is a rating system and, anecdotally, I understand that parents do not necessarily enforce that or they do not take notice of it. Coming back to your question, should there be one, yes, we think that if there is going to be one, if Byron or you are going to recommend that there should be one, actually, counter-intuitively, it should be PEGI. The reason why I say that is because it would be nice and easy for a British institution to say it is the British Board of Film Classification and it is ours, which is certainly true, but the beauty of PEGI is that it thinks very carefully about game-appropriate, age-appropriate rating, legal level of acceptability. It takes note of what the BBFC is saying legally and as guidance in terms of films but the BBFC is set up for films and when it rates games, it takes the film approach. Games are recognisably different. There are different types of content and a different approach, and PEGI thinks very carefully; it breaks it down to a different level. So the PEGI rating actually will tell you more about whether there is bad language in this, it will give you a symbol for that as well, whether there is gambling, whether there is sexual content. It will give you a rating but it will also give you a series of symbols potentially which will tell you that the game has a whole suite of different things. You might think "This game is appropriate but it also has bad language" and then you might think again. It is a different depth and it is more applicable and more sensible. It also has a pan-European feature to it, and you have to accept that Britain is a major centre of the gaming development industry, which is why Microsoft has a major centre of development here in the United Kingdom. The UK industry employs 6,000 people, and we have several of the best development companies, a couple of them in the Microsoft house but many, many others. Britain is known for that, and I think part of that is producing products which are sold responsibly right the way across Europe and hopefully internationally. It is a great thing for Britain.

  Q86  Chairman: The BBFC's evidence does directly contradict your view, in that they say that PEGI classifications are less reliable because they derive from inferior methodology based on self-assessment whereas every BBFC decision is based on extensive game play by independent BBFC examiners.

  Mr Lambert: I am not saying that that is wrong. I apologise if I have given the impression that they do not do it at all but, on the other hand, they would say that, would they not, in terms of the "We are the best" concept? I am not criticising what they say in terms of the facts but I do think PEGI is thought about in terms of the games specifically and I do think myself, notwithstanding what you have just told me, that the BBFC primarily comes from the world of film and that I think is certainly true.

  Q87  Chairman: Heather, do you have a view on this?

  Ms Rabbatts: Just to say that clearly many games are inspired by films, and indeed, I think having clarity of a system is hugely important. I also think we need to keep it simple, whether it be the BBFC or PEGI, and what we do not want is too much complexity which means that people are not exercising the judgements about what is appropriate for their children to watch. I would urge both bodies to come together so that we can actually arrive at something which we think is workable.

  Q88  Adam Price: Just very briefly, we have recently had the idea floated of banning internet users who illegally file-share through the internet. Do you think there is any value in extending that to people who, for instance, upload graphically violent material, et cetera, the idea that rights and responsibilities could also be extended to how people use the internet if they abuse that? If it is technically possible, they revoke their right to use it. People who spam, for instance, have their right to use an ISP removed.

  Mr Robbins: Actually, I do not know how you ban. That is the problem I see. I do not know how you police a banning order, if there were such a thing, and who would decide what type of content. It is back to this decision about what they uploaded and then who would take a view as to whether they should be banned. If it were associated with a court case where part of the conviction system was that they could be given a banning order or an anti-social behaviour order which denied him access to the internet—

  Q89  Adam Price: An ASBO on the net?

  Mr Robbins: Yes. I think people convicted of paedophilia using the internet have supervisory conditions applied now to their probation about access to internet supervision and things like that. These things are doable but you come back to the practicalities, I think, of relating the content do a decision and then an authority to ban it.

  Ms Rabbatts: I would echo that point. I come back to the importance of education in the broadest sense of that word, that, as citizens, we have both rights and responsibilities and we need to exercise them in our day to day lives, be that when we are online or in work, et cetera. I think that is the biggest safeguard in terms of going forward. I think every time one thinks about a way of trying to filter or ban, as quickly as one has done that, there will be an invention that gets around it, and ultimately it has become back to "I am not going to upload that bullying incident that took place in the playground because a very effective anti-bullying campaign runs in the schools between teachers, parents and children". That is what you need to do to tackle that. Stopping them uploading will not help you. It is about stopping it at source. Similarly, issues around anorexia are particularly around looking at why young women have such poor self-images and poor self-esteem and are self-harming. Those are the problems, not the fact that people are going to those sites. It is about how you tackle it.

  Adam Price: Thank you.

  Chairman: We must stop there. Thank you very much.

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