Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)


4 MARCH 2008

  Q100  Mr Evans: That is why I wanted to take it a little bit wider than the content that you are responsible for. Clearly you do act as a wall, as you might say: if people put graffiti on your wall, you are saying "What responsibility is it of ours?". Is that what you are saying?

  Mr MacLeod: Yes and in that situation of course there is a responsibility. Where we are just providing the pipe to the outside Internet, then our position to influence what goes on is very, very much reduced of course.

  Q101  Mr Evans: You say "much reduced". If you are acting as a pipe and people say these sites are there assisting people to commit suicide and we know parents are incredibly worried about the access to information like that for young people—and it has hit the news widely recently in certain parts of the UK—tell us what power you have to be able to stop those sites, even though you are the provider of the pipe? Do you have any power whatsoever or none?

  Mr MacLeod: We are like you; we have as much influence as anybody in this situation, which is not a lot when you are dealing with these very grey areas. That is why, coming back to what was said earlier, when the Department of Health is discussing their suicide strategy and all that sort of thing with its stakeholder group, it is very, very important that they come up with proper legislation as to what is acceptable behaviour and what is truly harmful and what is not.

  Q102  Mr Evans: Hold on. What you are saying is that while we are in limbo-land, until you get clear direction from the Government on any particular issue, you do not believe there is any personal responsibility on behalf of any of the carriers; that when they are carrying information about committing suicide, they have no responsibilities whatsoever, it is up to Government to adjudicate.

  Mr Bartholomew: There are two ways we can protect our customers. One way is taking down or blocking access to that category of content; that is one option that is open to us. The other way in which we can protect our customers is to provide them with filters that screen out that content. We have parental controls for our Internet browser. If they are activated, the child will not be able to get to suicide sites, so they are protected. We do not, however, go out and take down those sites, if they are out there in the Internet. We do not see that as our role.

  Q103  Mr Evans: Are you able to block them?

  Mr Bartholomew: With our filters.

  Q104  Mr Evans: No, could you block anybody accessing them?

  Mr Bartholomew: Theoretically.

  Q105  Mr Evans: But you have made a decision that you are not going to do that. A lot of parents out there will be a little bit shocked to think that you would allow the information to get through irrespective of filters; a lot of kids know how to get round filters, they know about the filters and the parents do not. They will be a bit shocked that you have the ability to stop that information that would assist people, particularly young people, to commit suicide, but you are not prepared to do that.

  Mr Bartholomew: The decision we are taking is to not allow that kind of content in chat rooms or services that we host; we do not allow any kind of suicide-related material in the services we operate. We then give our customers the ability to block access to that kind of material. If the filters are activated, they simply cannot get to those sites. The way our filter works is with what we call a "white list". It is a list of URLs that we believe are suitable for children and young people. If that list is put in place, they will not be able to get to the suicide sites. We have taken action. What we would say is that, if content is legal but unpalatable, it is the role of Parliament ultimately to change the definition and then that gives us the legal certainty and the framework to take action against that kind of content. In the meantime, we give protection to customers through very effective filters.

  Q106  Mr Evans: Are you saying then that you are afraid of legal action, if you blocked a site coming in and it was not against the law here? Do you not have a right, like we see outside pubs, to refuse admission?

  Mr Bartholomew: Yes, and we exercise that right.

  Q107  Mr Evans: Do you have the right to refuse anybody using your pipe to broadcast information like suicide help?

  Mr Bartholomew: Yes. We exercise that right day in, day out, in the very small piece of the Internet that we own. In our services, our chat rooms, we say "You cannot say that, we are taking it down" or "We are going to remove your right to be a member of our chat room because we are unhappy with your behaviour". We exercise that right vigorously. We also respect the right of citizens to go where they like elsewhere on the Internet, in the spaces we do not own, to access material that is legal but that many people may be unhappy with. That is the kind of balance we have to take for freedom of expression versus censorship or protecting customers. We have to tread a very delicate fine line and we believe that exercising the right on our own services, giving customers the filters, is the best way to approach the problem.

  Q108  Philip Davies: Could you just explain a bit more about what you include or do not include in these filters? The filter obviously stops people getting access to certain sites, so what have you decided is inappropriate. One of the things I struggle to understand is exactly what constitutes harmful content. What is harmful to one person may not be harmful to others, so I find harmful content a difficult thing to define, but obviously you have through your filters. How have you determined what is harmful and what is not through these filters?

  Mr MacLeod: The basic framework we put in place is we have appointed an independent mobile classification body to create a framework that decides what is inappropriate for minors and what is not. That applies to the commercial content, so that is what we provide in our portals and the content we apply with our immediate partners. That framework has to be followed by the mobile operators and their partners. For the filtering side of life, which is access to the wider Internet, we have used that guideline as the basic framework to make that decision.

  Q109  Philip Davies: But these things must be dependent on age, for example. What would be inappropriate for somebody at five may be completely different to what is inappropriate for somebody at 15. How does it work in terms of people's different ages and what is inappropriate for different people?

  Mr MacLeod: The answer is that when we set this up four years ago, we took a very firm decision that clear public policy concern was around the 18+ divide. Really the only practical age at which you can verify people's age at a distance, when they are not present, is at 18, so that is why we have chosen that cut-off point. In the three or four years that we have been operating it, judging by all the feedback and the level of complaints that we have received, which is very, very low, we think that policy has been effective and is meeting the needs of our customers.

  Q110  Mr Hall: The industry says that the way forward is self-regulation and the industry prides itself on self-regulation, but we have heard this morning that you actually want government intervention as well because you want the government to state what is illegal and then you will police it. Is that right?

  Mr MacLeod: The way we have characterised this really is about partnerships. If you take the model of the Home Office taskforce, this has not been pure self-regulation; self-regulation has been an element of the solution. Within the Home Office taskforce, you have various groups of stakeholders: you have the NGOs; you have the Government represented; and you have industry essentially. Through the three or four years that the taskforce has been really doing things, each partner has brought things to the table. The industry has brought self-regulatory mechanisms, the Government have made changes to the law: they introduced the offence of grooming within the Sexual Offences Act, which has been extremely important, and we have sat within the taskforce, agreed the appropriate messages that children should be learning and then, through the educational channels, these messages have been delivered in accordance with what the taskforce agreed. I was very pleased when one of my children came back from school yesterday and said "We had Internet lessons yesterday and this is what they taught us" and he hammered out the three or four key messages that we had sat three or four years ago and decided within the taskforce. So self-regulation is an element of the solution, but there is a little bit more to it than that.

  Q111  Mr Hall: You have given the example that the Government have actually said that grooming on the Internet now is illegal. What else did they say is illegal? What else? You are asking them to define what is illegal, so what else should come into that category?

  Mr MacLeod: We have alluded to one of them already. Another area is around the glorification of violence and the Home Office has just published its strategy on tackling violence and violent crime and such like. Within that strategy there is an element which is to do with publishing on the Internet and we will be thoroughly engaged in that discussion as they go about implementing their strategy. What comes out of it will, I suspect, be a mixture of responses.

  Q112  Mr Hall: The Mobile Operators' Code for content is held up as a very good example of self-regulation. There is some concern that not all mobile operators promote this particular code of conduct. What can be done to improve that?

  Mr Bartholomew: There are five main operators in the UK and all five of those have signed up to the code.

  Q113  Mr Hall: It is not a question of them being signed up; it is a question of them actually promoting the code.

  Ms Kramer: The way the code works is that we put in place access controls which are on by default for all our customers. When you buy a phone, you are protected, which is probably the most important part of the code. In terms of promoting the code, customers probably need more information when they are trying to lift that control or maybe when they call customer services, rather than right at the beginning when they are going to a shop to buy their phone. Is it really about the solutions that we have in place rather than promoting the code itself?

  Q114  Mr Hall: O2 and Orange are both mobile operators and Internet Service Providers. Do you take more care to protect people from harmful content through the mobile than you do on accessing it through the computers at home?

  Ms Church: It is true to say we do take more care on the mobile. We implemented the code four years ago and we actually install the parental controls by default on our pay-as-you-go mobiles. It can be applied to pay-monthly mobiles but people who are taking out a contract and buying pay-monthly mobiles actually have to go through a credit check to be able to sign up for the contract and therefore those people are already known to be over 18. However, on the fixed Internet, we actually offer a free parental control solution to every accessed customer. We promote this both at the point of sign-up and in follow-up welcome emails and the parent is therefore empowered to protect their children by downloading this product and installing it on their machine.

  Q115  Mr Hall: Mr Evans did make the point that young people probably understand how these things work far better than their parents. Is there anything else that the industry could be doing to improve the kind of protection that a lot of us would like to see?

  Ms Church: We believe it is important to educate the parents so that they know what the risks are that their children potentially face on the Internet and we have various measures in place to attempt to educate those parents. We are working in partnership with the DCSF cyber-bullying taskforce and the Home Office taskforce to help promote those messages. In addition Orange have various education programmes. We have actually produced a DVD that we have got into 46% of schools on text-bullying, but we are working on more. There is one coming on social networking and we are training up ambassadors who are Orange staff who are going to go into schools and actually deliver those safe-and-responsible-use messages so that we get to the children as well as the parents. We are working on doing that in parents' evenings as well as in the daytime with the children.

  Q116  Mr Hall: Is there a different role for the mobile service providers and the Internet service providers? Are there things that those two should be doing differently to improve?

  Mr MacLeod: There is a distinction here. With a mobile device, for one thing there is not the product on the market where you can download a filter actually onto the device and control everything from there, so that is why we do it at network level. Furthermore, it is a personal device, it is really only going to be used by one person whereas with a PC in the home, you have the filters available, but also the computer is likely to be used by more than one person, so you have to be able to tailor it to individual uses within the home. You ask what more can be done. A major new initiative which is about to be announced is that the BSI have been developing, in conjunction with the Home Office and Ofcom, a standard, a public Kitemark standard for the filtering products because there are lots of them on the market and customers and consumers are very uncertain as to which ones are effective and which ones are not. Once this Kitemark is available and the filtering companies can go after getting Kitemark approval, there will be a lot more clarity and understanding within the consumer base as to which the good ones to be buying and the ones to be implementing are.

  Q117  Rosemary McKenna: Some people suggest that the best way to protect children is to have the computer in a public space within the family, in the living room where everyone else is. If there are good filters, would that be necessary?

  Ms Church: There is no substitute for parental supervision. That child needs to be empowered to go round their friend's house and use their PC which might not be as well positioned in a public place. That child needs to be able to cope with the risks of the real world. There is no substitute for a parent sitting down, discussing what is safe and responsible use and ensuring complete understanding of what the risks are on the Internet.

  Mr Bartholomew: May I echo that? We have a responsibility and we take that seriously and technology is part of the solution. However, if we are not careful, there is a danger of giving a misleading message to parents, giving them a false sense of security that we can solve all the problems alone and there is not a role for the parent; and that is not the case. Yes, we need to provide the technology, yes, we as industry need to help educate and inform the public, but parents play a crucial role and we must make sure they are able to do that but also that they know they need to do that.

  Q118  Rosemary McKenna: But more and more the Internet is available through portable hand-held equipment and parents cannot police that the way they can a computer within the home. That is a big argument for education rather than filtering.

  Mr Bartholomew: Parents can control their children's use of mobile devices in a similar way to which they control the home computer. They can ensure that access controls are in place on the mobile device. Should they wish, they can also look at their history of the URLs that the child has been accessing. There are parallels there and they can use the technology: technology is a very important part of the solution but it is not the entire solution.

  Ms Kramer: The majority of our customers still have access controls in place; very few lift it and that will apply for all content no matter where you access it from, whether you access it from the Internet or on our portal.

  Q119  Rosemary McKenna: What about the development of cyber-bullying and happy-slapping through the mobile phones. What are the companies doing to try to prevent that?

  Mr Bartholomew: Firstly, on cyber-bullying or text-message bullying, almost all the operators have dedicated nuisance call bureaus; we have a nuisance call bureau based in our customer service centre in Leeds. They can help customers who are having problems with either malicious calls or text-message bullying with a variety of options open to them. They include changing the number, which solves the problem for some people but it is not appropriate for everyone; it can be a bit of an inconvenience. They can trace who has been sending the malicious messages and send a warning to those individuals. Ultimately, they can assist the police in taking action against those individuals and we can cut them off if we find it is an O2 customer who has been sending malicious messages either to other O2 customers or customers on other networks. People in our nuisance call bureau also go out into schools, in the same way that people in Orange do as well, to try to educate children about what is acceptable behaviour using new media technology and what to do if they are unfortunate enough to be the recipient of a malicious message.

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