Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)


4 MARCH 2008

  Q140  Alan Keen: Obviously this is something that we should be aware of and you are hoping our inquiry and then report will highlight these sorts of oncoming dangers. We need to look ahead not just at what is happening now.

  Mr MacLeod: Down the track, if products come onto the market where you can do the tailoring and the filtering at the device level rather than rely on what goes on at the network level, that might be useful. It has happened in the PC market because 85% of the market is Windows based and there are huge economies of scale and there is a ready market there for these filtering products to go at device level. The economies of scale and various different operating systems and such like make it more difficult, more challenging and also of course it is an international market. The Nokias and the Motorolas of this world are selling all across the globe, they are not selling products for the British market really and within the UK perhaps the levels of concern, the thinking, are possibly more advanced than in other parts of the world. So that whole debate probably needs to catch up a bit before we start seeing the filtering and what have you being done at the device level.

  Q141  Alan Keen: It is obviously good news that you heard from your child yesterday, coming back from school and you realised that the work that you have been doing is now being reflected in school. We have reached this stage now where the Select Committee is doing an inquiry. Is there something else that we should be saying that education should be pursuing with more energy than they are? Obviously progress has been made as you indicated.

  Mr MacLeod: That sort of advice is always helpful and influential and I recognise the challenges that the education system is under to deliver on all sorts of things. However, there is absolutely no doubt about it that the challenges that the Internet presents to us as a nation are very, very different to what has gone before. In broadcasting it is single geographic territory where command-and-control regulation has been effective but that is just not going to work with the Internet, so children and teachers have to develop their awareness. When we talk about self-regulation, this is about individuals self-regulating too. There needs to be a much, much greater appreciation of people's responsibilities to behave in an appropriate fashion and not do things like publish gang-rape sites on YouTube, which is obviously completely unacceptable.

  Q142  Mr Sanders: All mobile operators provide filters to prevent access to Internet content on mobiles with a classification of 18. Some operators set the filter to maximum by default. Should it be mandatory for all mobile operators to set access filters to maximum?

  Mr MacLeod: I am not sure I quite follow your question actually. The Internet filter on mobiles, under the code, is an optional requirement and most of them provide it by default to the pre-pay base.

  Q143  Mr Sanders: They all provide it, they provide the filters, but some operators set the filter to maximum by default. Should that be the same across them all?

  Mr MacLeod: My understanding is that the editorial choices that they make, as to the level they set the filter, are pretty similar actually.

  Q144  Mr Sanders: How easy is it for children to get around filters on mobile phones?

  Mr MacLeod: It is much more difficult than it would be in the domestic situation where, as somebody has already pointed out, the children might know more about it than the parents, because the filter is set at the network level. It cannot be disarmed by a child; you actually have to go through the age-verification procedure before you have the filter removed.

  Q145  Mr Sanders: Have you received any complaints about the filtering system?

  Mr MacLeod: We have been operating the code for getting on for three years and the level of complaints that we have received about all aspects of the code, not just that aspect, has been really very, very low indeed because there are various channels through which we could receive complaints: through Ofcom—although they have no formal mandate in this area they do get complaints about all sorts of things; through our independent mobile classification body; through the MBG; and through the operators themselves. Our experience is that it has been very, very low, so we are reasonably confident that the policies that we have been following have been appropriate.

  Mr Bartholomew: We categorise the types of phone calls we get into our customer service centres from our customers. One category is for child-protection-related issues. Going through the figures yesterday, I saw that last year, one in 100,000 calls was a complaint or a question or a call connected to child protection issues into O2. That may be to do with filters; it may be to do with happy-slapping or text bullying. That is the sort of level of calls we are getting into O2 at this point.

  Q146  Chairman: Steven, you were saying that you sat at home using your iPhone, but you were using a wireless router rather than a mobile network. Presumably, if that is the way most people are going to access the Internet, using a mobile phone, that is something which you cannot filter at all.

  Mr Bartholomew: Yes, that is correct; not from a mobile network perspective.

  Q147  Chairman: The ISP could.

  Mr Bartholomew: Exactly. The only way in which we could do it would be to seek to convince or persuade, one way or the other, either the ISPs or the handset manufacturers that they need to put controls in place. That could be either through commercial agreements potentially with some of those companies or just by sharing the learnings and the experiences that we have had in the mobile space and convincing them that, in order to maintain public confidence, actions need to be taken.

  Q148  Chairman: It could be done another way. We took evidence from Microsoft, who explained to us the parental control systems that are built into Windows Vista and therefore are at PC level in the software. Could you not therefore have a similar protection built into the handset?

  Mr Bartholomew: That is the option; it is for the handset manufacturer. At the moment, as I say, the only action that has been taken over the last six years has been by the mobile network operators, the likes of O2 and Orange and T-Mobile. Where we need to see things move forward in the future is manufacturers of devices but also the wi-fi providers taking steps as well. It is not just manufacturers of mobile phones, it is also those other devices that do not even come near the mobile network and the iPod touch or the PSP is a good example of those devices. They are not mobile phones, but they are devices that you can access a web through.

  Q149  Chairman: Let us look at the major manufacturers, Nokia, Samsung, Sony, Ericsson and Motorola. Are they putting parental control systems into their handsets?

  Ms Kramer: We are seeing more and more of the handset manufacturers embedding content within their handsets and they will bypass our parental controls, or they may well do. We are seeing it right now but to my knowledge they do not have parental controls.

  Q150  Chairman: Do you think they should be doing more in this area?

  Ms Kramer: Yes I do. Everyone within the value chain should take responsibility for protecting their customers.

  Q151  Chairman: So, is that something that the network operators are talking to the handset manufacturers about?

  Mr MacLeod: Yes it is, but we are just one voice really and we are one market.

  Q152  Chairman: We are another voice. Do you think we should be talking to the mobile manufacturers?

  Ms Kramer: Yes.

  Mr MacLeod: Yes.

  Mr Bartholomew: No problem.

  Q153  Rosemary McKenna: You all seem to be saying that the key is controlling access but implying that there is no way to stop the harmful content being out there. Is that right?

  Mr MacLeod: It was not exactly harmful content but last week we saw with the Drudge report and Prince Harry of how little control we have. Despite the entire British establishment, the population, not wanting something to be published on the Internet, it was. So the answer to your question is no, we are not in a position to control and prevent all harmful content appearing on the Internet.

  Q154  Rosemary McKenna: Providing a control on all the devices is the only way to actually prevent children and young adults from accessing that harmful content.

  Ms Kramer: Access controls do help but that is a technical solution. Hand in hand with that it is also about media literacy, it is about educating children, parents and teachers to teach them how to go onto the Internet safely. You have to look at both those aspects together.

  Mr Bartholomew: If you start with the illegal content, if the content is deemed to be illegal, we can and we do take action to prevent that either being posted or people accessing it. If it is not illegal, there are things that can be done. The companies that host that material can ask themselves whether they are happy being associated with this kind of content, whether they are happy for this content to be available to the public over the Internet via their service.

  Q155  Rosemary McKenna: Does that apply also to the virtual sites?

  Mr Bartholomew: It applies not just to operators; it applies to content companies like YouTube or others. Our personal take on this is that we do not want to be associated with harmful content, we do not want to be associated with content that glamorises violence or gangs, so we will not allow it and if we see it, we will take it down on the sites that we actually operate ourselves. For the rest of the Internet, because we only own or have control over a very small piece of the Internet, our answer is to give customers the ability just to turn that part of the Internet off.

  Q156  Rosemary McKenna: Is there nothing that governments can do to say to companies that they must not allow this content or access to this? I know there is good in the virtual world, but it is the harm that is done.

  Mr MacLeod: It is incredibly frustrating I know to have to wrestle with this problem but you have just said it: taking the good with the bad, overwhelmingly the opportunities and the information opening up, the media plurality that is provided through the Internet are a fantastically positive thing. The flip-side is that we do have these extremely tricky issues to deal with and if stuff gets published in Vanuatu and what have you, there is no way that we are going to be able to prevent that. It is about learning as individuals how best to go about using the Internet safely using such tools as are available, but they also have their limitations. It is about developing your own skill and sense of personal responsibility.

  Q157  Chairman: May I finally just turn to media literacy? You have laid great stress on educating parents to be aware of the regulatory structure that is in place, the parental controls that are in place, can you say what you are doing to contribute to greater awareness in media literacy?

  Mr Bartholomew: You heard evidence last week from Heather Rabbatts from the Media Literacy Taskforce. O2 is a signatory of their media literacy charter and we see, across industry, an awful lot being done in terms of trying to educate customers; leaflets, dedicated websites, we have our own dedicated child protection website and I know that T-Mobile does as well. Orange does some great work on DVDs for schools. We have recently just co-funded the new Childnet DVD for the DCSF to send out into school as well. In terms of education material, in a way the problem is not too little information but perhaps almost too much information, too much fragmentation and not enough focus and the challenge is how we take all this different information from people like Microsoft, from T-Mobile, from Orange, from ourselves and bring it all together, make it readily available to the public. That is where we see Government playing more of an active role. I endorse the recommendation that Microsoft made to the Committee last week which is that there is a bigger role for Government in this space and perhaps there is more that we can do to assist Government.

  Q158  Chairman: But just within the mobile operators, do you all do your own thing or do you actually come together to support initiatives?

  Mr Bartholomew: A bit of both it is fair to say.

  Ms Church: A bit of both.

  Mr MacLeod: We have done both.

  Ms Church: We are all currently working on a European schools net project which will see education going out into all the schools for the teachers on how to get these messages across.

  Q159  Chairman: We have also heard that some have actually questioned whether this is having any effect at all. It is all very well trying to put this message out but the people in a sense who most need to hear it are the ones who are probably least able to. The children from households where there is almost no parental responsibility are probably the ones in greatest need of protection.

  Mr MacLeod: I have heard that comment made too and this may just be a time factor. It is all relatively new and it is also relatively new that Internet protection has been part of the formal education process. Let us give it a bit of time there and let us keep going with our three-tracked approach which is: through the formal education; through parental education; through us doing what we can to educate our own customers. The Ofcom media literacy audit, which was published about 18 months ago, did reveal that things were not quite as bad as one might think, bearing in mind all the comments one sees in the press and what have you. We are starting from a reasonably high base. Quite a lot of material is frankly quite dull to look at and parents have got better things to do some of the time, but nonetheless, if we keep plugging away at it, we will improve people's skill levels, we will improve people's knowledge about how to go about using the Internet safely. Keep plugging away at it rather than having a dramatic change to what we are currently doing.

  Ms Kramer: We all do provide information on our websites, provide parents with tips and advice so that they can speak to their children about how to use their mobiles responsibly and we do know that people are going onto those sites and we know which categories they are looking at and what they are viewing. So they are interested and it is not just a case of us putting it out there and not actually monitoring what goes on.

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