Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 164-179)


18 MARCH 2008

  Chairman: This is the third session of the Committee's inquiry into harmful content on the Internet and in video games. I would like to welcome Jim Gamble, Chief Executive Officer of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and also the ACPO lead on extreme pornography on the Internet, and Alex Nagle, head of harm reduction at CEOP. I invite Adrian Sanders to begin.

  Q164  Mr Sanders: Our focus today is on the risks of harmful content on the Internet rather than risks of harmful contact. Are the risks of contact such as grooming greater than the risks of exposure to harmful content?

  Mr Gamble: You come immediately to the nub of the problem. In essence the issue for us is that content is generated by people. We have become seduced by technology and very often by technologists themselves who paint the picture that it is too difficult and vast and is a technical labyrinth that is hard to understand. This is about people who create content and through that behaviour place it on the Internet. I think some of the confusion arises on dividing the two. The content is often a symptom of behaviour. An individual who says on Hyde Park Corner something that is in essence a breach of the law and someone who goes onto the Internet to generate content to reflect that are no different. We should not be forced into a position where we are made to believe that it is different. Yesterday I listened to Sir Tim Berners-Lee who was asked whether we should regulate the Internet like the rest of society. When he answered that the Internet is part of society I breathed a sigh of relief because nothing is truer. If we try to isolate different types of behaviour committed in different public environments—because the Internet is a public environment—we make our job much more difficult.

  Q165  Mr Sanders: Do you agree?

  Mr Nagle: I agree.

  Q166  Mr Sanders: I do not think anybody round this table would disagree. Are you saying therefore that whatever happens within the environment of the Internet should be treated absolutely no differently from what happens outside? But are there examples where that is not so?

  Mr Gamble: First, if we are looking at either harmful content or conduct it can be mitigated in several ways, for example by the criminal law. That which is a crime in the real world is still a crime in the virtual world. It can be mitigated by a framework that looks at access, so if it is harmful content and you say that it is perhaps not harmful to an adult but to a child the question is how you limit access to it. Some people will say that that is not possible on the Internet. Try to buy iTunes from the American site and you will be diverted to the UK site. Therefore, where there is a commercial imperative it can be done. You can mitigate first with the criminal law and, second, with access controls. As to the third issue, we have to regard the Internet as a public place and mitigate it by virtue of bringing that place together in a way whereby those who operate to commercial imperatives are duty bound to ensure it is safe for their young customers because they use those customers to attract advertisers to the environment and thereby make profit which is wholly legitimate. As a counterbalance people will say that they want to encourage e-commerce; it must thrive. I wholeheartedly agree that we want to encourage e-commerce so it thrives and this country must lead the way. However, coming from Northern Ireland as I do and worked there previously as a police officer for many years I am aware of the enterprise zone scheme whereby we recognise the need to encourage a particular industry in some areas where it is not embedded. For many reasons, not least social and economic, we create enterprise zones where tax benefits are applied in the first few years. But even in the zones where we try to encourage new industry to grow we do not say that it can make up the rules in that environment or that it does not have to comply with the rules that apply elsewhere because we are so desperate for that industry to thrive. Health and safety, building regulations and the way we protect one another in society, in particular the vulnerable, come first. I see no difference. Therefore, one mitigates with the criminal law and the framework that protects those individuals who should not have access; one mitigates with those regulations that encompass any environment that is a public place where members of the public are encouraged to go and underpin it with an absolute commitment to free speech and the Human Rights Act so that people can explore the limits of behaviour both online and offline. I would love someone to give me an example of some harmful behaviour online that is not of itself harmful offline.

  Q167  Mr Sanders: We know that blocking tools are available to parents, but you are saying there are blocking tools available to somebody else who would intervene and prevent access. Who should be controlling that blocking tool? Is that a role for government or a regulatory body?

  Mr Gamble: If as a parent you allow your child to go into a shopping mall you will warn and educate that child about the dangers. You have a responsibility with regard to how you empower young people with information that makes them safe so they can go out and enjoy the opportunities in the offline environment in a way that enhances their lives. Equally, as a parent you have a responsibility to engage and educate yourself about the opportunities in the online environment so you manage the risk and children can capitalise on the fantastic opportunities. Therefore, the parent has a responsibility. If we go back to the shopping mall, those people who operate it with a commercial imperative will have a responsibility. If children are encouraged to go to a young person's environment, be it about go-karting or amusements for young people that are specific to and bespoke for them, that will require a level of moderation. Every parent will want to understand what moderation is present and how the young person is protected. When a young person is placed in harm's way each of those environments will be expected to give that individual immediate and direct access to law enforcement. That is how we protect, not nanny, and create an environment in which people are able to operate to the full extent of their potential. Many of my online industry partners do exactly that. They work with best intent; they are good people within good organisations who work hard with us, but is it fair that only the ones that are big enough to invest in that do so? Is it right that some do not do it, and how do you create a level playing field? I have been involved in this work since 2002. I learned lessons through the application of Operation Ore, the creation of the National High Tech Crime Unit and paedophile online investigation team and the building of the Child Exploitation Online Protection Centre. There are many excellent examples of industry working with the police service, government and the third sector which has a big role here, but I have not seen clarity of purpose and thought in a uniform way that makes a real difference. Regulation has become a difficult word because some people do not like it. Let us move away from the word "regulation". There must be some kind of framework that allows us to work better together but recognises that each of us has a different role. It is not about a group of individuals telling industry what to do. Government tells me what the speed limit is when driving along the road. That is about ensuring that I use that infrastructure, comparing it with the information superhighway, in a safe and sensible way. The picture of a speed camera lets me know that perhaps there will be a consequence if I break that law and represent a danger to someone else. What is different about the online environment? We need to occupy it in a way that is sensible and sensitive to the needs of industry but says to predators or persons who want to post harmful content that if they do that we are policing the environment. It is a forensic and digital environment by its very nature and we will find them. In 1998 many thousands of people in the UK went online and accessed the Landslide website in the United States. They handed over their credit card details, personal passwords, billing addresses and dates of birth. They did that because they believed there would never be a consequence. The 2,500 who have now been held to account many years later now know there is. Let us not lose the impetus that that has delivered but continue to drive forward and recognise that it is a great environment and we will ensure that every one of our citizens can capitalise on the opportunity. To give an example of how to make that work, I have brought with me a very small graphic illustration which perhaps can be passed round. This is a representation of a particular vehicle online. One of the benefits of operating solely in this area is that we collect and collate all of the intelligence and information that comes into the UK from foreign law enforcement agencies, industry, NGOs and members of the public here and abroad and all of our own domestic services. This is Microsoft Instant Messenger. It is a vehicle with which every child in this country will be familiar because children spend significant amounts of their time day and night talking to one another. I hope that those Members who have Instant Messenger or another vehicle—AOL has a similar product—will instantly recognise the front page. You will see that this is an environment within which the child spends a significant portion of time. We know from our statistics and the work we do that 60% of grooming cases that arise will at some point leave the chat room, social networking or other environment where people have met up and go to another vehicle, primarily an Instant Messenger-type environment. This is one example. What you see on the front page is a small logo of a stick man. That is our report abuse logo. It means that if you are a child in this room you can at any time with one click go to the second page which gives you top tips and advice about what you should and should not do. In that vehicle the safety belt is on the child. That is about industry doing the right thing for the right reason in the right place, not running away from responsibility and making a potentially dangerous environment safer for the educated and informed child. We have been engaging industry across the board in respect of this since we began. This is a good example of one huge industry partner that is often ridiculed. I do not know whether that is right or wrong in other areas, but I know that in this they have put their money where their mouth is because that tab in the online environment is revenue potential. We do not pay for that. That means every child in that vehicle with one click gets advice and the second click reports directly to us. There are people in prison today because teenagers have used that vehicle at the time they are being seduced or engaged or have seen something online that they do not think they should see. That is critically important. On 26 August 2006 that went live. In the week that followed our reports went up 113%. In the month that followed instead of 22% of our reports coming from the under-18, 54% of such reports came from that source. This is about partnering with industry that puts up a sign. We have gone into schools with our education programme because none of us will be able to police the Internet by ourselves. To date we have engaged with 1.5 million children primarily between the ages of 11 and 16. We have educated them about the benefits of being online and having fun and the need to stay in control, how to do it and where to report matters. Why is this not omnipresent? Why has not every outlet got this vehicle because it takes away the duty of care and delivers it to the police service; it allows direct access so data protection is resolved between that client and ourselves. I for one do not understand. I have listened to some industry colleagues who say there are many more things happening online than simply, for example, grooming and sexual contact. I agree that sometimes we focus on that area disproportionately, but we have amended our site and are in the process of doing so again so that when you click and report you can talk about bullying, hacking or fishing; you can be diverted to other areas that deal with that. The problem is simply that the online environment is becoming congested with too many people doing similar things in slightly different ways. If you have ever been in trouble you do not want to go through a directory; you want to dial 999 and access someone who can immediately make a difference. I give you that as an example.

  Q168  Chairman: How many reports do you receive a week?

  Mr Gamble: In a month we would average anywhere between 450 and 550 reports. We do not take anonymous reports. If you phone me up and say that someone is breaking into your house and I ask where you live and you say you will not tell me we will not send out every police car into the city to look for you. We are devoting specialist resources to this. To put the 500 reports a month into context, one report can be one offender, 26 offenders or, in the case of the Son of God investigation last year, 700 paedophiles across two paedophile rings. The amount of investigation that goes into each of those reports is huge. We triage them and look at children at risk now, persons who are potentially grooming and all of the rest. We turn round a child at risk report within a day or overnight. We also get reports from our good partners in the NSPCC. We now work with other agencies that perhaps fear children are suicidal to identify, locate and safeguard those children. Lots of good work is going on. The BT Clean Feed system is an outstanding, world-leading initiative which we applaud. It is a good crime prevention tactic. We applaud the work done by the IWF. That is also a good crime prevention tactic. Ultimately, they are crime prevention tactics and it is putting a burglar alarm on one house and diverting people to another. You have to address the principal issue which is not technology but people's behaviour.

  Q169  Chairman: You will have seen the Panorama programme a few weeks ago in which a fictitious 14-year-old girl, I think, was put up on Facebook to see what would happen. The impression given by the media is that the Internet is basically a playground for paedophiles and any child will almost immediately be approached. Is there hysteria growing up about this? How big a problem is it?

  Mr Gamble: It is a big problem but we should not treat it in a disproportionate way. The benefits of the online environment—unless you are the parent of the individual child who is being abused—far outweigh the risks. I do not think the media exaggerate. There is hysteria; you cannot have a sensible debate about the subject of child sex abuse and the Internet without emotion coming into play which can sometimes be very negative. I believe that the emphasis is sometimes wrongly placed. We are about to publish our annual review. Without giving away the headline figures—we can supply a copy before you finish taking evidence—we have more than tripled the arrests we made in the first year. We have increased the number of children rescued and the number of children educated. The emphasis should be on that and how the environment is becoming safer. I have not seen a headline in any paper which says that Microsoft Instant Messenger is now one of the safest environments in the UK because you can report directly. Therefore, the good news is not reflected. Without reflecting the good news about the initiatives we take with constructive partners we do not balance the bad news. I believe that the emphasis is wrong. Any environment in which our children participate must be one that we are prepared to protect with a framework. I have a 15-year-old daughter. If when she was 13—or even now—she went to the cinema and tried to access a film for 18-year-olds and above she would have been stopped because the broadcasting certificate saying that the film was suitable only for 18-year-olds would be policed, not by law enforcement but those who operate that cinema to a commercial imperative. There is a sanction against them if they allow in that individual. If she leaves it and goes to an off-licence and, because she appears more like a 19 or 20-year-old than a girl of 15, and is sold a bottle of vodka and leaves the off-licence the child will be held to account in that regard. It is about making sure that responsibilities are properly balanced and we do not fall into the trap of creating an impression that it is all far too ambiguous and difficult and really we just have to agree to get along until it sorts itself out. That is not my view of it.

  Q170  Chairman: You have praised MSN. Yahoo is the other major IM service. Do they have a system similar to MSN?

  Mr Gamble: They do not have the system we have. To be fair, each of our industry partners will run a system whereby when reports come to them they transfer them to us. I believe that each and every one of them is committed. You will hear from AOL later. We have been talking to and working with AOL very closely in the UK for a period of time and engaging them in the US. The online industry shifts and changes so much that sometimes in this market environment you will be talking to one group one day that will be owned by another group the next. That creates some difficulty for them, not us. That is why you need a framework. People need to understand that it is not down to personality. Some of the people at AOL are in my view absolutely committed to child protection, but how that manifests itself as an institution or organisation—AOL has great child protection credentials, so I do not talk about them in particular—is different. We can say that we should bring together industry and reach a consensus and deliver guidelines, but do we do that in enterprise zones? Do we bring together different industries and agree how to do this and the limits to which they can go? We do not. We create a level playing field where it is the same for everyone. In essence we have worked very closely with industry. I appreciate some of the difficulties they have which should not be minimised. They balance a number of imperatives, the principal one being the commercial one which is wholly legitimate. Our principal imperative is to protect children.

  Q171  Alan Keen: You have a very impressive career in tackling the more unsavoury aspects of life. Maybe lots of your colleagues enjoy chasing robbers about the place, but you must be a real expert on this matter. What should we be doing as politicians? What contact do you have with people who make the decisions? Presumably, you have contact with the Home Office, but what do you believe politicians should be doing to assist in your work?

  Mr Gamble: I am not party-political in any sense, but the support we have had from our two Home Office ministers, previously Paul Goggins and presently Vernon Coaker, has been second to none. They understand the issue and have engaged with us and taken time out to understand it, and I applaud both of them for that. In a broader sense in government we need to be more closely engaged and have a good level of resilience around the funding support we are given. We need to be able to engage much more constructively through government with industry and make sure we are not always going to industry with cap in hand. Constructive partnership is hugely beneficial, but if we are continually asking industry to help us when we should be helping them on some occasions it is not a constructive way to form relationships. I think that on occasion we all suffer because of that. I know that the Chairman and a number of Members will be coming to visit the Centre to see how and what we do. It is important that more people who have a critical influence in Government take time out to visit and understand and use that influence. We are a cross-sectoral multi-agency but law enforcement-led as you will understand that when you see the Centre. Camille de Stempel who will give evidence to you later invested in the Centre one of the people from AOL when it began. That person was a director of research for AOL but at their expense worked with us as we built an idea around Safer by Design and decided how it would move forward. We have representatives from other industries. We have very worked closely with Vodafone. Government needs to recognise and capitalise upon the cross-sector environment. DCSF has embedded with us a person from the Department so we can eradicate duplication of effort and ensure a single vehicle that delivers programmes to schools. Sometimes there is unseemly competition; a number of people will produce an education package and schools are left wondering which one to take. You have only 45 minutes in the classroom and you want to do it right, so it needs a whole school approach. We need to demonstrate that understanding and government needs to educate us to that effect. The Department of Health also has someone embedded in the centre. We are cross-sectoral and I believe our governance should represent that personality in government.

  Q172  Alan Keen: You mentioned the IWF to whom we have spoken. Is there anything more they could do to help? Presumably, you are in continuous liaison with them.

  Mr Gamble: We have a great relationship with the IWF. What they do with regard to maintaining and administering the list provides a vehicle to refresh the blocking mechanisms that each and every ISP can use. We are engaged in a programme of work to move much more closely to them so we can look at who is behind these postings and who uploads them. Is there also an issue about looking? If a site is blocked who is attempting to visit it? How often have they attempted to visit it, and is it a real person or simply a web spider that is going out remotely? That is about resources and engaging in this environment in the same way as anywhere else; it is not about it being a labyrinth. Today we do not have a police officer on every street in London, let alone every street in the UK. We prioritise where we go and what we do and we do it on the back of a framework. We need much more clarity with regard to the framework we impose in the UK.

  Q173  Alan Keen: You deal with extreme pornography. Is it possible to draw a line as to what perhaps would be illegal and what is acceptable to some people and society as a whole however much we might dislike it? How do we draw up those sorts of guidelines?

  Mr Gamble: We make what we call the "reasonable person" judgment, do we not? When we introduce that to the Internet sometimes it becomes wholly unreasonable, but the Obscene Publications Act 1959 which has been about for a long time, or even the Video Recordings Act 1984, is based on reasonable people making an assumption. I accept that an assumption can be high risk. Who said that we need a watershed at the time? As reasonable people we make an assumption at a particular time as to whether access by young people who are monitored and governed by parents is reasonable or unreasonable with regard to the Obscene Publications Act and the fresh approach to take account of the nuances of the Internet in the new legislation now going through Parliament in the form of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. It does that as well. It is about the test of reasonableness. We already apply these tests in the real world. I do not know why we lose confidence in our ability to apply the same test of reasonableness in the online environment. Two weeks ago as a guest of Sky Television I was in a room not dissimilar from this in Second Life. My avatar was much slimmer, had a full head of hair and no double chin and so it was a very pleasant period for me, even if it lasted for only about 20 minutes. It taught me a lot and reflects what Sir Tim, the creator of the Internet, said yesterday about being part of society. When I was questioned by the avatars in the room on the panel set up by Sky 341 avatars were queuing outside who could not get in, so there was significant interest. It was all about: what difference does it make if I create a child-like avatar and have sex with it because it is not real? The conversation went down all sorts of roads about the extremities of behaviour. Two things emerged. First, when I suggested that the world we are in represents people from the real world and that perhaps there could be an undercover police officer in the room sitting beside one of the people expressing these views the conversation moderated immediately. Is that a good or bad thing? What does it say about human behaviour and psychology? It says that if people are told they can do what they want they will go to extremes. Where do we let anyone go to those extremes? Do we let them do it outside the house? I do not think we would. Second, someone said it was not understood that this was a three-dimensional world where we generated our own lives. I understand that and obviously so does Sir Tim because we live in a multi-dimensional real world where we generate real lives. The online and offline distinction with children does not exist; that is their real world. The statistics are two or three years old and are hugely out of date. Anyone who thinks that kids spend only a couple of hours online has not paid his child's mobile phone bill for a while. When you look at the mobile industry you ask: why do we license them in the way we do? Why do we create a framework for them but not in this other environment that is about how we communicate, gather, post information and lead our lives? We can make the decision either to wait and follow others or lead. We have a clear understanding because of the steps that have been taken to put in place cross-sectoral, multi-agency, law enforcement-led initiatives like CEOP. I am not an expert in this field. Many people who follow me may want to argue that point. I was head of counterterrorism in Belfast and, after that, deputy director of the national crime squad, so I have dealt with many and varied types of crime. In my experience the best recipe for reducing harm is sensible, consequent deterrent for those individuals who do not respect. What is the difference between grooming and radicalisation? I do not think there is one. What is the difference between the posting of an obscene photograph outside this building and posting it online? Very often we will try to hold to account a person who puts it outside this building but abdicate responsibility for it when it happens online. Why would we do that?

  Q174  Chairman: You say there is no difference between offline and online, but in one respect there is. When most of the laws governing this area were passed these kinds of activities were not even contemplated. I took part in a report on Channel 5 about two weeks ago on Second Life about paedophiles having sex with what appeared to be avatars of 14-year-old girls. I understand the chances are that they were not 14-year-old girls but probably 50-year-old men, but at the moment there is nothing in law which says that is illegal.

  Mr Gamble: You will know that at the minute the Government is involved in consultation on computer-generated images. If that conduct took place in Canada, for example, Canadian citizens might take the view—they have laws about it—that it was illegal. I was asked the same question in the Second Life debate. Should that be a criminal offence? The answer was that we were not sure yet because consultation was under way. Should it be investigated? Absolutely. Do you know why? If you want to have sex with a child and are fantasising about it either in this world or the real one we need to establish whether you represent a risk to real children. If you demonstrate that behaviour—classically in old police terms it would be called circumstantial evidence—you have shown a propensity for a particular thing. Why should we become seduced because it is committed in another environment?

  Q175  Chairman: Your bottom line is that you suspect there will be a need to legislate and update the law to take account of what is now happening online?

  Mr Gamble: I think some laws need to be refreshed. What is being done around extreme pornography is absolutely sensible and is an opportunity to refresh and reflect the new environment. If the police are trying to discover whether an offence has been committed there are certain principles. A public place was defined by common law many years ago as any place to which the public have access whether free of charge or otherwise,. Ultimately, we need to police those public places and ensure they are safe. This room is exactly like the Internet; it is defined in character by the people who sit in it. This room will be as good or as bad as those of us who sit in chairs around this table. There will be some who represent themselves, not just on my side of the table, and not tell the truth; there will be a given number in any room who will have criminal instincts, demonstrate previous criminal behaviour and represent a risk. That is a fact of life online and offline. I believe we need to grasp the opportunity to do something significant on the basis of our considerable collective experience over the past few years, and certainly from 1998 onwards.

  Q176  Mr Evans: I know that we are to visit the Centre but, to give me a better idea about how you are able to cope with what you are doing already, you mentioned funding and working with industry. How many people work at the Centre and how are you funded?

  Mr Gamble: As of today there are 115 people working full-time in the Centre. We are affiliated to the Serious Organised Crime Agency for the purpose of the delivery of corporate services, so the people working there are dedicated to child protection activity. We are supported by that agency with mechanisms that allow us to maintain the building and do the things we do, for example to pay salaries and provide the infrastructure. Last year we were core funded to the tune of £4.5 million. That was red-circled and delivered to us by the Home Office via SOCA. That funding was supplemented by support benefit in kind from partnership with industry to the tune of £3.5 million. In any affiliated relationship there will be hidden costs, so the current estimates are that we would benefit to the tune of about £2 million in hidden costs because we are supported by a much bigger organisation. Last year we identified a huge increase in engagement with the public in the first few months of operation compared with what we anticipated. Reports increased by 1,000%. We engaged with the Home Office and additional funding of £400,000 was made available to us. We continue to grow and engage significant support from industry, but we need to invest to save. Our work is principally about protecting children online from sexual exploitation. In doing that we recognise that we have to deal with people. We have two teams, formerly the serious sex offenders unit subsumed within our organisation and its UK and overseas tracker. They work with multi-agency public protection panels and foreign law enforcement to track sex offenders who represent a threat both online and offline. We also have education teams. We learned very early on the importance of educating and empowering young people. They are tomorrow's parents. The gap that exists in what parents know and what their children know today will be much less with the next generation.

  Q177  Mr Evans: Do you have sufficient funding to be able to do what you need to do? It sounds as if it is growing exponentially. The number of emails has grown every year; it is nothing like what it was 10 years ago. Do you say that youngsters are being put at risk or paedophiles are allowed to operate simply because you do not have the manpower to be able to track them down as a result of funding problems?

  Mr Gamble: Do we have sufficient funding? No. Are children being put at risk? That is a very difficult question for me to answer. I have said we do not have sufficient funding. We have to recognise the reality of the world in which we operate. The reality is that there is no new money. This is a new phenomenon. Whilst people say that social networking has existed for years, it took off about a year and a half ago in a way that no one anticipated. The benefits are huge. I agree with Sir Tim that the very young and very old are the people who will capitalise on the huge opportunities to improve their quality of life. There must be a balance between how we engage through the Police Service, government and industry to identify critical resources that are not always about money. But do we need greater investment now? The answer to that is yes.

  Q178  Mr Evans: What is the backlog of cases where people have emailed you to say they believe individuals are either stalking them or are not who they say they are?

  Mr Gamble: We do have a backlog of cases.

  Q179  Mr Evans: Can you give a rough idea of its size?

  Mr Gamble: I need to clarify the position on the cases. First, we deal with cases at three levels. The first level is the child at immediate risk. Those cases are dealt with immediately, so none of those forms part of the backlog. The second level is those cases where we have a suspect who may be grooming. Those are dealt with in the short term. The third are all of the rest. 13% of the reports we received from the public last year were about bullying. We are changing our website so we can divert those reports to a site that gives parental advice and child advice about bullying because in the playground bullying is a terrible thing. Once you put it onto an Internet site it is even worse. I do not have an updated figure on the backlog, but I believe we have about 700 cases at level three. It may be slightly more or less.

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