Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA)


  The Internet Services Providers' Association (ISPA) UK is the trade association for companies involved in the provision of Internet Services in the UK. ISPA was founded in 1995, and seeks to actively represent and promote the interests of businesses involved in all aspects of the UK Internet industry.

  ISPA membership includes small, medium and large Internet service providers (ISPs), cable companies, web design and hosting companies and a variety of other organisations. ISPA currently has over 200 members, representing more than 95% of the UK Internet access market by volume.

  ISPA was a founding member of EuroISPA. EuroISPA is the voice of the EU Internet industry and the largest umbrella organisation of ISPs globally.


  The empowerment and protection of users of our services is a challenge on which industry works with a range of stakeholders. This inquiry comes at a time of unprecedented interest on how users interact with the Internet and how best to equip them with the skills and tools to do so responsibly and safely. This is an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements to date and to look ahead to identify any gaps or areas where this effort can be enhanced to the benefit of young people and parents.

  Our response will highlight some of the benefits and opportunities of the Internet before focusing on the specific issues regarding the types of content outlined in the terms of reference. It will further detail some of the initiatives undertaken by the industry to empower users and manage online content and behaviour.


  The benefits and opportunities for the British economy are extensive, with the Internet not only benefiting those directly involved with the industry, but also helping to promote British goods and services to a worldwide audience. The Internet can empower small and medium sized companies through enabling access to world markets. Academic research has concluded that areas with greater broadband coverage have higher productivity and employment growth rates.[2]

  The value of the telecommunications industry to the British economy continues to grow. The retail revenue for broadband and narrowband Internet services is constantly increasing; Ofcom estimates that it was worth £2.8 billion in 2006, an increase of 10.9% from 2005. This excludes corporate connections and also excludes the huge value of the Internet to so many UK companies that rely on reliable low-cost connection for their businesses.[3]

  The proliferation of affordable high-speed Broadband in the UK has led to significant growth in the number of people regularly accessing the Internet. According to latest figures, in June 2007 there were just under 15 million residential and small business Broadband connections in the UK.

  The exponential increase in people using the Internet has been helped by the provision of higher speed connections at lower costs. ISPA is concerned that a heavy regulatory burden in this area could significantly increase operational costs for ISPs and restrict their ability to offer high-speed connections at low prices.

  The Internet has enabled people to experience extensive social contact and interaction with peers from a number of different backgrounds and cultures through social networking websites and instant messaging. Whilst undoubtedly popular with younger people, the demographic of users of social networking and user-generated content sites transcends age and gender. People across society are using the Internet to support causes that they believe in and discuss moral and political issues.

  The Internet dissects social differences in its benefits to society. Ofcom research from June 2007 shows that ethnic minority groups in the UK are more likely than average UK adults to have a Broadband connection and more likely to cite their children's education as the reason for having the Internet.[4] The Internet is an extensive resource for people who need information or support; as an educational tool and support network it is unrivalled.


  Service providers build their understanding of potential risks from a variety of sources—customer care reports, information-sharing with peers and partners, independent research and in-house user and market research. Measuring risk is a very inexact science and one that would benefit from some primary research. There is a shortage of research in this area, especially with regards to the actual risk to young people and vulnerable adults, due, in part, to the ethical concerns associated such research involving young people. ISPA members can, however, offer a few thoughts from their own experience.

  There are four main categories of risk in our experience:

  1.  Technical and security risks to an individual's device or network or personal data. These include spam, phishing attacks and identity theft.

  2.  Risks to an individual's welfare arising from the behaviour of another user. These include harassment, bullying or impersonation and, in the case of children, inappropriate contact by adults, peer-group bullying or grooming.

  3.  Risks to an individual arising from their own behaviour. These include disclosing personal data, posting personal photographs or video content or actively seeking contact with strangers.

  4.  Risks from exposure to content.

  Any user is, or can be, exposed to these risks. Much depends on the behaviour of the individual user, their attitudes and level of media literacy. The level of risk that a user is exposed to can further be managed by positive action on their part (eg: installing technical tools, educating children on safe surfing or being sensible about how much personal information they publish online).


  The Committee is particularly interested in the potential risks posted in certain areas. There is a great deal of speculation about potential risks and what the consequences of exposure may be but the actual risk posed by certain types of online content is not well researched or understood. There is nevertheless good engagement between online stakeholders and Government in specific areas and the Committee will be aware that there are a number of initiatives underway which seek to identify issues which industry and Government can usefully work on together. The Internet industry is actively engaged in a variety of discussions in the areas set out in the terms of reference:

    —    Cyberbullying: The DCSF recently launched a new online campaign, including new guidance and a short film, aimed at addressing cyberbullying. The campaign was produced by Childnet International, with whom ISPA has a strong relationship, in consultation with the DCSF Cyberbullying Taskforce. The Taskforce contained representatives from a number of ISPA members, as well as teaching groups, Government departments and children's charities. Many ISPA members also supported the recent public awareness campaign and Anti-Bullying Week.

    —    User generated content: ISPA has been heavily involved in discussions about user-generated content, in particular how service providers work with users to remove content which breaches their terms of service and with public authorities on illegal content. ISPA has most recently facilitated the organisation of a cross-Whitehall workshop with industry. The workshop, which will take place at the end of January, will bring together the relevant industry players with representatives from several government departments who manage policy areas with an Internet dimension. This workshop is designed to promote an understanding about the investments service providers are making to manage online content and to identify new areas of public policy where a dialogue with service providers needs to be established.

    —    Personal security: ISPA supports the Get Safe Online initiative jointly sponsored by Government and industry. This initiative seeks to educate users on how to protect themselves online and to make people aware of the threats to their personal security. ISPA provided written and oral evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee's inquiry into Personal Internet Security and continues to facilitate a dialogue between service providers and the relevant government departments. The market for retail software to protect users' Internet use continues to thrive.

    —    Hate speech and terrorism: ISPA has worked closely with Government in a number of areas to formulate new criminal law and to ensure that it is implemented in a way which meets the needs of industry and law enforcement. ISPA has recently worked with the Home Office to draft a process for ISPs to work effectively with law enforcement in the event that they are hosting material that is unlawful under the Terrorism Act (2006). This process formed a model for the ongoing discussions between ISPA and the Home Office about dealing with material which breaches the Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006). Our dialogue with Government on extremist content continues and ISPA has most recently coordinated members' input to the Home Office on the forthcoming summit to discuss future online anti-terrorism measures. This engagement will continue.

    —    Violence and pornography: ISPA has contributed to the formulation of new offences in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill for extreme pornography. ISPA input focuses on technical issues and the practicalities of implementing and enforcing new offences. The Ministry of Justice has recently consulted on whether to create a new offence of creating computer generated images depicting child sexual abuse and ISPA members are contributing to this policy making process in a similar way.


  Service providers use a range of tools to empower and inform users of known risks and how to make the most of their online experience. These include:

    —    Many ISPA members offer a range of free and chargeable security options and parental controls to users. This allows users to choose the right tools for them in a market where there are a variety of options and where consumer choice is important to many. These include features that allow users to manage their privacy, tools to manage users' searches and tools to enhance users' security, such as spam filters and anti-phishing solutions.

    —    Acceptable Use Policies (also known as terms of use or codes of conduct) help combat the illegal and inappropriate use of the Internet and are used to encourage consumers to behave responsibly online. Consumers who are in breach of Acceptable Use Policies—including unlawful and illegal material and the use of unsolicited email—can be warned by their ISPs or even be banned from using a particular online service. A member's commitment to Acceptable Use Policies is a requirement of ISPA's mandatory code of practice, which all members must adhere to.

    —    ISPA members operate a notice and take down policy whereby if potentially illegal content is reported to them, they will investigate and, if appropriate, remove the content. It is now industry good practice to offer users easy-to-use mechanisms to report content that may be illegal or a breach of their terms of service.

    —    Most ISPA members provide detailed guidance to adults, young people and children about how to stay safe online. The sheer volume of information available may be confusing to some consumers but we are, however, seeing trusted sources of information emerging which ISPA members promote to their users. Information produced by the major child protection charities is widely promoted by many ISPs. Members have attempted to ensure that their message is received by working with third party information providers with credibility and authority among the target audience. ISPA is actively engaged in the Byron Review, which is looking at the proliferation of safety information and how it could be presented better so that parents and children can engage with it more easily. ISPA welcomes this initiative.

  ISPA further notes that technology evolves quickly and that new solutions and user tools are under development. These include e-moderation and parental monitoring tools. We acknowledge that competition within the market place is an important incentive for developers to invest in new technology. Where solutions show promise and are compatible with their network and products, individual service providers do run trials and may decide to adopt one or more to complement their own security and safety strategy.

  It is important to note, however, that ISPA does not seek to influence this market by endorsing one solution over another or support calls for providers to be mandated to provide certain security and safety tools to users. There is a concern that this could both distort the market and disempower users who do not wish to activate certain tools (eg parental controls if they have no children). For this reason, attention is focused on raising awareness of the importance of technical tools and encouraging users to actively consider options to protect themselves and their children.


  There is much speculation about whether or not the existing legal framework is sufficiently robust to deal with the new challenges that are the focus of recent concerns. Each issue that forms this debate is very complex and needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. This includes a discussion about the appropriate balance between formal regulation/industry self-regulation and responsibilities of the state, and the balance between law/regulation and freedom of speech. The Byron Review, for example, is considering the effectiveness of existing legal provisions and ISPA members are actively engaged in discussions with Dr Byron and her team about whether improvements are needed. The DCMS and Ofcom are separately looking at the implementation of the AVMS Directive, which raises some issues pertinent to the Committee's inquiry.

  The Government periodically reviews the legal framework and brings forward proposals where it considers formal legislation to be the most appropriate means to give effect to Government policy. Where a concern touches the boundaries between freedom of expression and the public interest, it is entirely appropriate that it is debated in Parliament and that Parliament decides where the line between an individual's freedom and criminal law should be drawn. The Home Office Task Force on Child Protection and the Subgroup on Criminal Law in particular provides an effective channel for industry, police and other stakeholders to share thoughts on such matters with respect to child protection and the criminal law. The aforementioned proposals to introduce new offences for Extreme Pornography and computer-generated images of child abuse are a product of such discussions.

  Industry self-regulation can be effective in some areas, such as the formation of the IWF, which has succeeded in reducing images of child sexual abuse hosted in the UK to below 1% in 2003, down from 18% in 1997. The agreed set of best practice principles on content labelling, which was coordinated by the Broadband Stakeholder Group, is a further example of the Internet industry's commitment to improving safety through self-regulation and good practice. We must be mindful, however, that while industry self-regulation has achieved a great deal, it may not be appropriate in all cases.


  ISPA is an active stakeholder in this debate and remains committed to continuing its engagement with Government about the issues that concern customers and the general public. This is a complex issue that requires an informed and careful debate. It touches on a range of very sensitive policy areas and fundamental freedoms on which policy stakeholders and the general public hold strong views.

  It is also important to remember the wider context in which we formulate new policy in this area. Discussions in the UK do not take place in isolation. Many Internet services have a global reach and attract users from around the world. They can also be based in other countries but have UK citizens as their customers. This presents practical and legal challenges when designing an appropriate policy response in the UK context.

  As mentioned above, ISPA has facilitated a cross-Whitehall dialogue with BERR in order to foster joined-up thinking within Government on this issue. ISPA feels this is the right starting point and will set the tone for a positive and open discussion.

March 2008

2   Lehr, Osorio, Gillet and Sirbu, Measuring Broadband's economic impact (Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2005). Back

3   Ofcom, The UK Communications Market 2007 (Ofcom 2007) p 27. Back

4   Ofcom, Communications Market Special Report (Ofcom 2007) p 2. Back

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