Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-279)


1 APRIL 2008

  Q260  Helen Southworth: Quite a number of those things are general protection in society and I know we are going to be exploring those further. Would it be possible for you to let us have some information that is specifically in terms of your budget on child protection and the areas that you are specifically covering as follow-up information?

  Mr Walker: Yes.[1]

  Q261 Helen Southworth: May I ask you about the reporting of inappropriate content or reporting of abuse bullying fears and concerns, some of which could be of a criminal nature. CEOP has given us evidence about a very successful reporting process that they have set up. Will Google be participating in that so that people can report direct to CEOP and the triage process could be carried out very rapidly to protect very vulnerable children?

  Mr Walker: Yes, very much so. We work very closely with CEOP and with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States, as well as with a variety of groups like "Don't You Forget About Me" and other non-governmental groups focussed on missing and exploited children. We not only work on the law enforcement side of that in responding to requests for information—we receive thousands of requests and hundreds of subpoenas each year and we provide information that is useful to law enforcement on that front—but then also work in a more collaborative fashion with these different organisations and we look forward to continuing doing that.

  Q262  Helen Southworth: Are you going to be making space available for a direct reporting process on the front page?

  Mr Walker: Within the company we have a variety of different products. I think most of the concerns and requests are focused on YouTube. YouTube does have a direct online report page in addition to the community flagging, which you may be familiar with, when there is an inappropriate video. There is also an opportunity for people to communicate directly with YouTube staff about particular concerns.

  Q263  Helen Southworth: We have been told that there are some cases where it is absolutely essential that law enforcement agencies are the first point of reporting and can take immediate action to protect children in the most difficult cases. Are you going to put a direct report line through to CEOP?

  Mr Walker: I would be interested in talking further with CEOP about that. We have in many cases a global platform, so we need to find something that will work for law enforcement around the world. I think we have had a very positive and productive working relationship with them thus far. I think we will be able to do some things to further that collaboration. I am not in a position to commit to specific implementation at this point.

  Q264  Helen Southworth: I think we would be very interested to hear something further about that.

  Mr Walker: I appreciate the concern.

  Q265  Chairman: You stressed the global nature of the Internet and Google is obviously active in a very large number of countries around the world. In some of those countries material may be deemed inappropriate or legal whereas in others it may be seen to be acceptable. How do you deal with that? How do you stop somebody in country A accessing material which is illegal there by going and getting it from country B?

  Mr Walker: It is an extraordinarily complicated and difficult question and one that I have spent a large amount of time on, as do my staff and teams of people around the world. Several examples come to mind. One that was made public within the last few months was criticism of the King of Thailand, who is a demigod in Thai Buddhism. The notion of criticism was offensive to the government and to many Thai people, but at the same time there were political overtones to much of the criticism. We did not want to be in the business of censoring political comment. We worked very carefully with the Thai government to respect Thai law, to make material that was illegal in Thailand unavailable within Thailand, but without going to the extreme of letting one country, any country, dictate the global content of the Internet. We have done this in a variety of different scenarios. Germany has particular concerns with regard to Nazi paraphernalia, for example, India has concerns about things that are defamatory toward Mahatma Gandhi, or Turkey toward Kemal Ataturk. We work carefully with a variety of different tools to both block and, where appropriate, remove. There is certain material, for example, child pornography, which is generally thought to be abhorrent and unacceptable worldwide and in those cases we would simply remove it from the site. In other cases where there is a narrow or more focused concern we have a variety of tools which we can use to limit access.

  Q266  Chairman: Let us look at China where there has been some controversy. You have gone along with the requirements of the Chinese authorities in terms of what they are willing to permit their citizens to see.

  Mr Walker: China is a very difficult area. I would note that in the course of the last couple of weeks there have been a number of videos uploaded on YouTube with regard to the riots and protests in Tibet. Those remained on YouTube and were not removed, leading to the Chinese government shutting down access to YouTube. I am not sure whether it has been reinstated or not at this point. We take great pride in the fact that as a search engine we are a provider of information, we facilitate access to information, which is ultimately one of the best ways of encouraging democratic change. That said, to operate in China there is a certain level of interaction with the government that is required. We take great pride in the fact that we filter less than any other search engine operating in China. On your earlier point, different countries around the world have different concerns. We respect the German government's concern over Nazi paraphernalia and we have worked with the Chinese government and with others.

  Q267  Chairman: Do you detect that the concerns being expressed here are greater than elsewhere or are there specific concerns which are now being discussed in the UK which demand specific solutions here?

  Mr Walker: In the UK there is a particular focus at the moment on child protection, which we recognise. We do not think of it as a unique or special problem but rather the first government to have focused on this. We are very interested in working with the British Government on solutions that will be scaleable because it is ultimately a worldwide problem. It is not that the Germans do not care about their children online. The question for us is how to implement this in a way that is scaleable. There may be aspects that are nationally focused. We continue to look at ways of implementing our guidelines in a way that would have either a legal or cultural sensitivity built into them so that we could have different standards for different countries, but that is a work in progress.

  Q268  Chairman: Given that it is a worldwide problem, do you think there is a case for a worldwide solution?

  Mr Walker: Many of our solutions are in fact worldwide. We have a variety of different tools, from the global flagging to the global review teams that we have in place, to an increasing emphasis on filtering tools which are designed to block and remove inappropriate videos.

  Q269  Chairman: Obviously you are a global company so you do have global policies. I am thinking more of whether or not there is a case for some kind of international body to agree what are unacceptable standards and have some ability to enforce those internationally.

  Mr Walker: The history of international efforts to try and control information has been a somewhat chequered one. I think our initial response is that a self-regulatory model, informed by the concerns of governments around the world, has actually been relatively successful. That is not to say that mistakes have not been made or things have not slipped through. If you look at the growth of the platform, again just looking at Google and the billions of searches that are done or YouTube where hundreds of thousands of videos are uploaded every day and hundreds of millions of videos are viewed every day, it has been a phenomenal growth, with some problems. The risk of governmental or prescriptive rules being imposed on an industry which is effectively less than three years old runs a significant risk of unintended consequences. Given the relative success of the model thus far and our desire to continue to evolve our approach and to work carefully with governments and reports like Dr Byron's, I think it has been fairly successful.

  Q270  Mr Sanders: Would the risk of unintended consequences not simply impact on business models and profits whereas actually it is about protecting children and human beings?

  Mr Walker: I would go back to the power of the Internet. Many of these platforms do not make money per se. They exist as platforms that are designed to facilitate communication back and forth. The concern is that if you were to pre-filter or prescreen all the content that is on the Net. Remember the wide variety of things we are talking about here. It is really not a broadcast medium; it is what is called in Silicon Valley the "long tail" phenomena where the majority of material is very small scale, for example, parents uploading a video of their child's first steps so that they can send it to the grandparents, a blogger who is blogging for a small community of people or a shared document which, rather than being edited in a traditional fashion by one person, is shared among 20 or 50 people for input and comment. The notion of setting up a regime that would edit all of those comments or prevents you from posting a comment on a blog before it had been screened by a government agency I think would fundamentally change the way people work with the Internet. Our response is to say we need clear standards, we need to enforce those standards and respond very promptly where a concern has been identified and thus far I think we have done a pretty good job of that.

  Q271  Adam Price: You have set out for us the action that you have taken and the tools that you have developed to minimize access to harmful content on the Internet. It would be fair to say your view is that the system largely of self-regulation that we have is working well. Others have told us they believe that the current legal and regulatory framework is inadequate. Would you accept that there are any areas where there is a need for formal regulation or legislative changes?

  Mr Walker: I do not want to speak beyond my area of expertise. I would say that certainly we welcome additional government efforts on media literacy; that is certainly all to the good. We have been an active participant in a number of discussions of codes of conduct currently being developed by the DCSF with regard to cyber bullying and that are being developed by the Home Office with regard to social networking and are due to be released later this week. Ourselves and other internet companies welcome that and think that is an appropriate model. I note that the Byron Review suggested additional work along those lines. We would be very interested in participating in that. With regard to more prescriptive approaches as to what people can and cannot post offline, to some degree the existing set of laws that are out there with regard to legal and illegal conduct and whether or not someone is aiding and abetting a crime have proved sufficient in most of these cases.

  Q272  Adam Price: As a company you did broadly welcome the Byron Review. The Government has said it is fully committed to implementing its recommendations. Do you have any reservations about any of those recommendations?

  Mr Walker: It is a long report and something of a work in progress. We were delighted to have the opportunity to work with Dr Byron and her staff and participate in some of those conversations. We think it is an excellent step in the right direction. Many of the recommendations are for further study and analysis, so it is hard to know exactly what will come out of all that, but directionally we are very supportive.

  Q273  Adam Price: Are there any particular reservations that you want to place on the record?

  Mr Walker: There is nothing I could pull out at this moment and say that we absolutely could not live with.

  Q274  Adam Price: There is this issue raised in the report about a greater regulatory role for Ofcom in this area of harmful content on the Internet. Would you be comfortable with Ofcom developing a greater role, as posited in the report?

  Mr Walker: It is probably not for me to suggest how the British Government should structure its regulatory review. In general I think we have had a positive working relationship with Ofcom and the other agencies that have been involved, the DCMS and the Home Office. There is an advantage to having a coordinating group, the Internet Council, for example, bringing to bear a lot of the different concerns, which are similar but not necessarily completely overlapping, to work through a more structured framework for future work.

  Q275  Adam Price: If Ofcom was to have a policing role behind that Council would that not create any particular worries for you?

  Mr Walker: I think there is a line between a self-regulatory code, informed by concerns that have been brought before the Committee and a rule that would be effectively trying to pre-clear or censor content before anyone could post something to the Internet. I think we would have concerns about the latter. The former, in terms of enforcement and continuing to work with industry, I think we would welcome.

  Q276  Rosemary McKenna: The YouTube Terms of Use and Community Guidelines set out what you will not allow as content on YouTube. Is it not the case that users have no obligation to read them—or even to link to the relevant pages or tick a box—before uploading a video?

  Mr Walker: They are presented with the terms before they go through. They say in the States that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink!

  Q277  Rosemary McKenna: You can make them tick a box to say that they have read them.

  Mr Walker: We can present it. I think we do a pretty good job of distilling it, of making it not legalistic and making it accessible so that people of all ages can review it. We were actually recognised early on in the history of YouTube as a leader in terms of providing detailed information about all the potential risks and issues, ranging from the risk of infringing someone's copyright to the dangers of posting offensive or inappropriate material. We communicate fairly clearly to people that, not only will their uploads be removed, but if they violate those terms on a repeated basis we will terminate their accounts on YouTube, and we follow that quite strictly.

  Q278  Rosemary McKenna: If they are uploading a video which could be considered harmful they do not have to read the Terms of Use.

  Mr Walker: That is true. We have no way of compelling one to read material we put before them.

  Q279  Rosemary McKenna: Is there not some way that you could make them go to that page?

  Mr Walker: As part of the upload process they are prompted to review various materials. There is a lot there because there are a lot of potential concerns. The response has been that in many cases when inappropriate content is uploaded it is flagged very quickly. It is a three-legged stool of ways of responding to violations. One is that we have a community of hundreds of millions, maybe billions of users around the world who review and very quickly flag material that they find offensive and that has been very effective in triaging and identifying problematic material. We review that quickly again with a global team. The majority of material is reviewed within half an hour. The large majority is reviewed within the hour and removed. Users can flag different kinds of flags, for example, for child pornography or copyright infringement or otherwise offensive material. We are increasingly developing technology tools—Google is if nothing else a technology company—to try and facilitate that, certainly to block the reposting of videos that have already been determined to violate our Terms of Use and, increasingly, to look at similar sorts of videos. It is in a sense easier to detect a copyright infringing video when the copyright owner has posted the original and cooperated with us. We can use other search tools to see if a new upload is a match to that content that would infringe their copyright. It is actually more complicated in some of this material to determine exactly what is appropriate or not, to distinguish, for example, a video of somebody smashing windows from a documentary of the protests in Tibet or at the World Trade Organisation in Seattle a few years ago. There are some nuanced questions that are involved there.

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