Examination of Witnesses (Questions 383-399)|
29 APRIL 2008
Chairman: Welcome to this further session
of the Committee's inquiry into harmful content online and in
electronic games. This morning we are focusing on two phenomena
which have really taken off in the past two years: social networking
sites and electronic games. For the first part of the session
I should like to welcome Dr Rachel O'Connell, Chief Safety Officer
of Bebo, and Mike Angus, Executive Vice President of Fox Interactive
Q383 Mr Evans: It seems that just
a couple of years ago nobody had ever heard of MySpace, Bebo or
Facebook and now people talk of little else. Can you tell us how
important are these sites, how many members you have, the growth
rate and why you think that young people are so attracted to them?
Mr Angus: We worked with Danah
Boyd who conducted a survey and did her PhD thesis with the University
of California Berkeley on social networking and this phenomenon.
Her conclusion, which I believe is consistent with Dr Byron's,
is that social networking at the age of the youth able to use
our site, which begins at 14, performs an important function in
their sociological development, namely that is when they start
to form their adult identity and find their voice means of expressing
themselves. Often teenagers in classroom settings are a bit more
reserved and this gives them the opportunity to express those
sentiments. The other aspect is that at around the age of 14 teenagers
start to look more to peer groups for their values and identities
and, as many parents of teenagers know, start to look away from
their parents for those values. In the past when teenagers were
freer to congregate without adult supervision, whether it be in
coffee shops, soda houses and such, it was easier for them to
do that. Today with the valid concerns of parents about teenagers
being out unsupervised much of that activity takes place on the
Internet. This performs a really important function in their development.
Dr O'Connell: I would echo and
add to that. If we look at the wider social context and ministries
of education and our own DCFS documentation on the harnessing
of technologies, we are educating young people to become proficient
members of the knowledge economy. Therefore, with the skills they
acquire when using collaborative spaces like Moodle, which is
the educational space that very much mirrors Bebo, we are educating
young people to become proficient in using these kinds of collaborative
spaces in an educational context. In the past few years there
has been an information revolution where they are able to create,
generate, disseminate, moderate and police content online as never
before. In addition to the points Mr Angus has raised we also
have to think about it in terms of government strategies, the
promotion of the knowledge economy and how to equip young people
to become proficient members of that economy.
Q384 Mr Evans: How we survived without
them we will never know! I looked at Facebook last night. It has
now added a chat function. Where do you think the next step in
social networking will take place? Is there something on which
you are working at the moment about which we do not know?
Mr Angus: How quickly different
applications develop is unreal. Recently, we have opened up our
development platform to third-party developers as has Facebook,
so many of the applications that tend to take root and become
popular are not even ones that we develop ourselves. This caters
to user behaviour and activities change daily. Our site evolves
and we have to stay vigilant about it in order to make sure we
continue to provide a safe environment.
Dr O'Connell: This is also an
issue from our perspective. We have also opened up our platforms
and work very closely with our partners to make sure they adhere
to the codes of practice. For example, recently the Home Office
internet task force was launched with guidance and recommendations
for social networking and user interactive services, so there
is an onus upon us as companies when working with partners to
make sure we lay down and include in terms of service as far as
possible that they must also adhere to these codes of practice.
Q385 Mr Evans: Is there a typical
MySpace or Bebo user? What is the average age of the user? Is
one younger than the other?
Mr Angus: For us, approximately
15% are under the age of 18. There is not a general demographic.
On a global basis we have 110 million unique users per month and
for the UK it is nine million. There is not a typical profile.
We have adults, seniors, teenagers and musicians. We have the
impact channel which provides an opportunity for individuals to
interact around philanthropic activities, charities and political
activism, so people find different areas of the site for different
purposes and all have their own unique ways to use the site and
its functionality. It is really growing beyond what it started
out to be three or four years ago.
Q386 Mr Evans: Do Bebo users tend
to be a bit younger?
Dr O'Connell: We have 40 million
users worldwide and, if you read the media, yes. The media report
that our core market is 15 to 24. We have some younger users and
on MySpace there are lots of older users and those interested
in music, movies and different areas in relation to media. The
whole idea of Bebo is about self-expression, bringing together
and curating those things that are of interest to you and sharing
them with other people.
Q387 Mr Evans: You have a lot of
young people using the Internet and these social sites. We have
talked about the benefits and advantages of them. Clearly, that
is so; otherwise, people would not be going to those sites. I
agree with everything you have said, but there are now dangers
associated with it. Growing up is clearly a dangerous activity
in any event, but do you think youngsters may not be aware that
some of the things they are putting up on their sites, particularly
about themselves, can be accessed by other people and perhaps
unwittingly they just do not know they can use privacy controls
to greater effect, or are they just being idealistic in believing
that no one out there will try to do any damage to them? What
more do you think you ought to be doing to try to advise users
at least to protect themselves better?
Mr Angus: I think the most important
thing, which is echoed in Dr Byron's report, is education. We
do quite a bit. We have safety tips available on every page, but
we feel it is very important for those under 18 who sign up to
see them in a very condensed version in a way that resonates.
People are not always who they say they are and they should make
sure they know who they are talking to; they should not meet strangers
offline. If they absolutely have to do so, they should take along
someone else or an adult. They should be careful about the information
they post. First, they do not want to post any personally identifiable
information, not just the name and address but anything that can
help someone identify them. They should be careful about photos
and other information that they put up on the Internet. The Internet
is a wonderful thing but it is also permanent. Once it is out
there it is pretty much out there for good. Teenagers tend to
think they are invincible and often do not think about what is
ahead of them. We try to make sure we really inform them about
the significance of what they are doing online.
Q388 Mr Evans: When I was a youngster
in school I was taught the Green Cross Code and how to cross the
road safely. Do you think consideration should be given to teaching
in schools how better to protect yourself when online? Clearly,
they did not do it when I was a kid because we did not have such
a thing as online.
Dr O'Connell: We should think
about making internet safety and the whole concept of wellbeing
online a mandatory part of the school curriculum. I think we will
look back on that in time. That echoes Dr Tanya Byron's thoughts
on this as well as thoughts in different countries across Europe.
We should equip young people with the skills to think about these
things. We also need to redress the balance in terms of teachers.
We cannot expect teachers automatically to know or understand
how to educate young people. We have mirrored the initiatives
of MySpace which has also been involved in the European project
Teach Today. We have worked with the European Schoolnet and the
Department for Education here to pull together resources designed
specifically for teachers so we educate them and give them the
information they need. That was launched about two weeks ago in
Brussels. Commissioner Viviane Reding attended that and commended
the industry for pulling together these sorts of resources. I
think there is a challenge here for governments to consider how
best to implement education for teachers through continuing professional
development, obviously through teacher training, so that teachers
are now equipped with the information they need. They are then
best placed to cascade that information down to young people.
We also need to consider how to address parents and their needs.
I and a lot of my friends are mums. I see a difference in terms
of my understanding, because obviously I work in the industry,
and their level of understanding. Therefore, there is an onus
on us as an industry to play a part in filling that gap. One of
the strategies we have employed is to go out and work with parents
and ask how they would like the information presented. Do they
want it in a booklet, on a DVD or do they want condensed text,
animations or videos? As a result of that work we have put together
animations and videosmy colleague has brought along an
information packfor parents. They want to sit down with
their children, watch them and then engage in dialogue with them.
I think that is the single most important message to put to a
parent with open lines of communication. You do not want a situation
where your teenager comes across something untoward and is so
afraid you will terminate internet access that that is not communicated
to you. We need to engage with a lot of stakeholders. One of the
other strategies we have been looking at is how to engage them.
As you say, teenage years can be quite challenging.
Q389 Mr Evans: At what age in schools
would you start to teach youngsters about being safe online?
Dr O'Connell: I would start from
the day they commence school.
Q390 Chairman: What do you say is
the minimum age at which it is appropriate to join Bebo?
Dr O'Connell: Under COPA legislation
in the US you must be 13 years of age to join Bebo.
Q391 Chairman: My daughter is 12
and she has been on Bebo for at least 18 months. I believe that
every one of her friends is in the same position. She spends hours
on it. It is universal. The age is well below 13. Do you think
that is inappropriate?
Dr O'Connell: When parents report
to us that their child is under age we will delete that account.
Q392 Chairman: You said that in the
US it is 13. There is no such thing here.
Dr O'Connell: That applies to
our whole service.
Q393 Chairman: So, my daughter should
not be on Bebo even though she is 12?
Dr O'Connell: That is true.
Q394 Chairman: Every one of her friends
is on Bebo and, as far as I am aware, that is very widespread.
One has literally thousands and thousands of children in this
country under 13 are registered on your site?
Dr O'Connell: That is one of the
challenges facing social networking service providers. For Bebo
in particular, when somebody registers with a date of birth that
indicates he or she is under 13 we draw up a cookie drop which
is a piece of script that does not allow that person to go any
further in the registration process. If they are clever enough
to remove that cookiewe prevent them from using the back
buttonwe then do word string searches. They are quite clever.
They will put in "I am 11 candles", or, "I am 12
candles" which means "I am 12 years old." Therefore,
we have to search actively for those word strings and when we
find them delete those accounts. There are companies like Neopets
and other social networking companies. There is a duty to educate
people about the age appropriateness of particular sites. Nonetheless,
we still need to educate parents and young people about using
the Internet safety.
Q395 Helen Southworth: What is the
annual budget that MySpace and Bebo allocate to child protection
work in the UK that you have been describing to us?
Mr Angus: We do not break it down
by country. Our safety efforts are on a global basis.
Q396 Helen Southworth: What is the
Mr Angus: It is a really difficult
question because there is no pure safety budget. I promise that
I am not trying to be evasive.
Q397 Helen Southworth: Therefore,
you do not have an allocated budget?
Mr Angus: It is millions of dollars.
Q398 Helen Southworth: Can you write
to us with the figure?
Mr Angus: Safety is really incorporated
in every aspect of our business. It is not a discrete group of
people or effort that looks at the website. The CEO will email
me to say that a particular service is to be launched; he has
some developers with him and he will ask me to talk to them because
they want to start thinking about how to make sure it is safe.
It is part of every development aspect of our business. I think
it would be irresponsible of me to try to estimate some discrete
amount that is dedicated to safety overall. There are educational
components. We spend amounts on education. We make public service
announcements and some of those run on other Fox properties.
Q399 Helen Southworth: So, you would
not be able to identify it through budgetary methods; you would
not be able to audit it?
Mr Angus: Correct.