Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-439)


29 APRIL 2008

  Q420  Helen Southworth: Are you content with that?

  Mr Angus: Yes; it is consistent with the Home Office guidelines; we are fully compliant.

  Q421  Helen Southworth: You are quite content that you are completely compliant. Does that mean you are not going to do anything else?

  Mr Angus: I would not say that. As I said earlier, the safety process for us is one that we constantly measure in terms of effectiveness, so as user behaviour and site functionality changes we will change our site to reflect that so we maintain as safe an environment as we can.

  Q422  Helen Southworth: Perhaps I may ask the same set of questions to Bebo.

  Dr O'Connell: On every single person's profile page there is a link to report abuse; it is just underneath your photo. You click on that. We have a pack, which my colleague can disseminate to the Committee afterwards, on page 6 of which you come to the report abuse page. Down here is a specific link in the UK which says "File a police report", and you click on that. What comes up is the report that you fill in—the same one that goes to CEOP. That currently comes directly to us. If you imagine a bucket, it comes to the highest priority team. That is sent to CEOP. Ideally, what we are trying to achieve with CEOP is that it goes simultaneously to them and to us, so we are working with them and can achieve that. I hope that will be there at some point. We also have information for our users. When you click on "File police report" we are conscious that to a teenager that can be quite daunting, so it gives an explanation of the circumstances in which one might want to do that. My background is that of a forensic psychologist. I have researched how paedophiles exploit the Internet and leverage vulnerable young people, so this done in a helpful way to explain in what sorts of circumstances one might want to use this report. It goes to the highest priority team which turns it round as quickly as possible and goes straight back to CEOP. I hope that at some point in the near future it can be simultaneous.

  Q423  Helen Southworth: How long does it take at the moment?

  Dr O'Connell: It takes between one and four hours.

  Q424  Helen Southworth: In terms of your actual reporting to CEOP and it being filed by a young person or whoever raises the concern, currently what is the maximum time it takes to get to CEOP?

  Dr O'Connell: We hear back from our abuse management teams in one to four hours. At the outside it is 14, but for the highest priorities it will be shorter than that.

  Q425  Chairman: You are dealing with young children some of whom will think it quite amusing to file a police report about one of their friends. Do you filter them and decide that particular reports are serious accusations, or do you pass everything to CEOP?

  Dr O'Connell: We pass on those ones. It is a little daunting and it is not simple. You are perfectly correct to say that some of these cases arise perhaps because they are upset with their friends. There are a number of options on the report of abuse. They will report abuse and say that so and so has been mean and done x, y and z. We receive quite a number of those reports, but we work to try to make it look at bit more serious when you fill in your details and say that this is a police report. That was specifically why we did it. We will not eradicate the temptation to file such reports 100%. That is just human behaviour and is part of being a teenager. They have to fill in those details; they are asked for full names, email addresses, ages and city address. That is what CEOP requires users to fill in.

  Q426  Chairman: But if you try to make it daunting is there not a danger that in a genuine case you might put them off?

  Dr O'Connell: If they use our report abuse system—if they simply click on and report general abuse to us—some of those reports come through that mechanism also. That is one of the things we have tried to cover in the Home Office internet task force, so the networking guidelines are a recognition that sometimes when abuse happens people need to go to other places like the NSPCC and get that sort of support first before making a police report. That is a very good, valid point.

  Q427  Helen Southworth: In terms of protection of the individual child, if there is a need for further investigation do you have the ultimate say within the company as to how that is dealt with? Do you have mechanisms in place? If you had concerns about an individual child would it come through to you so you could determine how it would be dealt with or what action needed to be taken?

  Dr O'Connell: We have a dedicated team which is specifically trained so it understands the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and how the company responds to requests for information. We also have very close relationships with law enforcement. About a week ago my colleague was involving in training in Edinburgh. Does the Committee know about SPOT, that is, single point of contact law enforcement officers who are trained about the acquisition of telecommunications data, such as IP addresses, date and time stamps? We have very close relationships with law enforcement officers in the UK who request information. If we have concerns about something what do we do? We will contact them and let them know of our concerns.

  Q428  Helen Southworth: In terms of business development within Bebo, do things come to you for a check on how it relates to child protection and harmful content?

  Dr O'Connell: Yes. I also have a safety engineer, so it is not reliant solely on me. Our products have to go through a safety check.

  Q429  Helen Southworth: Can you veto?

  Dr O'Connell: Yes.

  Q430  Alan Keen: I would like to follow Helen Southworth's question about budgets and so on. I understand that it is difficult to answer that. I have spent most of my working life in the private sector. I recall that when the first serious health and safety legislation was introduced—it had nothing to do with computers which did not exist in those days—someone on the main board had to be nominated as the person in the company responsible for safety. I thought that was very onerous and then began to realise that it was me and I had to make sure that there were people like you perhaps working to me. Obviously, you are experts in your field, but is there someone nominated on the main boards of both companies who is to blame if there is a fault in the safety mechanisms? If not, should there be? Should we recommend that in our report?

  Mr Angus: Ultimately, it falls to me; I oversee all of the safety issues in the safety team. The chief security officer came from Microsoft. We have technical people who are well versed in how some of these safety measures may be circumvented so we can do our very best to ensure that when implemented they are effective and work. We work with all the engineers throughout the company to make sure that they also live and breath the safety aspects and understand their.

  Dr O'Connell: Similarly, I am chief safety officer and I sit on the main board.

  Q431  Mr Hall: There is now no doubt that the Internet can be an extremely dangerous place for young people to explore. The thrust of your evidence this morning is that the solution to the problem is the control of access to it. In the UK government believes that industry self-regulation is the answer and not necessarily primary legislation. Is the present British position working well, or is there anything that the government should be doing to make it work better?

  Mr Angus: I think it is working well. I believe that self-regulation in this area is the appropriate means to approach safety. Because it evolves so quickly we as a company must be able to be agile and flexible in how we approach the safety measures, look at how different applications are being used on our site and how user behaviour changes from day to day. We can change how our settings and policies are applied and implement new features to ensure the safety of our younger users. We can change our messaging, for example. You mentioned legislation. I think the other aspect of it is close co-operation with government via the Home Office, this Committee, CEOP and others, to understand their goals and needs. In terms of legislation, the UK is far ahead of other countries. There are many countries where grooming activity may not be illegal. For these kinds of things it is essential that law enforcement has the ability to prosecute these criminals who engage in this activity. The other aspect currently being addressed is a registry so that we make sure we keep registered sex offenders off these sites by whatever means, for example by email registration so they can be screened.

  Q432  Mr Hall: Is that possible?

  Mr Angus: Sometimes it is difficult to force them to comply, but when they do not and we catch them there are additional penalties and that in and of itself becomes a crime.

  Dr O'Connell: Speaking to your point about self-regulation and the formation of the Home Office Internet Task Force, we spent 18 months sitting round a table with all the various stakeholders: law enforcement, child welfare people, experts like Sonia Livingstone, the Department for Education and those involved in parenting organisations. It is an arduous and long process, as it should be, to arrive at these recommendations. The Home Office internet task force is looked at round the world as a model of good practice. In terms of Dr Byron's recommendations and the creation of a UK Council, we believe that those are good recommendations and are a natural progression of the work of the Home Office internet task force that has been going on for years. The self-regulation model is definitely the best way to go. To pick up my colleague's point, because of the exponential growth of communication technologies and capabilities which are changing rapidly it is critical that the industry and safety people like ourselves are at the table to talk about the emerging patterns. That is an effective way to go forward. Is there room for improvement? There is always room for improvement. We need to keep focusing and looking at the effectiveness of the measures that we put in place.

  Q433  Mr Hall: Is there any legislation that works which we can import from abroad? Is there anything in the States that works that we do not have here?

  Mr Angus: Obviously, you are way ahead of the curve in terms of grooming legislation, but the registration requirements for sex offenders and the criminalisation of using other means of communication on the Internet that is unregistered should very much be criminalised.

  Q434  Mr Hall: Dr O'Connell, in answer to Nigel Evans you talked about those people responsible for supervising children, for example teachers. There is the interesting expression "digital literacy". I may have misheard what you said. I thought you said that it was the responsibility of government to ensure that the people responsible for children were digitally literate rather than people from within the industry.

  Dr O'Connell: I think government needs to look at our teacher training programmes and whether there should be a section in that course that addresses the issue of communication technology, social networking sites and collaborative spaces like Moodle that young people are using in schools. Government needs to make sure that that education is more than sufficient to communicate safety messages, an understanding of wellbeing online and how to keep young people safe and then review for those teachers who are currently in employment how to facilitate a process through continuing professional development programmes whereby they have the same access to the sorts of education they need adequately to educate young people in their care.

  Q435  Mr Hall: But children do not access the Internet just at school; predominantly they do so from home.

  Mr Angus: The educational process is definitely a shared responsibility. It is incumbent upon us as businesses to do what we can to explain our technology and services to our users so they understand the safety measures, why we have them and why they should embrace them, and also to explain them to the teachers so they can engage in a productive dialogue with students and it can become very much part of the curriculum, as it should be. We also need to educate parents so they are there not only to supervise and provide guidance but answer questions and be a participant in their children's online activity. That is the crux of it. Going even beyond parents, teachers and students, the education of law enforcement is also of utmost importance. We have a very close working relationship with law enforcement. We prepare a law enforcement guide for police officers to use when conducting investigations. We have had numerous calls where the police may be investigating a crime and they are not quite sure what information we have and what they should ask for but they know that there may be some information available. We have prepared a guide so they can understand what we have, how they can get access to it and how it may help their investigations. In 2007 there was a murder case in which we were able to work closely with the police and provide information relating to IP addresses and online communication which enabled them to catch the suspect who I believe is being sentenced in a couple of weeks.

  Dr O'Connell: These things can be part of the solution. One of the things we need to conceptualise is that we can harness the positive potential of these companies in a myriad of ways, one of which is the Teach Today website, to which we have already referred, where social networking sites and mobile operators come together to provide information and education for teachers. That partnership between ministries of education and industry to produce that kind of educational material is quite a landmark way to go forward and is a demonstration of the commitment of industry and also recognition by those ministries that they need that sort of input if they are to educate students in a way that ensures young people use these sites in safe and responsible ways to the maximum extent. That kind of innovative partnership approach is really critical in terms of augmenting people's understanding of digital literacy and it is something that will hugely benefit UK users here. Bebo has done that in that it created the set of animations and videos to which I referred and put them on the home page of our site. We went out and spoke to teachers who said that Bebo was not accessible in some schools and so this was not of much use to them. We thought we would then create a different site called Safe Social which should be accessible from schools. Therefore, it is just the educational materials, animations and videos. We then went back to teachers who said they did not always have reliable internet access in their schools. Therefore, we made them downloadable and so you do not need internet access. We also mapped them onto the school curriculum with the help of a company accredited with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Therefore, the information teachers need—lessons, plans and worksheets—that they would use with students have also been created for them and put on a different site in case they cannot access Bebo. We have a collaborative approach in working with and talking to head teachers and IT teachers. The Department for Education developed a very useful cyber bullying guide. We worked with teachers in our schools engagement strategy; we said this had been produced and these were the sorts of videos. We recommend a school assembly to make people aware that, for example, when you sign into Bebo your IP address is flashed up to tell you that you are not anonymous online and if you misbehave you create a digital record of your bad behaviour. In my previous role I ran the cyberspace research unit which was funded by the European Commission to develop education programmes. I used to visit schools and organise with school liaison officers to knock on a door at a particular time to demonstrate to kids that an IP address looks like a telephone number with a series of dots in between and that can be linked to the address and details. Therefore, if they are bullying they create a digital record and at that point the school officer will knock on the door and come in. You could see certain heads move and hear "Oh!" That is a powerful way to communicate to them. We are trying to promote that and raise head teachers' understanding that we can be part of the solution. When you have young people squabbling about who said what to whom you can see what they have said. When you can raise that baseline level of knowledge that has a huge impact in terms of reducing the misuse of our services, and that is why we are so committed to those sorts of activities.

  Q436  Mr Evans: I believe that Facebook has an application called Honesty Box where you can send anonymous messages to somebody. There have been examples of bullying and even death threats relating to that. Is it right that Bebo and MySpace do not have that at all and everything that is sent is completely traceable?

  Mr Angus: That is correct. [6]

  Q437 Mr Evans: Do you think Facebook should remove that application? Do you think it is a dangerous application?

  Mr Angus: I am not sure how that application works or whether on the back end they are able to track it, so I cannot speak to that technology.

  Q438  Chairman: I believe that the application Mr Evans is talking about means that the recipient of the message does not know from where it comes. You can certainly trace from where it emanates if it is threatening, but it raises an interesting point. The particular application is not developed by Facebook; it is one that has taken advantage of it. You said that you allowed others to put up applications associated with MySpace. What scrutiny do you give to an application before you allow it to be attached to MySpace?

  Mr Angus: We scrutinise every application before it goes live. The issue is that some applications may evolve over time and their usage may turn out to be more negative than positive. Just as we have the ability to report problematic videos, images and comments for users easily to report those things and for us to take decisive action, we will remove applications if they are being abused. We will also deal directly with the users of the site who are engaging in bullying behaviour.

  Q439  Mr Evans: You would not entertain an application on either of your sites that was anonymous from sender to receiver?

  Mr Angus: As you have described it I cannot envisage it.

  Dr O'Connell: Similarly, we have to work with those application developers and make sure they understand that there are codes of practice that need to be adhered to and to explain it to them. In addition to educating parents, there are a lot of stakeholders for whom we have a responsibility to try to educate and reach out. It may not be immediately obvious to somebody who has developed this. They think this is great and everyone will love it but you provide them with the really helpful checklist at the back of the Home Office guidelines and ask them to tick them and let us know what they adhere to and then talk them through the whole process. That is also a big part of our work.

  Mr Angus: You have asked about specific applications, but our settings for younger users do not allow the sending of messages to them unless they are already someone's friend. We do not facilitate communication among unknowns for the under-18 crowd.

6   Note by witness: Upon further review, it has come to my attention that a third party application called Honesty Box is available on It remains correct that everything that is sent through such an application is completely traceable. Back

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