Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

  1.  The Internet and video games are relatively new media platforms which are significantly changing the way people consume, interact with and create audio-visual content. There has been a shift from single content producers or broadcasters creating something that millions of people watch to millions of people creating and reacting to content for the benefit of millions. Within this change the exposure to positive content on the one hand and harmful content on the other becomes more difficult to manage. This is an important issue and one which the Government takes extremely seriously.

2.  This note will go on to cover the action government is taking across the issues highlighted by the Committee but first it is important to demonstrate the benefits and developments that have been enabled by these media platforms.

  3.  There are many positive opportunities offered by the Internet and computer games. The Internet has revolutionised many aspects of our lives, and it has done so incredibly quickly. Even as little as 10 years ago we had no idea of the impact that it would have on us. Knowledge has never been more accessible and for those looking for information quickly—whether in school, college, office-based, or in our personal lives—it is hard now to imagine a world without internet search engines. The Internet provides instant access to a world of expertise. The UK has seen one of the fastest growing broadband markets in Europe with 99.8% of households able to access broadband. There are approximately 17 million broadband connections in the UK.

  4.  The Internet enables the sharing of ideas between people all around the world. And, in more practical terms, it provides access to goods that might otherwise be hard to track down (an out of print book from a second-hand bookshop at the other side of the country, for example); even on a local basis, it provides access to goods and services when that might otherwise be difficult (if someone is ill, for example), and it can provide access to community services that can be a life-line in some circumstances: to mothers at home with new babies, for instance, or to those suffering from a particular condition or illness, or just those who share a common interest.

  5.  Libraries are, for example, already gearing up for a new generation of online users who are technologically knowledgeable and who integrate information access and use in all spheres of their lives to an unprecedented degree. The so called net generation, share certain key characteristics, including:

    —    being accustomed to media-rich entertainment and computing;

    —    being proficient in using many kinds of media;

    —    multi-tasking as the accepted norm for their personal, social and work activities;

    —    blurring distinctions between workplace and home, and cyberspace; and

    —    preferring to build a wide, sustained network of connections via technology.


  6.  Computer games are increasingly becoming part of the lives of millions of UK citizens—some 59% of the UK population play them and this continues to grow as the games evolve and different types of people take them up. The popular image of the video games player as a teenage male sitting alone playing a "shoot-em up" for many hours in succession is increasingly being challenged. The average age of gamers is now 28 and whilst gaming has tended to appeal more strongly to males in the past, it is now generally accepted that women represent a growing percentage of the of the games audience. According to the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA), one in four women—more than ever before—now play video games. In addition, developments such as the Nintendo Wii and Sony's "Buzz!" and the SingStar games, have made game playing more socially interactive. An innovation such as Nintendo's "Dr Kawashima's Braintraining" has proved popular with older age-groups and is a good example of a game designed to be played for a short period each day rather than for lengthy sessions.

  7.  The Internet is also a tremendous source of enjoyment where we can download music, films and games and as with video games, more people are participating. Women aged 25-34 spend over 20% more time online than their male counterparts. "Silver Surfers" also spend an increasing amount of time on Internet use with nearly 30% of total time spent on the Internet accounted for by over-50s.

  8.  There is also a potential for games to promote better health. There are several examples of games being tested in therapeutic applications (for example, with patients suffering from post traumatic stress) and the latest generation of games include some which focus on physical activity, such as the dancemat games, games for the Nintendo Wii and the forthcoming Wii Fit game and its accompanying Balance Board peripheral which is wholly aimed at giving users a fun way to monitor and improve their fitness.

  9.  Virtual worlds such as Second Life (SL) offer a range of potential benefits to the consumer and to both public and private sector organisations. The National Physical Laboratory has been using Second Life for scientific knowledge transfer with international colleagues in NASA. Universities and the public sector are currently piloting the use of SL for use in healthcare and other fields of research which will ultimately benefit the consumer.


  10.  Government is interested in the potential educational benefits of video games. There is evidence that the content of some games can support learning for people of all ages through offering a safe and structured environment where students can explore and develop solutions to specific problems.[1] Interactive content also offers advantages for developing personalized learning. A game typically offers a framework with learnable rules in which the scope to explore, evaluate and test has applications for learning scenarios. Furthermore, computer games could have a specific role in engaging and motivating learners, including those disaffected or previously hard to reach. All these and related issues are explored in great detail for example in Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good For You which challenges perceptions that video games are detrimental to cognitive development and sets out to demonstrate that children learn valuable problem solving and other skills from them.[2]

  11.  Examples of games supporting curriculum-based learning that have been showcased by Government include 3T Productions' Sonica Spanish game produced for the then Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and which successfully uses a range of activities including dancemat games and an interactive adventure game to support Spanish language training for 7-11-year-olds. More recently, Sony Computer Entertainment have worked in partnership with DfES to develop an educational version of their popular game Buzz! Buzz!: The Schools Quiz features questions based around Key Stage 2 National Curriculum content and offers teachers additional, highly engaging tools to help reinforce learning.

  12.  Organisations like Futurelab, chaired by Lord Puttnam, are doing a great deal of exciting work in this area. In 2005 and 2006, along with leading games industry publisher Electronic Arts, and the Interactive Software Federation of Europe, Futurelab carried out a research project investigating the potential for commercial off-the-shelf games in classrooms. The project enabled Futurelab to set out a strategy for the inclusion of games in future lesson plans. With this research, Futurelab and its partners hope to make it easier for teachers to be aware of the ways in which games may be used in their teaching, by describing the barriers and successes encountered by the teachers with whom they have been working.

  13.  Several Government Departments are also actively exploring the area of educational games or "serious games" as the industry calls them—ie games content and technology which looks to support purposeful and educational objectives. The Ministry of Defence (MoD), for example, has been looking for some time at using games content to support infantry communication, decision-making skills and post-exercise review with their DIVE projects. MoD also commissioned from UK developers TruSim a prototype game, Trauma Trainer, to demonstrate the potential for serious application of games in defence medicine—in this case by supporting learning around field medical decision-making. With match funding from the Government's Technology Programme, TruSim (a division of Blitz Games) are now embarked upon a £2 million project applying skills and technology used in video games to create demonstrators for a range of serious training applications. Topics of interest for educational application are very broad: other areas under active consideration include scenario-based games to support civil and emergency planning, games to get across key messages—for example about climate change—and games to help citizens gain a better understanding of how Government policy making is taken forward.


  14.  We should not underestimate the importance of the games industry to the UK economy. In 2006 games generated £2 billion in retail sales in the UK and following the full launch onto the market of the latest generation of powerful games consoles—Microsoft's X Box 360, Sony's Playstation3 and the Nintendo Wii—it is expected that sales figures for 2007 will increase to £3.4 billion.

  15.  According to Playing for Keeps, an independent study carried last year by consultants Games Investor for UK Trade and Investment, in 2006 the UK was the fourth largest computer games producer in the world by revenue after the US, Japan and Canada. An estimated £370 million was spent on games development in the UK in 2006 and we have the highest number of computer games development and publisher companies in Europe with around 160 development studios and 70 publishers. The UK industry employs some 22,000 people including 8,000 in games development.

  16.  Government views the games industry as strategically important to the UK and for our ambitions for the modern knowledge economy. Games are a key driver for consumer take-up of new technologies. Games developers are frequently at the cutting edge of creativity and innovation given their drive to respond to increasing expectations of consumers and advancements of new communications platforms.

  17.  Games companies are major investors in research and development and offer high-skilled and high value employment. Games technology and the skills of the industry are often transferred to other contexts, particularly in a more converged digital media world.

  18.  Convergence has opened up major revenue opportunities for the producers of many content types. Over the first half of 2007, 90% of UK singles sales by volume came from digital downloads to the computers or a mobile handset. This could be indicative of changes in the computer games market to come. Already millions of consumers worldwide now engage in shared online gaming experiences.

  19.  The Government wants to ensure that people benefit from the positive opportunities offered by the Internet and video games, and to empower them to avoid and manage the negatives. Where these new technologies are being exploited by those seeking to harm or exploit others, we have taken concrete steps which are described in the sections below. As the technology is advancing extremely rapidly, we are continuing to monitor developments in these sectors to ensure the actions we take to protect people continue to be proportionate and evidence-based.


  20.  Cyberbullying is the use of new technology, particularly mobile phones and the Internet, to bully, intimidate and harass. The Department for Children, Schools and Families' (DCSF) main anti-bullying guidance for schools, Safe to learn: Embedding Anti-Bullying Work in Schools, was issued in September 2007 and included a specific section on cyberbullying, reflecting the rise in this particularly pernicious form of harassment, and the concern with which it is viewed by schools, parents, children, the wider community, and the Government.

  21.  DCSF commissioned Childnet International to develop the cyberbullying guidance; it helps teachers to identify, prevent and intervene in cases of cyberbullying; and advises on how to educate young people about the responsible use of new technology.

  22.  Discipline provisions in the Education and Inspections Act 2006 give school staff the power to confiscate mobile telephones and to discipline pupils for bad behaviour outside the school gates. Therefore, if a school is made aware that cyberbullying has occurred outside school but affects pupils within it, we would expect schools to discipline the pupils responsible for the bullying and put in place measures to tackle bullying.

  23.  DCSF ran a digital campaign on cyberbullying in partnership with ChildLine International between September and December last year, specifically targeted at 12-15-year-olds, using key websites, including Myspace, Bebo, MSN and Yahoo. Entitled Laugh at it, and you're part of it, the materials showed what action young people can take to minimise the risk of being cyberbullied and be sensitive to how they can be tacitly complicit in cyberbullying by, for example, passing on malicious e-mails or sharing content.

  24.  DCSF also convened the Cyberbullying Taskforce in 2006 as a response to growing concerns about cyberbullying. It is made up of representatives of internet providers and mobile phone companies, school staff unions, Becta, children's charities and law enforcement agencies, and through this we are developing a collaborative approach to finding effective solutions to the whole cyberbullying problem.

  25.  Other partners are also producing new materials to tackle cyberbullying: ParentLine Plus are, on behalf of the Department, producing a leaflet for parents on how to protect their children from cyberbullying as part of their Be Someone to Tell programme; and Beatbullying are setting up a new programme to train young people to be "cybermentors".


  26.  The Internet is an open access network. Its international and often anonymous nature has made it easier for users to disseminate offensive or even criminal content. Self-regulation, media literacy, awareness and consumer empowerment are recommended by both Government and the telecoms regulator Ofcom as the key tools of preventing offensive content being disseminated.

  27.  The challenge lies in balancing freedom of expression against technology being used for the display of harmful and offensive material. The general law (on defamation, racial hatred etc) is of course applicable online as it is offline. And criminals have in fact on occasion been foolish enough to post footage of themselves committing a crime and been prosecuted as a result.

  28.  The Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) has a code of practice which members must comply with in return for being entitled to use the ISPA logo. ISPs have contracts with their customers concerning what may be hosted on their servers. These contracts are called Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs). ISPs can remove offensive or objectionable material, even if it is not illegal. User Generated Content has a Code of Conduct setting out conditions under which content can be posted. Material which does not meet the conditions is removed.

  29.  All ISPs offering broadband to the UK must put in place blocks to the child abuse websites as identified by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) by the end of 2007. This has been driven by the Home Secretary's Task Force. In addition new ISPs or services should have measures in place within nine months of offering the service to the public.

  30.  The IWF estimates that around 95% of consumer broadband connections are now covered by a blocking mechanism installed by their provider. This shows an excellent response by the internet industry. The Government wants to reach 100%, and is working with industry, charities and law enforcement agencies to ensure that consumer internet broadband connections do not facilitate access to illegal material such as images of child abuse.


  31.  In the UK, organisations which process information relating to living, identifiable individuals are required to comply with the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998. The Act makes no distinctions based on age and children have the same rights as adults (for example, the right to access personal information and the right to request that information is not processed where processing is likely to cause substantial damage or distress). In practice, there will be occasions when a parent or guardian acts on behalf of a child because the child is not capable of understanding how to exercise their rights but, overall, it should be remembered that children enjoy the same rights and are afforded the same protection as adults.

  32.  Indeed, there is a strong argument that service providers need to take extra care when processing information about children to ensure compliance with the Act. For example, there is a requirement that processing has to be "fair". Fairness often involves explaining to individuals how, why and by whom information about them will be used. Service providers should ensure that the information they provide to children and young people is appropriate for the user age group—what might be within the reasonable expectations of, and fair to, adults, might not be apparent or fair to children. In addition, privacy friendly options available to children and young people should be well signposted and easy to use for the collection of information to be fair. Additionally, to be confident that information is held securely, service providers should consider providing more information to children about the security features available such as how to choose a suitable password.

  33.  The Home Secretary's Task Force has now completed the work on the Social Networking Guidance document. The document sets out voluntary good practice guidelines for the development and use of social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo. The guidance has been developed with representatives from all of the major players, and from law enforcement, charities and government departments. The document has already attracted significant interest globally, and is becoming the industry standard for guidance on how to build and use these sites in a way that helps protects children. The launch will be of interest to a large number of groups, including the European Union, where Commissioner Viviane Reding intends to launch a consultation regarding social networking in February.


  34.  Offences of inciting religious or racial hatred (or of inciting other related crimes) already apply to spoken and written words both online and offline. But to target this activity online, the Home Office has established a Hate Crime Internet Working Group to consider short term and long term solutions to the problem. This group reports to the overarching Tackling Hate Crime Steering Group and works alongside the cross-Government steering group on anti-Semitism, led by the Department for Communities and Local Government. We are also working with the police and the CPS to develop guidance on how best to prosecute cases of internet hate crime. We are examining existing legislation to consider whether any changes are required and engaging with the industry and other key stakeholders to improve the arrangements in place for dealing with hate related material.

  35.  The Internet is not a source of hatred or extremism per se. But it is a channel currently being exploited by those who might wish to spread hatred and extremism. It is just one of a range of tools they use and other more traditional channels exist—newsletters, books, even radio and television. We know it is used by terrorists both as an operational platform, and as a tool for radicalisation and recruitment: we know the Internet plays a part in influencing the radicalisation of many of the individuals who have been involved in violent extremism and terrorism to date. The degree of such influence via the Internet may increase, as internet use in general increases.

  36.  Government is dedicating resources to identify illegal material on the Internet, focusing on material that is illegal under the Terrorism Act 2000 and/or 2006. This will be material that either incites or encourages terrorism or would prove useful in the preparation and commission of terrorist acts. Internet Service Providers in the UK already remove illegal material when it is flagged up to them. We now want to work with ISPs and others in the industry to take a more proactive role in identifying this material so that it can be removed if hosted in the UK. We must rely on international partners for removing material hosted elsewhere and we continue to work with them to alert them to such material. We will work with the industry to identify ways to limit the availability of illegal terrorism-related material to internet users in the UK, particularly where that material is hosted overseas and therefore cannot be removed.

  37.  There has been public concern about the circulation of extreme pornographic material online as existing controls on publication and distribution by the Obscene Publications Act 1959 can be circumvented. Media interest in the availability of violent and extreme pornography escalated with the murder of Jane Longhurst, a special needs teacher in Brighton, by Graham Coutts. The case attracted considerable publicity, as it was revealed as part of the prosecution's case that Coutts frequently accessed extreme pornographic websites depicting the sadistic treatment of women. In passing sentence, the trial judge commented on the easy availability of extreme pornographic material via the Internet and the possible adverse influence which such material might have.

  38.  The Government is legislating in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to create a new offence of possession of extreme pornographic material. This will become a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in prison. The proposals were published in August 2006 as part of the Government's response to its consultation paper on the possession of extreme pornographic material launched in 2005. Material covered includes necrophilia, bestiality and violence that is life threatening or would result in serious injury to the anus, breasts or genitals.

  39.  The new offence is not intended to target those who accidentally come into contact with obscene pornography; nor would it target the mainstream entertainment industry which works within current obscenity laws. The Government is seeking to close a gap in the law caused by the development of new technologies.

  40.  There is no conclusive link between exposure to violent content and violent behaviour, however there is some concern that they may contribute to a general atmosphere in which violence is tolerated, glorified and even encouraged. We are engaging with the industry and other key stakeholders to improve the arrangements in place for dealing with violent content.


  41.  The current generation of video games consoles all feature parental lock controls which allow parents or guardians to restrict children's access to content. Method of control differs—for example, they might allow parents to set restrictions so they can decide on a case by case basis whether games are suitable for individual children or locks can be set to control access based on the age-ratings that games carry.

  42.  The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) deals with some illegal and harmful material. It was set up in 1996 following an agreement between the Government, Police and the Internet Service Provider (ISP) industry that a partnership approach was needed to tackle the distribution of child abuse images online.

  43.  IWF is the only authorised organisation in the UK operating an Internet hotline for the public and IT professionals to report their exposure to potentially illegal internet content such as websites, newsgroups and online groups.

  44.  IWF works in partnership with ISPs, Telecoms companies, Mobile operators, software providers, police and the UK government to minimise the availability of illegal internet content, particularly child abuse images. It is the only authorised organisation in the UK operating an internet hotline for the public and IT professionals to report their exposure to potentially illegal internet content such as websites, newsgroups and online groups that:

    —    contain images of child abuse, hosted anywhere in the world;

    —    contain adult material that potentially breaches the Obscene Publications Act and is hosted in the UK; or

    —    contain criminally racist material hosted in the UK.

  45.  The IWF passes reports to ISPs so that they can remove illegal material. If the ISP fails to remove the site following notification they are liable to prosecution.

  46.  This and other illegal material can also be reported to the police in the usual way that any illegal activity would be reported. For material that is simply inappropriate rather than illegal, many parents and businesses use filtering systems which allow them to control the images and information.

  47.  One of Andrew Gowers's recommendations following his 2006 review of the intellectual property regime, was that the Government should "Observe the industry agreement of protocols for sharing data between ISPs and rights holders to remove and disbar users engaged in `piracy'. If this has not proved operationally successful by the end of 2007, Government should consider whether to legislate". The Government recognise the value of the current discussions between ISPs and rights-holders, and would very much prefer to see the adoption of voluntary agreements in this area. However, we have made it clear that we will not hesitate to legislate in this respect should it be required. To that end, we will consult on the form and content of regulatory arrangements in Spring 2008.


  48.  As a general rule, and with exceptions for material that is illegal, simply unacceptable or can be demonstrated to cause harm, we support the principle that adults should be free to choose what websites they access or what computer games they play. But we can all agree that there is content on the Internet and in games that is not appropriate for children. There is already a classification system in place for computer games, designed to provide parents with information on a game's contents. It is an offence—punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of up to £5,000—to supply a physical copy of a game that contain gross violence or sexual material to someone who doesn't meet the age classification. That is because games with that adult content fall under the terms of the Video Recordings Act. All other hard copies of games are covered by the Pan European Games Information (PEGI) system. The PEGI system also extends to online games, and parents can check via the familiar classification system that any game their child is using online is suitable for their age group.

  49.  However, we need to be sure that the classification system is effective. And we need to bear in mind that, other than for computer games, there is no classification system in place for most online content. The role of parents is, therefore, crucial. Parents, ultimately, are the arbiters of everything that child sees, but sometimes they may need help in having the confidence and will to take control of their children's viewing. Many parents are highly media literate. But where they are not we need to help them become so.

  50.  These are some of the reasons why the Prime Minister asked Dr Tanya Byron to lead a review. She is reviewing the evidence on risks to children's safety and wellbeing of exposure to harmful or inappropriate material on the Internet and in video games; and assessing the effectiveness and adequacy of existing measures to help prevent children from being exposed to such material and help parents understand and manage the risks of access to inappropriate content; and to making recommendations for improvements or additional action. Dr Byron will be presenting her final report in March and we do not want to pre-empt her findings and our consideration of them.

  51.  The issue of content regulation in video games but perhaps more so online is a very complex one. The technologies are developing faster than regulatory measures can be assessed and the lack of a combined global strategy adds to this complexity. We have to make sure that any government measures are proportionate, evidence based and flexible enough to cope with changes in the way that media is both created and consumed so as not to stifle new business models before they have even emerged. But through all this change we have to be sure that appropriate protections are in place.

February 2008

1   Explored in ELSPA's Unlimited Learning report 2006 and Learning and Teaching Scotland's report on Game-Based learning, 2007Back

2   Steven Johnson. Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making us Smarter. Penguin Books 2006. Back

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