Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600-619)


14 MAY 2008

  Q600  Alan Keen: Unlike the ticket touting inquiry we did recently where not all the industry wanted to eradicate the problem even though this Committee wanted to, everybody has the same aim, thank goodness. The differences will be at what level. Jim Gamble himself said that he feels that the law will have to be changed or that new laws introduced. What is your view on that? You have already mentioned sites promoting suicide and even the computer-generated images of paedophiles abusing children in Second Life time games. That sounds so appalling and must be damaging and Jim told us that that was somewhere where the law should be changed. Have you had time in your department to look at these aspects?

  Mr Coaker: I would like to mention a couple of really important points around this. First of all, I think that there is a need for us to clarify, which is again another recommendation that Dr Byron made [...] It is clear if you talk about child abuse that that is illegal and we start from what is illegal offline is illegal online. When it starts to get near the margins, people become a little bemused as to whether it is illegal or whether it is something that somebody finds offensive and does not like. I think that there is a need for us to look at the law and clarify exactly what we mean. Not at the extremes because it is obvious with some, but sometimes there is a need. So, there is a need for us first of all to clarify some of the laws. With respect to avatars, Second Life, it is the case that, frankly, we would not have asked this question two years ago or three years ago. We can argue what that was but, two, three or four years ago, nobody would have had a clue what Second Life or avatars were. I would not, to be honest about it. This is a really deep philosophical question and the Government have consulted on this about the cartoon depiction or fantasy sort of world of Second Life and whether the law should be saying anything or doing anything about it. We consulted on it—we consulted on it for a few months at the beginning of 2007—and we had 87 responses and a few different responses as you can imagine came back and we consulted again and we are now considering as to what law, if any, we should come forward with. It is very difficult. In reading the Committee's deliberations—and I think that the Committee recognised this—it is a completely new area of work to actually say, should the law intervene in an area where nobody has been harmed. It is a fantasy world; there is no criminal. On the other hand, if you imagine it at its worst, a paedophile or somebody decides, I know, I will become a paedophile as my avatar; I will sexually abuse children; I will create all sorts of images on the Internet; I will buy and sell" and whatever in that virtual environment, I find that as an individual a disgrace and disgusting. The problem then becomes, as I am disgusted, appalled and outraged, does that then mean that that should be made illegal? I am just posing the arguments here. That is what the Government are considering. That also then brings in the question, if somebody is acting that out in a virtual environment, what does that do for them in the real world? Does that make them more likely or less likely [...]? I think that the evidence is mixed. The social scientists and psychologists disagree as to that link. We would probably disagree as individuals as to what the impact is of watching this or acting in this. This is a long-winded way—and I apologise for being longwinded—of saying that we are looking at this whole area because it raises fundamental, philosophical questions for us to actually resolve as to whether this is an area about which we would never have thought in which the law should intervene. My final point on that is on suicide because it makes the point very well for me. The Law Commission was clear that aiding and abetting suicide, whether it be online or offline but in this particularly with respect to online, is illegal, something should be done about it and it should be taken down, and there are other areas where there is illegal content which we need to ensure is taken down. We have improved law enforcement with regard to child protection through CEOP and I think that the task for us is to ensure that the law is in force with respect to that and I think that is something that the new Council will have to look at.

  Margaret Hodge: I am going to add very little because I thought that covered most things. The only thing I wanted to add was where Vernon ended and that is to say that because it is such a complex issue, this is precisely one of the key roles that the Council will have in considering difficult issues like this and then making recommendations. That is the first thing. The second thing is that, when much of this law was established, we did not have chat rooms and social networking sites and it is what emerges on those sites and how we deal with potentially harmful content on those sites, where the boundaries are and what is permissible and what is not permissible. It is fantastically complex stuff and I think that we need to give that really, really serious consideration. The third point to make is that one of her recommendations—it comes back to something we were discussing earlier—is that what we need to think about is, if there is that sort of content, how can you give people the quick link to The Samaritans or ChildLine or one of those supportive organisations that can help people through the harm that might be created either through content on a site itself or through the content that is emerging in conversation on the social networking sites. This is really tough territory. I suppose the final thing I would add is that, with all these things, we have to keep looking at the evidence and we have to make sure that any decision we take is evidence-based and we have to keep revisiting the evidence of links between what people see and experience and how they behave because, as we well know, very little of this is proven and the area where we have proven it is done on sexual activity and it is very much Vernon's role to take that through.

  Mr Coaker: Very much so.

  Margaret Hodge: Just to show how cross-Government we are on suicide, of course the new MoJ is currently reviewing the law to see whether or not it is appropriate in the new world of social networking sites and the Internet.

  Q601  Chairman: That is the fifth government department that has become involved.

  Margaret Hodge: It does take you back but let me just say this to you. Many of the issues with which I have dealt in Government always require cross-Government action. Very often people say, "Let us set up a special [...] Let us give it to one department" and the only thing you always do on this in my experience is bring some things together and then you create new difficulties which you have to tackle by cross-Government action. At the end of the day, rather than spend your time fiddling around, should we set up an Internet Department or an Internet Agency, I think that what we should do is tackle the actual issues and make sure that the way in which we work is properly co-ordinated and linked.

  Q602  Alan Keen: I am very pleased but we know very well that there will not be a definite answer and it would be wrong if there were. Out of interest, have you discussed with the industry what even greater fears there may be for the future with the very quick evolving of the technology in these twisted people's ideas?

  Mr Coaker: One of the things that is worrying in terms of this whole area of technology and new technology—and we have Second Life and avatars—is the increasing mobility, the mobile phone and what is available, such as Blackberries, and what is essentially becoming a mobile terminal. The fact is that people will very soon be able to get out from their pocket access to all of the things about which we have been talking. Again, I do not know exactly where we have got to with these mobile platforms but, as I understand it, that is of increasing concern as well. Similarly, the increasing move from the use of peer-to-peer connection so that you are not going through a central connecting point, if you like. So, there is the peer-to-peer transmission. Also, when I was at CEOP, the use by paedophiles of games consoles to send bits to each other but it was not sent as a whole, it was something which you collected from one game and you went to another game and collected another bit. These are criminal and immoral people whose expertise in that warped sense is at the forefront of all of that technology and the last point I would make is that, in a sense, it is the success of some of the work that law enforcement has done which has forced these people to be ever more inventive.

  Kevin Brennan: I think that we should give some credit to the mobile phone industry for what they have done so far to protect children from some of the images that might be more easily available elsewhere and in fact I think that in many ways they are leading the way in making sure that some of this unsuitable content or even 18-rated sites are not available when phoned from a mobile platform and they have co-operated across industry to achieve that.

  Mr Coaker: I congratulate all of the industry for the work they have done. They have worked very closely with us on a whole range of things to try and move this forward. It is always the next step, is it not?

  Q603  Alan Keen: Am I right in presuming that the increased numbers of prosecutions is because of the efforts that have been put in to catch people doing this and may I also presume that there is an increase in people getting involved in this?

  Mr Coaker: I think that it is both those things. We are talking about section 127 of the Communications Act and there has been a quite significant increase in that from 2003 to 2006. It is, as you say, the increase in use of the Internet and the increase in use of all of the various sites as we know and, alongside that, an increased awareness of that offence and an increased use of it by law enforcement.

  Kevin Brennan: I am sure that it is well known to this Committee that about two thirds of households now have an Internet connection but in fact, in households with children, that figure rises to 80%. So, it really is becoming close to universal when you consider the availability in public libraries and so on as well for those who do not have usage and, as we know, the big users are children and young people.

  Q604  Chairman: Will the measures in the new Criminal Justice and Immigration Act help in this?

  Mr Coaker: Are you referring to the email addresses that have been made available?

  Q605  Chairman: The whole position with extreme pornographic images.

  Mr Coaker: The whole range. That new offence will help. It is another tool in the box. It is a possession offence that is not there. I think that the change to the notification requirements for sex offenders will help where they will now be required, once we have passed the secondary legislation, to give email addresses to law enforcement. I think that will help. Of course, if they choose not to or give a false one, that is a criminal offence with imprisonment of up to five years, so I think that will help alongside that. Of course, more generally with sex offenders, we have changed the rules with respect to dual criminality. So, if somebody now goes abroad—just as a piece of information to the Committee but I think there is an interest—say to Thailand to commit an offence that is not an offence in Thailand but would be an offence if it were committed there, we have ended the dual criminality of that so, when they come back, we can prosecute them for that and I think that is again something that generally people would welcome, although it is perhaps slightly outside the remit of what we are talking about.

  Q606  Chairman: Before I bring in Paul Farrelly, we still have a little way to go but are the three of you content that we should continue?

  Mr Coaker: Yes, absolutely.

  Q607  Paul Farrelly: Quite apart from the Byron recommendation on the Internet Child Safety Council, there have been voices that have called from time to time for an Internet standards authority insofar as it can help with a firmer base in this country rather like the model of the Advertising Standards Authority or perhaps the Press Complaints Commission. What are the different departments thinking over that issue?

  Margaret Hodge: We have our convergence think-tank which is considering issues such as this and we always keep an open mind, should it become appropriate we will do so. At present, I think that we do not want to over-regulate, we want to do as much as we can through voluntary mechanisms and we think that the Internet impacts on all of us and the fact that we have gone through probably five departments or six departments—you could have brought a number of departments here today to give evidence to you—and we think that it is better to work through existing structures at present, but of course you keep an open mind on this and I think that this is an issue that will emerge in the convergence think-tank. I do not know if you have come to a view on it? No doubt you will tell us your view.

  Q608  Paul Farrelly: In a debate on cyber bullying back in February, Beverley Hughes made the statement that she thought that business needed to raise its game and we have just discussed one example where Jim Gamble thought that business could raise its game in terms of following Microsoft. We have listened here, just one further example and a horrific example, to Google admitting that YouTube had nobody pro-actively monitoring what went on site and in fact, to the extent that complaints were made, the unspecified number of people responding to those complaints completely missed a video which portrayed and depicted in its content as a gang rape. The portrayal and content is of importance because I know that there are issues about the police taking up about what actually went on. Is that sort of practice acceptable? Do you expect businesses to do more?

  Kevin Brennan: I think you are right, we should not comment on what actually happened in that video but that is not the point, the point is that it was flagged and how quickly it should have been taken down and how these things are dealt with. On the issue of cyber bullying and the comments you made about my colleague in the Department, Beverley Hughes, she is right in a sense and that is why we are working with the industry in relation to cyber bullying to see what more can be done. In fairness, they have done quite a lot so far to work with us. They have provided free advertising space for our digital information campaign on cyber bullying; that reached 6.5 million unique IP addresses as a result of that and had 98,000 different users visiting the website. Vodafone and O2 have made financial contributions towards our cyber bullying resource pack and Google, YouTube, Piczo and Myspace have all been working with us and we are having another meeting on 4 June of the Cyber Bullying Taskforce to actually see what more we can do. The evidence that you took in the session which I have read was very interesting, that revelation that there was not a single person employed to preview rather than to review user-generated content was quite an interesting revelation. What I would say is that what the Byron Review does and what the Council will do is shine a light on this whole issue of the extent to which—not that you can preview all user-generated content, I do not think that is a realistic prospect—you can spot potentially unacceptable content through words or through flesh tones, through that kind of technology and then screen it down for preview rather than review. That perhaps is the issue that really needs to be explored with people like YouTube.

  Q609  Paul Farrelly: If you do not have a single person you are not making any effort whatsoever.

  Kevin Brennan: Yes, and that is a legitimate point to draw to their attention and to press on with, with the Council, and to engage them on because it is very important that the industry is engaged on this. As you all know, this is a worldwide business and industry and there are different jurisdictions, different rules and regulations, so it is particularly suited to getting an engagement, getting an acceptance of what corporate social responsibility—particularly where children are involved—means, getting acceptable use policies that are monitorable and then holding those industries to account for their own policies to ensure that they are following that. When you put people together in a room—children's charities, government ministers and industry—that is where the dynamic tension that creates progress comes in this, rather than having a shouting match—enjoyable as that may be, I am not sure that that is what produces the outcome. I thought that that was a very, very interesting piece of evidence.

  Q610  Paul Farrelly: This is one area where, as you have said, it really is relevant to question whether there should be some sort of minimum standard, however applied and enforced, as to what efforts firms should be expected to make. As an alternative though, if you take the happy slapping case where the young girl was convicted for having videoed it as if she was part of the crime, then by admission of the minister without the outlet of the likes of YouTube—

  Kevin Brennan: That crime would never have been picked up.

  Q611  Paul Farrelly: You could go along and create criminal sanctions for those firms as accessories after the fact if they did not do certain things as well, but that would be the last resort. Surely, this sort of thing, when people complain it is entirely voluntary as to how the firms treat the complaint and react afterwards.

  Kevin Brennan: The strength of Byron is exactly that, that it actually holds the industry to their own voluntary user practices and shines a light on those user practices so that they are public and clear, not only to the users or the community as they tend to call them, but also to the advertisers who are very concerned and pay for these sites to work. We are all clear, I am sure, that the virtual world is not a valueless world and that where these things are happening there does have to be a light shone upon it and effective action taken, but there is a pretty broad consensus, backed by the evidence in the Byron Report, that the right way to do it is the way that she has suggested rather than trying to use the big stick of regulation and the law which, at the end of the day, is not fleet of foot enough, frankly, to deal with this ever-changing world.

  Margaret Hodge: Could I just add two things? One is that we have always got to be mindful of the European E-commerce Directive which has quite a clear view of what should or should not be on the net or on particular sites, and the other thing is that there is, which you in particular will appreciate, always a balance to be struck between freedom of expression and protection from harm and we have always got to be beware of trying to walk that tightrope to protect our freedoms as protecting from harm.

  Mr Coaker: As a final point, the point is very well made that at the end of the day we have social networking guidance and we have guidelines. We have lots of other guidelines and I know there was the debate with Dr Byron about co-regulation or self-regulation; at the end of the day what everybody was trying to arrive at is if we are going down the self-regulation/co-regulation route, the documents that are produced and the warm words that are said, all of those issues are actually reflected in the practice. All I can say is that I think there has been considerable progress right across, which has been brought about by the self-regulatory framework. That is not to say that there is not more progress that needs to be made—that was the point I made to Mr Farrelly earlier on about the need to write and say we have agreed these guidelines, how are we going to ensure now that we bring about a step change in what we are doing. I also think that the success of what we have done and what we are doing is reflected in the fact that other countries are actually coming to us now and asking about how this self-regulatory framework is working. When we launched the social networking guidance the Americans came, the Australians came and only this morning I met the French to talk about what we were doing with respect to this. We can look at what we have done and say so far so good but now—I think this is the point Mr Farrelly is getting at—how do we then bring about, again, the change that we need so that we have got people proactively seeking out some of these things, not just reacting, and how we get the reporting systems consistent and right across the system and how we deal with the other issues that Mr Keen raised about advertising and all of the other issues, how we deal not only with illegal content but harmful and inappropriate content, and the vehicle of the Prime Minister's taskforce gives us an opportunity to build on good practice and, as Kevin Brennan said, to take it to that next stage, that next level.

  Q612  Paul Farrelly: I just have three quick factual questions to conclude. Firstly, when the Government submitted its evidence there was a tail of 5% of broadband providers which had not been signed up to taking the Internet Watch Foundation list of barred sites. Has the target of 100% been reached now?

  Mr Coaker: No, it has not been reached. I set the target of 100% by the end of 2007 and said that if that was not reached we would then have to consider what we needed to do. That is what we are currently doing, we are not satisfied with the 5% that have not put in place blocking mechanisms as the other 95% have so we are looking at what we need to do with that.

  Q613  Paul Farrelly: Are you considering naming and shaming?

  Mr Coaker: Most of them are very small companies and all sorts of things are being considered, whether we need to go down the legislative route, whether we need to take other action, whether there are other technical solutions that we can come to, whether just by meeting again with them we can say you need to conform in the way the others have done. There are all sorts of things being considered, but it is not satisfactory that we have still got 5% that did not take action.

  Q614  Paul Farrelly: The second question is again a Home Office one: what is CEOP's budget going to be for 2008-09?

  Mr Coaker: It is £4½ million from the Home Office.

  Kevin Brennan: We provide some in kind help in staffing secondments.

  Mr Coaker: It is £4½ million from the Home Office and it gets about £3 million from children's charities. It then gets a little amount from DCMS.

  Q615  Paul Farrelly: Is that the same then as last year or has it increased?

  Mr Coaker: I will drop you a note about it, but let me just say that in the future, clearly, we are going to make sure that it is continued. The CEOP funding is guaranteed until April 2009 but it is inconceivable that the Government will not fund it in future.

  Q616  Paul Farrelly: Finally, if you could let us have by way of a note the total Government spending for internet-related child safety and protection.

  Mr Coaker: We will have to write to you about that. It does not answer the question about what the budget was last year so I will drop a note to the Committee, Chairman, if that is okay, just to clarify the budget figure, but this year's figures are £4.5 million from the Home Office, charities, industry and EU £3.22 million, additional Government funding (FCO and DCSF) £0.16 million. I will write to the Committee about how that compares to last year's budget and I will also send you the details about the budgetary figure for child protection.[3]

  Q617 Paul Farrelly: Very finally, on that, when we visited CEOP we saw the fantastic work that they were doing and one of the things we saw was a very measured advert that runs in Australia frequently, along the lines of the sort of frequency that we see asking people to slow down to 20 mph because the chances of killing someone, especially a child, are far less. In terms of the advertising budget of CEOP, they did not feel they had sufficient support to extend their activities in terms of advertising the dangers and also warning people off.

  Kevin Brennan: We are committed to a big public information campaign as a result of Byron and the Staying Safe Action Plan, which I mentioned earlier on, because it is not just a case of warning children, and I have seen some of CEOP's very effective stuff. In fact, my daughter has seen it at school and told me that she had seen it there too, but it is also a case, obviously, of closing that knowledge gap amongst parents because 81% of people say that principally it should be parents' responsibility to protect their children when they are on-line but only 25% of parents say they are confident about how to do that, so the information campaign has to be targeted at the parents also—as Byron puts it, they have the wisdom but not the technological knowledge, the kids have got the technological knowledge but they have not got the wisdom, so that is the gap that we have to close through an information campaign.

  Q618  Paul Farrelly: The way they put it to us was that they could not find it in their budget but actually in terms of publicity it is really a departmental and Government issue of priorities really.

  Kevin Brennan: Yes. Could I say there is a huge amount spent, obviously, throughout Government and particularly in our department in relation to child safety, staying safe and safeguarding children, and in terms of children's services the spend has gone up 7% per annum in real terms over the last few years from £2.2 billion in 1997 to £5.6 billion now, but on top of that there are all sorts of other measures like the £30 million we have supplied to NSPCC to run and expand ChildLine into some of these new technologies over the next few years and we are also spending a lot of money to try and get kids out and away from the computer through the £235 million that we are investing in our play strategy, and I know Dr Byron also mentioned in her evidence that it is important that we do not have battery-farmed kids locked up because all they will do is play and explore in the internet rather than playing safely outside in their community.

  Q619  Paul Farrelly: If you let me have some money now I will invest it wisely on behalf—

  Kevin Brennan: I am sure you will be chivvying your local authority to make a bid for the money; it is still there.

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