Online safety - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents


The internet has revolutionised communications and information sharing. It provides an ever increasingly important platform for creativity and economic growth. Online social media services are providing new ways of interacting and keeping in touch. Online communications enable expressions of human behaviour both positive and negative; sometimes downright criminal. Our inquiry has focused on three disparate aspects of online content and behaviour, all of which are of widespread concern: illegal content, especially images of child abuse; harmful adult content being made freely available to children; bullying and harassment on social media.

Both the publication and possession of child abuse images are rightly illegal. While these offences are bad enough, it must not be forgotten that such images represent crime scenes, often of the most horrific kind. There is a clear need to ensure that the police have adequate resources to track down and arrest online paedophiles in sufficient numbers to act as a meaningful deterrent to others. If necessary, additional funding should be provided to recruit and train a sufficiently large number of police officers adequate to the task.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Command, now part of the new National Crime Agency, has a well-deserved reputation as a lead body in tackling child abuse. It has been increasingly effective not least because it is not solely a criminal justice organisation: its education and social care work has also been very important in increasing public understanding of the problem of child abuse and in offering means of countering abusers. All three elements of its mission - education, social care and criminal justice - need to be actively pursued and publicised.

The Internet Watch Foundation, too, has played a crucial role in removing and blocking child abuse images online. We very much welcome their new commitment to embark on proactive searching for online child abuse images. The sooner these can be found and removed, the better. However, we are concerned that the additional staff resources being allocated to this task could prove woefully insufficient to achieve substantial progress towards what must be an important intermediate goal: the eradication of child abuse images from the open internet. Tracing paedophiles who share images on peer-to-peer networks and the so-called hidden internet continues to challenge both the police and the internet service providers; it is a challenge that, by working together, they must overcome.

Legal adult pornography is widely consumed. This includes explicit "hard core" material that attracts an R18 certificate from the British Board of Film Classification. Parents and carers clearly have a key role, not to mention interest, in preventing harmful material of this kind becoming available to children. However, they should have access to more information and help where and when they need it. In the off-line world, it is the newsagent, not the parent, who voluntarily places some adult magazines on a top shelf out of reach of children. It is the local authority, not the parent, which administers the licensing of sex shops selling R18 pornography to which children may not be admitted. Some level of analogous protection ought to be provided in relation to online material. At the moment, little is.

Legal adult sites could restrict access by children in a number of ways. In general a robust age verification process should be in place; as part of this, sites could use a combination of the following: requiring payment by a credit card linked to an adult; shielding the content behind a warning page; attaching metadata to the website to make it easier for filters to operate and for search engines not to return the material when operating in a safe search mode.

Filters may not be failsafe, but they continue to improve and are an important way of protecting children from harmful content. We very much welcome the introduction of whole home filtering solutions that prompt account holders with a choice to apply them. The main internet service providers should have contacted all their customers by the end of the year to offer this valuable service. We want to see all other ISPs following suit.

Publishing adult pornography in a way that makes it readily available to children is likely to be an offence under the Obscene Publications Act 1959. We do not believe the police should be deterred from bringing to book publishers of adult pornography who make little attempt to shield children from their product. While acknowledging that the enforcement of obscenity legislation is fraught with difficulty, not least in the context of the internet, we believe there is scope for greater enforcement in this area to provide some deterrent effect. There may also be scope for blocking particularly harmful adult websites that make no serious attempt to hinder access by children.

As part of its existing media literacy duties, Ofcom has an important role in monitoring internet content and advising the public on online safety. However, we are anxious to avoid suggesting a significant extension of formal content regulation of the internet. Among the unintended consequences this could have would be a stifling of the free flow of ideas that lies at the heart of internet communication. Rather, more needs to be done to signpost the advice and educational resources available to both parents and teachers. This is all the more pressing given the growing use of social media and its misuse by some - both adults and children. Today, one in five 12-16 year-olds think being bullied online is part of life.

Social media providers should offer a range of prominently displayed options for, and routes to, reporting harmful content and communications. They should act on these reports expeditiously, keeping the complainant and—where appropriate—the subject of the complaints informed of outcomes and actions. Given that Facebook and Twitter are aware of the extent to which their services are accessed by younger children, thanks to age verification processes that are at best flimsy, we expect them to pay greater attention to factoring this into the services provided, the content allowed and the access to both. The same applies to other social media companies in a similar position.

Some of the worst online bullies and trolls are being brought to book in the courts. Much of the abuse and bullying that takes place online is covered by existing laws, but these need to be clarified with guidance updated for the online space. Young people especially are distinguishing less and less between their lives on the internet and in the real world. Bullying that takes place in the playground can merge seamlessly with bullying on smart phones and tablets. Sometimes this ends with the tragedy of teenage suicide. It is just one reminder that staying safe off-line includes staying safe online too.

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Prepared 19 March 2014