Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the British Board of Film Classification

Executive Summary

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is the UK’s regulator of film and video. The BBFC’s primary aim is to protect children and other vulnerable groups from harm through classification decisions which are legally enforceable and to empower consumers through content information and education.

Although the ecology of the internet is different from that of the more regulated offline environment, the risk of harm, particularly to minors, from both legal and illegal material is at least as great online. Government, industry and regulators should work together to reduce the harm risk wherever possible. There is a case for more joined up co and self-regulation online drawing on existing, effective, and often industry-led models, encouraged and supported by Government.

The starting point for co- and self-regulatory models to protect children online should be clarity of approach and consumer and industry support. The BBFC sets out in its submission the factors for the success of online co- and self-regulatory systems: child protection at its core; effective labelling of content; broad coverage; low cost; efficient, flexible and innovative.

The BBFC is ready to continue to make available its expertise and experience, working with Government, industry and other regulators to improve child protection online. Examples of the BBFC’s involvement in this area include:

voluntary self-regulation by the BBFC of Video-on-Demand (VOD) content applying granular age ratings and content advice;

the BBFC-run regulation of mobile content, including websites, using a binary classification system based around the BBFC 18/R18 standard which enables the filtering of content and protection of minors; and

development by the BBFC and NICAM of a User Generated Content (UGC) ratings tool. This self-regulatory questionnaire is tailored to reflect national differences and is designed to be completed by those uploading the content or the audience, allowing the use of online filters to prevent children accessing inappropriate content and the facility to report abuse.

Online pornography is an important example of where co or self-regulation has not worked well. The BBFC removes any material from pornographic works it classifies which is potentially harmful or otherwise illegal under the Video Recordings Act (VRA), including so-called “rape porn”. But online, where the VRA and its harm test do not apply, harmful material including “rape porn” is available. Greater regulation of such adult content, and content which the BBFC will not classify at any category, would be welcome for the better protection of minors.

There are some obvious areas where Government intervention may be appropriate to better protect children online. Lack of industry self-regulation of online pornography is leading to children being able to access inappropriate and potentially harmful content. Equally, industry could do more, for example through effective moderation or through the age rating of online music videos, to ensure that their service is safe for children and the vulnerable online.

1. Introduction

1.1 The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is grateful for the opportunity to respond to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee Inquiry into Online Safety.

1.2 The BBFC is an independent, non-governmental body which classifies films and videos distributed by way of packaged media and, increasingly, on the internet. The BBFC’s primary aim is to protect children and other vulnerable groups from harm through classification decisions which are legally enforceable and to empower consumers, particularly parents and children, through content information and education. The BBFC will not classify material which is illegal in the UK, including content which promotes terrorism or which features indecent images of children. The BBFC became the independent regulator of content delivered by mobile networks in the UK from 2 September 2013. The Director of the BBFC, David Cooke, sits on the Executive Board of UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) in recognition of the BBFC’s role in the protection of children online.

1.3 The BBFC classifies films and videos/DVDs according to its Classification Guidelines, with ratings ranging from U for Universal to R18 which are restricted videos only allowed to be sold in licensed sex shops. The BBFC’s Guidelines are the result of extensive public consultation with over 10,000 people across the UK being consulted during the most recent Guidelines consultation in 2013. Research demonstrates that the public agrees with the BBFC’s classification decisions most of the time. 92% of recent film viewers agreed with classification of films they had seen recently. (Goldstone Perl, Bernice Hardie 2013); and recognises and understands the BBFC’s symbols 89% of the time (rising to 97% for parents) (TNS, 2007).

1.4 The BBFC also publishes (on its website and Apps) more detailed information, BBFCinsight, aimed primarily at parents, which outlines the key content issues in a film and thereby enables viewers to make fully educated viewing decisions for themselves and their families. This information is available both when the content is distributed by way of packaged media and online. Independent research (Slesenger, 2009) suggests that 86% of parents of primary schoolchildren find this information useful.

1.5 The BBFC runs an extensive education programme both online and through a series of seminars at the BBFC and throughout the country, with visits to schools and colleges, speaking to over 12,000 students in 2012 on media literacy and the classification process. The BBFC further contributes to a number of media literacy initiatives run by industry and child protection groups, including Childnet UK, advising children and adults on how to keep themselves and their family safe online.

2. The BBFC and Home Entertainment Industry Self-regulation Online

2.1 For historical reasons, the current statutory regime for film and video/DVDs does not cover online content. The Video Recordings Act was originally passed in 1984 before digital downloads of videos/DVDs. However, media convergence is increasingly blurring the distinction between physical and online material.

2.2 Independent research commissioned by the BBFC shows that while the public considers that the internet brings greater choice, freedom and flexibility, the majority of viewers still consider it important to be able to check the suitability of audio-visual content they download. 85% of the public consider it important to have consistent BBFC classifications available for Video-On-Demand (VOD) content; rising to 90% of parents of children under 16 (Bernice Hardie, 2011).

2.3 In recognition of public demands for regulatory protection online, the BBFC has worked in partnership with the home entertainment industry on a number of voluntary, self regulatory services which bring trusted BBFC classification standards and well known age ratings and symbols online. BBFC digital services offers labelling and content advice services designed for content providers and platform owners (digital video services). These services cover all forms of video-on-demand including subscription models (SVOD) and transactional (TVOD).

2.4 The BBFC has now rated more than 200,000 videos for online distribution by such companies as Warner Bros, Walt Disney, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Universal, Sony; with BBFC ratings used by platforms such as iTunes, Netflix, Blinkbox/Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Dixons, BT Vision and Talk Talk. The new industry initiative known as UltraViolet—which promotes the digital ownership of content—is also working with the BBFC. Displaying BBFC labelling enables consumers to make informed choices when purchasing retail and rental digital video, thereby empowering parents to protect their children.

2.5 BBFC digital services include a ratings service aimed specifically at content that is only available online and that would otherwise not be provided with a rating. This service—known as Watch and Rate—is becoming more popular and well-used. Compared with the same period in 2012, there has been a 141% increase in industry take up as of 10 September 2013.

3. Online Pornography

3.1 It is generally accepted that exposing children to pornography is potentially harmful to them and is likely at the very least to impair their development. This is why many countries, including the UK, have enacted measures to prevent children from accessing pornography.

3.2 In the UK, the BBFC classifies all pornographic content released both on video and theatrically. The BBFC removes any material from pornographic works which is potentially harmful or otherwise illegal. As well as policing the border between legal and illegal pornography, the BBFC polices the border between the strongest, hardcore pornography, and the less strong, softcore pornography. The BBFC classifies hardcore pornography as R18, which means that it may only be supplied through licensed sex shops, as an extra precaution against underage viewing. However, the risk of children accessing even the strongest legal pornography is far greater online. In addition, there are fewer effective controls on the distribution online of pornography which the BBFC would not classify at any category.

3.3 Online pornography is an important example of where co or self-regulation has not worked well. While the majority of the home entertainment industry has chosen to opt for voluntary self regulation, no members of the adult industry currently use the BBFC’s digital services. The market imperatives which in the UK have driven the mainstream home entertainment industry to adopt best practice self regulation, work in the opposite direction in relation to adult content. While the mainstream video industry recognises that parents want the reassurance of trusted labels on online content, much of the adult industry wants to advertise its product as “uncensored”.

3.4 The BBFC removes any material from pornographic works it classifies which is potentially harmful or otherwise illegal under the VRA, including so-called “rape porn”. The BBFC intervenes to remove from a pornographic work any portrayal of sexual activity which involves lack of consent, whether real or simulated. The BBFC will also remove material, including dialogue, which is likely to encourage an interest in sexually abusive activity, including rape. In short, “rape porn” does not exist in works classified by the BBFC. But online, where the VRA and its harm test do not apply, “rape porn” is available. The BBFC believes that consideration needs to be given into how protections that are applied to physical R18 material can also be applied online if much of the adult industry continues to refuse to participate in self-regulatory measures. The BBFC therefore welcomes the Prime Minister’s declaration on 22 July 2013 that Government will ensure:

“that videos streamed on line in the UK are subject to the same rules as those sold in shops. Put simply—what you can’t get in a shop, you will no longer be able to get online.”

3.5 The Government has recognised the dangers of extreme pornography and in 2008 made possession of extreme pornography an offence under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. A BBFC classification is a defence against a prosecution under this Act therefore purchasing a legally classified work is a protection against inadvertently possessing extreme pornographic material. The BBFC regularly assists Local Government trading standards officers in ensuring that pornographic material has been classified by the BBFC and restricted for sale to licensed sex shops. However, these methods of enforcement are not available online.

3.6 While physical video works rated R18 by the BBFC may only be supplied to adults through licensed sex shops, restrictions to prevent children accessing such material are not maintained online, except for UK services regulated by the Authority for Television On Demand (ATVOD). These services form a very small proportion of the market, making it easier for those under 18 to access potentially harmful pornography. In addition, ATVOD can only intervene and impose rules to require that the material must be made available in a manner which secures that children will not normally see or hear it, if a programme distributed online by a UK provider contains material which might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of persons under the age of 18.

3.7 The BBFC believes that there is a case to strengthen the definition of content online likely to seriously impair the development of minors so that it is clear that hardcore pornography constitutes such content. One option might be an amendment to the Audiovisual Media Services Directive so that explicit depictions of real sexual activity, or activity involving realistic infliction of pain or injury, or real or simulated lack of consent to sexual activity, must be provided in such a manner which ensures that under 18s cannot normally see or hear it. Such an approach would be consistent with that in the Government’s paper: Connectivity, Content and Consumers: Britain’s digital platform for growth.

4. The BBFC and Mobile Networks’ Self-regulation of Online Content

4.1 From 2 September 2013, the BBFC became the independent regulator of content delivered via the UK’s four main mobile networks (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone). Under this new self regulatory system, the BBFC has created a Classification Framework, based on the trusted, transparent and consistent standards set out in its Classification Guidelines, which specifies what content should be placed behind access controls/filters. The Classification Framework is a living document which will be updated regularly to reflect evolving public attitudes and societal concerns.

4.2 The standards in the BBFC’s Classification Guidelines are used to ensure content which would be age rated 18 or R18 by the BBFC will be placed behind access controls and internet filters by mobile operators to restrict access to that content by those under 18. This content includes pornography and other adult sexual content, pro-smoking and pro-Ana (anorexia nervosa) websites and content which promotes or glorifies discrimination, drug misuse or real life violence. The BBFC and the mobile operators believe that this partnership will be trusted by the public, more transparent than the previous mobile regulatory regime and better able to adapt to changes in societal attitudes and concerns in relation to child protection.

4.3 The BBFC believes that child protection would be improved if those operating public WiFi services in places regularly visited by minors applied the same, consistent standards as those used by the mobile operators. The BBFC would be able to offer assistance in setting and applying these standards, as it has done in partnership with the mobile operators for content accessed via mobile networks.

5. User Generated Content Online

5.1 The BBFC was a third party member of the EU’s CEO Coalition to make the Internet a better place for children. In response to a call for action from the European Commission, members of the Coalition in 2012–13 undertook to take positive action to make the Internet a better place for children in the European Union. The Coalition aimed to make the internet safer for children and the vulnerable through action in five core areas: simple and robust reporting tools, age-appropriate privacy settings, wider use of content classification, wider availability and use of parental controls and effective takedown of child abuse material.

5.2 In response to this initiative, the BBFC and its counterpart, the Dutch regulator, the Netherlands Institute for Classification of Audio Visual Media (NICAM) together developed a tool for ordinary people to age rate User Generated Content (UGC) across different countries and platforms and according to recognised and trusted national standards. UGC is growing in significance and needs to be addressed to allow parents the tools to prevent children and the vulnerable from accessing inappropriate content.

5.3 The UGC tool, using a single, simple, free to complete questionnaire, instantaneously produces an age rating which can be shown on the video hosting platform and linked to internet filters. The ratings differ from country to country to reflect different national concerns over content. For example, strong language is an issue for consumers in the UK but not in the Netherlands.

5.4 The tool is simple to use and understand. It contains six questions about the content of the UGC, on behaviour (including racism and other discriminatory behaviour, self harm and suicide), drugs, horror, language, sex/nudity and violence. Completing the questionnaire takes less than two minutes. It also includes a facility for viewers to report content which in their view is abusive or even illegal, such as material intended to promote terrorism or child sex abuse images.

5.5 The questionnaire is flexible. It may be completed by those uploading content or it may be completed by those viewing the content. The ratings can then be linked to online filters. This new initiative will shortly be trialled by Mediaset in Italy and the BBFC and NICAM are looking for trial partners elsewhere across the EU. This initiative could make the online world safer for children and has been welcomed by the EU Commission’s CEO Safer Internet Coalition and the UK Government.

5.6 The BBFC would be happy to demonstrate to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee how this tool could help to make the internet safer for children.

6. Moderation

6.1 One core area that the BBFC believes could significantly improve child protection online is effective moderation of sites that appeal to children and teenagers. The case of instances of inappropriate behaviour on the site Habbo Hotel and demonstrates the importance of robust moderation and effective follow up action if children are to be properly protected.

7. Exemptions from the Video Recordings Act and Online Music Videos

7.1 When the Video Recordings Act (VRA) was passed over 25 years ago certain video works were made exempt from classification by the BBFC because they were considered unlikely to be harmful. The threshold at which music, sport, documentaries and religious works lose their exemption from the VRA remains extremely high despite the content of these exempt works having changed beyond all recognition since 1984. This high threshold has meant that inappropriate and potentially harmful content in such works is exempt from statutory classification, allowing it to be legally supplied to children.

7.2 On 24 May 2013, following a consultation, the UK Government announced that it plans in 2014 to lower the exemptions threshold for all currently exempt material in order to prevent children accessing potentially harmful material. Once implemented, the decision will improve the protection children enjoy from potentially harmful media content by ensuring that video content such as drug misuse, strong violence, racist language, and certain sexual content falling short of actual sex will no longer be legally able to be freely supplied to children. Instead, the BBFC will classify such content to keep it away from vulnerable and impressionable children.

7.3 However, there is particular concern about the content of currently exempt music videos and online music videos, highlighted among others by Reg Bailey in his review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of Children which resulted in the report Letting Children be Children. The Government’s proposed amendment to the VRA will only bring physical music videos within the BBFC’s regulatory ambit. In the Department for Education’s Progress Report on the Bailey Review in May 2013, the Government stated:

“On music videos, we want industry to develop solutions no later than the end of the year to ensure online videos—particularly those that are likely to be sought out by children and young people—carry advice about their age-suitability and content.”

7.4 The BBFC hopes to work with the recorded music industry towards the goal of achieving well understood and trusted age ratings and content advice for online music videos as we have done successfully with the home entertainment industry in relation to other online videos. One company—Universal Music—has begun to submit long form music video content to the BBFC for online age ratings. A number of platforms which use BBFC ratings through BBFC Digital Services have indicated that they would carry music videos if they were age rated by the BBFC. This would then mean that the ability to download these music videos could be controlled by age related filters which would be an important mechanism for child protection online.

8. Conclusion: The Appropriate Regulatory Environment to Protect Children Online

8.1 In a converging media world, it is the content, and not the means of distribution, that is important when considering protection of children. The ecology of the internet is of course very different from that of the offline environment where harm risks are well understood and regulated for. But online, the risk of harm, particularly to minors, from both legal and illegal material is at least as great and in some cases (for example access to legal pornography or pro-self harming and suicide content) arguably greater because of a much greater ease of access.

8.2 In several areas, industry and regulators have worked effectively together to reduce the online harm risk. The initiatives outlined in this response for example, which build on the BBFC’s partnerships with, among others, mobile operators, digital video services and content providers, and our cooperative relationships with fellow regulators both in the UK and overseas, demonstrate this. The public should continue to benefit from these initiatives. Drawing on its experience and expertise, the BBFC stands ready to work further with Government, industry and other regulators to continue collectively to improve child protection online.

8.3 The key criteria for any regulation should be clarity of approach and consumer and industry support. The BBFC believes that the public policy priority should be to create an appropriate framework enabling both existing and future effective self, co and statutory regulation to flourish, empowering consumers to inform and protect themselves and their families.

8.4 In the BBFC’s experience the key factors for the success of an online regulatory system are:

child protection at its core;

effective labelling of content so that the standards are trusted and understood and the symbols used are recognisable;

broad coverage so that the system creates a known standard; and

low cost; efficient, flexible and innovative service so that it can keep pace with technological change and not be burdensome on industry.

8.6 The BBFC’s own self-regulatory solutions fulfil these criteria and have widespread industry and public support. We would encourage Government to continue to encourage and support these, and other, solutions. However, as is clear from our evidence, there are some obvious areas where more robust Government intervention is required to ensure proper protection of children online, for example online pornography, where currently lack of industry self-regulation is leading to children being able to access inappropriate and potentially harmful content. Equally, industry could do more, for example through effective moderation, to ensure that their service is safe for children and the vulnerable online.

September 2013

Prepared 18th March 2014