Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Safermedia

Short Summary

1. How best to protect minors from accessing adult content:

Opt-in ISP level filters are best, with customers given an unavoidable choice whether to apply them or not. Free public Wifi should all be filtered as standard (I am not mentioning places where “kids don’t go”). Parents need more support to apply filters and talk to their children. Sex education in schools must not include (overly-delete) explicit material. Extensive research shows serious harm from pornography.

2. Filtering out extremist material, including images of child abuse and material intended to promote terrorism or other acts of violence:

Government and especially industry must put far more funding into R and D.

3. Preventing abusive or threatening comments on social media:

More R & D also needed here—to continue to develop and implement effective safety measures—inline with any other environment that is potentially dangerous for children. Robust and effective law enforcement is necessary.

4. Conclusion:

Where a conflict arises the protection of children must always take priority over freedom of expression and commercial interests.

1. How Best to Protect Minors from Accessing Adult Content

Filters

The vast majority of experts and childcare experts, including major children’s charities, agree that ISP level filters with a default of porn off, and an “opt-in” for over 18s who wish to access all content, are currently the best way to protect minors. What was announced by the Primer Minister in July was slightly different (all customers will be presented with an unavoidable choice to apply filters or not) but we applaud his work to have this introduced for all customers of the big six ISPs by the end of 2014. However all ISPs should be included as soon as possible, and the system will only work properly if there is strict age verification. Close monitoring is vital. Ofcom, given this task by the Prime Minister, must without delay develop clear standards, with which all ISPs should be required to comply. Ongoing monitoring will also be key.

Recent research from the magazine PC Pro (Sept 2013) shows that 80% of parental controls fail to filter explicit material, with only three out of five of the most popular website filters being 100% effective in blocking pornography. This is an egregious situation for parents and carers and demonstrates clearly the need for automatic ISP level filters.

ISP level filters should apply to all internet-enabled devices including:

Vodaphone and EE (tested by our technical adviser) do not enable Google safe search and so a simple search for obvious keywords and clicking on images yields lots of images. But usually if you click on one to go to the website, the content blocker will block it. This is something Google really needs to do more work on.

Figures suggest 91% of pre-teens and teens who have a smartphone have internet access 24/7. The pornography industry’s main target is the 12–17 age group and they are putting huge efforts into monetising the mobile phone. Between 22 and 25 September the pornography industry XBiz conference was held at the Radisson Hotel in Bloomsbury in London and their focus was on opposing UK plans to limit access to online pornography in the UK http://www.xbiz.com/news/168143 .

than half of free public Wi-Fi networks let users access porn, violence and drugs. Mobile security firm AdaptiveMobile, tested the web filters on public networks across the country and discovered one in three UK cafes and restaurants have no filtering in place at all—leaving children in danger of accessing pornography.

The Government will clearly have to work much more closely with the industry and all who offer public Wifi to ensure progress is made in line with the Prime Minister’s timetable.

Education

Parents are the most important people to reach with education about computers: they need to learn how to set up safety measures; to have an understanding of what children can and are doing online; to know how best to communicate with their children about internet use, and measures to protect their children. They must also be encouraged to talk a great deal more to their children about these issues and be helped with the skills needed.

Here also the Prime Minister has promised to make much more use of government resources to raise awareness among parents and empower them, and we welcome that.

Children need education too, but it must be remembered that teens’ neural chemistry and reward signals means they are inclined towards risk taking and impulsive behaviour. Their natural curiosity and desire for independence can make them forget education and warnings by parents and other adults.

School

Although it would be helpful for schools to explain the dangers of online porn to children, we do not believe that there should be a change to the curriculum of SRE lessons as has been suggested by some. Teachers must also be very careful not to cover such explicit material that they themselves inadvertently introduce young people to porn. Again, it is extremely important for parents to be made aware so they can better protect their children and this could be done through courses in schools for example.

Other measures

Safermedia applauds the recent announcement that Government proposals include Banks and credit card companies blocking payment to websites with pornographic material.

Research showing serious harm from pornography

Finally it is very important to remember exactly why we need to protect children from adult content. The following examples give an idea of the large body of compelling international evidence showing serious damage to sexual development and behaviour from pornography:

“Overall the body of research on pornography reveals … it functions as a teacher, permission–giver, and a trigger of … negative behaviours and attitudes. The damage is seen in men, women and children, and to both married and single adults ... pathological behaviours, illegal behaviours and some behaviours that are both illegal and pathological.”

This research forms part of “The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations,” the findings of an inquiry and consultation that ran from 2010–12, sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute and the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. Fifty four of the ablest professionals and academics in law, medicine, political theory, philosophy, religious studies, history and several other disciplines contributed.

The results are clear and consistent; exposure to pornographic material puts one at an increased risk for developing sexually deviant tendencies, committing sexual offences, experiencing difficulties in one’s intimate relationships, and accepting the rape myth. In order to promote a healthy and stable society, it is time that we attend to the culmination of sound empirical research. The rise in sexual crimes, sexual dysfunction and family breakdown may be linked to increased availability and use of porn.”

May we point out that these are both extremely extensive pieces of work, the former being a multifaceted, multidisciplinary and scholarly exploration of the issue, and the latter a meta-analysis of previous research.

New research by Cambridge University neuropsychiatrist Dr Valerie Voon shows that men who say they are addicted to porn … develop changes in the same area as heroin addicts—the reward centre—that changes in drug addicts. (Norman Doidge, The Guardian 26 Sept 2013)

2. Filtering Out Extremist Material, including Images of Child Abuse and Material Intended to Promote Terrorism or other Acts of Violence

Adequate resources must be provided and used by search engines and ISPs to filter out harmful material which can be accessed via their platforms.

Adequate funding and resources provided by both the industry and Government to ensure those involved in investigating and removing such material could be very effective.

3. Preventing Abusive or Threatening Comments on Social Media

Safermedia wants to see Facebook and other social networking sites behaving responsibly and putting the well-being of children and other vulnerable groups first. Currently underage children are able to access social media too easily; 7.5m children under 13 have a Facebook page. Sites such as Tumblr have plenty of pornography; Facebook content can be pornographic; violently sexist and racist. It can poke fun at victims of terrorism, disease, etc. Much of it is inappropriate for 13–17s let alone under 13s. Social media (including chat rooms popular with young teens, etc) is also used by sex traffickers and paedophiles to groom children, and by prostitutes to solicit.

Facebook’s own rules should better reflect the law in other forms of media. The making of rules by an operator who is making large sums of money from its users through advertising is not a satisfactory situation, especially where children are concerned.

There needs to be improved moderating of these sites with proper training and compliance.

There should be swift action to remove content when a complaint is received. This is a health and safety issue and other industries have to comply with strict regulation.

Social media make vast amounts of money from the marketing and tracking of their users. They should have to take into account that children are immature and lack the judgment needed to make decisions about sharing their personal information online or to grasp the consequences of their actions on others.

Urgent research and development should be done by industry to prevent inappropriate content being shared peer to peer.

Robust age verification is vital if ISP filters and social media sites, are to protect children effectively.

Recent decisions by Ask fm and Twitter following public outcry have led to some improvements in safety measures. This is welcome and shows that the industry can and must do more.

4. Conclusion

Safermedia understands that immense benefits can be provided by unimpeded communication and free speech, and any attempts to mitigate harms have to be proportionate and, where possible, avoid disadvantageous consequences. However in a civilised democratic society the protection of the vulnerable must be at the top of the Government’s agenda, and our children fall into that special category, which must be above ruthless and exploitative commercial interests. There is not merely a moral but also a public health aspect to this—if the health, development and relationships of our youth are allowed to be undermined by harmful internet content, the whole of our society will pay: higher welfare and healthcare costs, more anti-social and criminal behaviour and ultimately higher taxes for all of us. We trust that this Culture, Media and Sport Committee Inquiry will result in making the protection of our children and the stability of our whole society a top priority.

September 2013

Prepared 18th March 2014