Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by CARE

About CARE

1. CARE is a Christian social policy charity that seeks to combine caring work with public policy research and public policy shaping initiatives. We work in Westminster, Brussels, Strasbourg, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. We represent approximately 60,000 Christians around the UK, who support our work financially and in other ways. CARE has an interest in helping families protect their children, particularly online. To date our focus has been primarily on trying to ensure that children cannot access age inappropriate content online easily and on helping children deal with online behavioural challenges. This emphasis is reflected in our submission to the Committee.

Summary

2. CARE believes the best way to help parents protect their children online is to have a statutory requirement for companies to provide:

robust age verification before allowing access to age sensitive content on websites, backed up by financial transaction blocking of such websites that do not comply with the requirement, as introduced by the Gambling Act with respect to online gambling;

a child friendly internet that would filter at the home network level age inappropriate content from ISPs and Mobile Phone Operators unless and age verified adult “opts-in” to adult content;

more education for parents coordinated by the secretary of state, conducted by industry; and

strengthen the powers of Ofcom and ATVOD, including requiring Ofcom to come up with a code of practice.

3. We believe that, in combination, these elements will help parents to parent and thereby help to ensure that children and young people are protected online. We also believe that the proposals are proportionate, and will be welcomed by parents who will be greatly helped by a joined-up safety regime.

The Remit of our Response and our Response Objective

4. Our aim is to put forward the argument that (a) the responsibility to protect children from harmful content is not just that of parents but is wider. (b) Legislative change should be a legitimate option to tackle that problem. (c) There are workable proportionate proposals that would lead to making it harder for children and young people to access age inappropriate content online. The mechanisms will not be perfect but they will be much better than what we currently have. We suggest a battery of mechanisms tailored to empower parents and guardians.

The Problem

5. Access to streamed hard core pornography or extreme violence which can at times be degrading is very easy for children to stumble upon or access online with no age verification. Moreover, surprisingly large numbers of children are affected. Accessing such content voluntarily or accidentally impacts children’s development.

6. Research commissioned and published in May this year by the Children’s Commissioner concluded with high confidence that:

7. “A significant proportion of children and young people are exposed to or access pornography”.

8. “Children and young people’s exposure and access to pornography occurs both online and offline. However, in recent years the most common methods of access have changed from magazines, videos, television and books, with the internet becoming more dominant.”

9. “There is some evidence that children and young people consider pornography easy to access and culturally prevalent.”

10. “Access and exposure to pornography affect children and young people’s sexual beliefs. For example, pornography has been linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex; maladaptive attitudes about relationships; more sexually permissive attitudes; greater acceptance of casual sex; beliefs that women are sex objects; more frequent thoughts about sex; sexual uncertainty (eg the extent to which children and young people are unclear about their sexual beliefs and values); and less progressive gender role attitudes (eg male dominance and female submission).”

11. “Children and young people learn from and may change their behaviour due to exposure and access to pornography.”

12. “Access and exposure to pornography are linked to children and young people’s engagement in ‘risky behaviours’ (eg engagement in sexual practices from a younger age, engaging in riskier sexual behaviours such as unprotected anal or oral sex, and the involvement of drugs and alcohol in sex). For example, young people who used pornography were more likely to report having had anal sex, sex with multiple partners and using alcohol and drugs during sex.”

13. “Exposure to sexualised material was related to the likelihood of young people engaging in more sexualised behaviour because they perceived more social pressure to have sex.”1

14. To compound the general problem described above the increase in fast broadband and mobile connections, smart phones and tablet technology make accessing age inappropriate content more portable and therefore much easier.

15. Parents are said to be given free software and tools that they can use on their families computers. However, the proportion of parents that use such tools is low. The most recent Ofcom study into family media behaviour and parental controls found that:

16. “A smaller number of parents have installed technical controls: 50% of parents of 5–15s have parental controls installed on their multichannel television service; 46% of parents whose child goes online at home have any of the four specific types of online controls asked about installed on their PC, laptop or netbook at home; 31% of parents of 12–15s with a phone that can be used to go online have mobile phone ‘filters’ in place; 14% of parents of 5–15s have parental controls in place on handheld/portable games consoles and 16% on fixed consoles.”2

17. While the quantitative statistic show a relatively low uptake of parental controls, Ofcom also commissioned qualitative research into parents view of such controls in order to understand why uptake is low and found that:

18. “After detailed discussion, parents felt that technical parental controls offer the potential for added protection, but that the available range of controls is currently too complex and piecemeal... Parents’ own ‘wish list’ for parental controls also centred on simplicity and included the desire for an easy way to cover all household devices, and to be prompted to install parental controls at the set-up stage or have them preinstalled.”3

19. CARE would be the first to say that parental controls cannot be a substitute for other more important parental behaviour such as talking to children about their internet use, setting physical boundaries within the home or how long a computer game can be played. However, we do believe that parental controls are useful in helping and empowering parents to parent their children. Access to unwanted content cannot be helped by other parenting skills, while parents are simply not available 24 hours a day to ensure rules are kept by young people. Finally, the convergence of technology such as smart TVs that allow access to online streamed content, either through game consoles or through newer TVs means that the internet will now be part of television. Parents have said that they want more help and that the tools that help them control the content that their children access online needs to be easier and more user friendly.

The Solution

20. Since 2009 CARE has worked closely with Baroness Howe of Idlicote, and other concerned parliamentarians, to promote legislative mechanisms that will empower parents to protect their children online and to help children stay safe online. Currently the responsibility falls heavily on parents or guardians, followed by teachers and schools. Our view is that the industry, whether that is website owners, content producers, or internet service providers and mobile phone operators as well as Government could do more to help parents, guardians and teachers protect and educate their children on the safe use of the internet. We don’t mean by this that the industry should intervene to bypass parents to create mechanisms that parent on the parent’s behalf—if indeed such a thing were possible. What we want to see is the empowering of parents with appropriate tools to parent in a technologically new and challenging environment.

21. As the qualitative research commissioned by Ofcom shows, parents want help to ensure they can protect their children. We believe that a cross industry approach with a multidimensional toolbox is the way forward.

Self-regulation seems not to be Enough

22. Self-regulation has worked in some instances. Most Mobile Phone Operators4 and one of the big Internet Service Provider,5 have implemented either active choice or opt-in. Here age inappropriate content is filtered unless a person whose age has been verified as 18+ either makes a choice to lift the filter at the beginning of a contract, or opts-in to receiving such content at a later date. It is very clear from the above, however, that whilst there are some models of good practice, these are not the norm and not sufficient.

23. The problem is that not all companies put children’s safety at the forefront of decision making. We believe this should be a natural part of business governance, extending to all sites, including those that offer streamed hard-core pornography or violent content. It is true that many adult websites require robust age verification to access 18+ content. However there are many more websites that provide such content for free without robust age verification. Moreover, the business model of these websites can be driven by their click through rate as it relates to advertising. This means that the more clicks a website receives, the more money they make, disincentivising the owners of these websites from applying age verification.

24. When viewed in the round, it is clear that self-regulation is not delivering and that legislative change is required. When considered from an historical perspective this is not so surprising. If one considers the efforts to protect children working in factories during the 19th century, self-regulatory attempts were tried and failed. Only legislative that required everyone to act at the same time worked. Similarly if we jump forward in time to online challenges we find a similar picture. Prior to 2005 parents complained that their children were able to gamble online and were developing gambling problems. The industry responded by making all the right noises. They said that they wanted to do the right thing, that under-age gambling was not in their interest and that they would do their best to prevent such gambling. The necessary change did not happen, though, until the law required everyone to act and every company could be sure that all their competitors would similarly suffer lost revenue and consequently their particular business would be no more disadvantaged than any other. Since the 2005 Gambling Act required online gambling firms operating into the UK to provide robust age verification before players could open accounts on which to gamble there have been no problems with underage gambling at all.6

25. Lady Howe has proposed a number of legislative changes to make the online environment significantly safer for children, first, by tabling amendments to Government Bills and, more recently, through her Online Safety Bill.

Amendments

26. Lady Howe moved amendments to the Digital Economy Bill in which she proposed to make it a requirement for all websites that sold or provided access to what would usually be deemed age sensitive content offline, to have to put into place robust age verification mechanisms before selling or allowing access to such content or products.

27. Enforcement was to have been by imposing: a) ISP blocks on those websites that did not comply with age verification if they were based outside of the UK or b) financial transaction blocking (which tends to be more robust) for such websites.

28. ISP level blocking is used already in the UK to tackle websites that promote copyright infringement. Court orders have forced the largest ISPs to block sites such as ‘The Pirate Bay’ by using Section 97A of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act.7 In this context the failure to back efforts to promote child safety online with legislative action seems very weak. In his NSPCC speech of 22 July, the Prime Minister, addressing child safety online, said ‘Nothing is more important than this.’8 If that is correct why is it that we are prepared to take robust legal action to protect the copyright, usually of very large multinational companies, but do nothing more than self-regulation when it comes to protecting children online? Moreover, while blocking sites that do not comply with the law is not as effective for people determined to download music or films, it would certainly make it much harder for children to accidentally access streamed hard-core pornography.

29. That being said, we very much welcome The Authority for Television on Demand (ATVOD) move to ask financial services to consider blocking financial services for websites based outside of the UK that stream adult content without having robust age verification mechanisms in place. This is a viable option which we would like to see put on a statutory rather than voluntary footing.9

Online Safety Bill

30. Lady Howe has also proposed other mechanisms, which can be found in her Online Safety, private members bill.10 This Bill, which is all about empowering parents, makes two key provisions. First, it introduces a statutory opt-in system for both internet service providers and mobile phone operators, to help parents protect their children online.11 Second, it introduces new educational assistance (to be provided both by the Secretary of State and the industry) to help parents make best use of the opt-in system for their family and also to help them understand online behavioural challenges (that the opt-in system cannot address) so they can teach their children to stay safe online.

31. It is important to stress that the opt-in system introduced by the Bill does address the problem of false positives, namely when filters block content that should not be blocked. The Bill requires Ofcom to devise codes of standards to be used in filtering. Specifically, Clause 2 (5) states that: “It shall be the duty of OFCOM themselves to establish procedures for the handling and resolution of complaints about the observance of standards set under this section.” This would include a mechanism for the timely resolution of any complaint made by an owner of a website that should not be filtered.

Flawed Arguments Against Statutory Opt-in

32. One argument that is used against statutory opt-in is that it is censorious. This is obviously not the case. Adults can access whatever content they like and our society has long held that there is content that children should not have access to, which is why we have the watershed on TV, and licensed sex shops to sell 18+ content.

33. Another argument pertains to the efficacy of blocking. To suggest that because no opt-in system will be 100% foolproof, it is a failure is to completely misunderstand the purpose of opt-in. Although there are ways to try and get around the protections provided by opt-in, one must not forget the following:

34. First, not all children and young people will want to seek out adult content but will stumble across it. This would not happen with easy home network level filters. Second, even if a child or young person does want to seek out adult content and finds out how to get around the filters through trying to setup a proxy, filters can be set to block websites that offer free or paid for proxy services. Many office networks are set in such a way. Why should this not be the case on a home network? Third, VPN services usually cost money. While the most dedicated teen might be able to get their hands on a payment system and setup a VPN connection, their ingenuity and tenacity might be something we should silently applauded, while also remembering that these cases will not be the majority.

35. Here we need to remember that no law is perfect and perfectly upheld. This proposal would not be perfect either, however it would be a marked, proportionate improvement on our current situation.

In Conclusion

36. CARE believes the best way to help parents protect their children online is to have a statutory requirement for companies to provide:

robust age verification before allowing access to age sensitive content on websites, backed up by financial transaction blocking of such websites that do not comply with the requirement, as introduced by the Gambling Act with respect to online gambling;

a child friendly internet that would filter at the home network level age inappropriate content from ISPs and Mobile Phone Operators unless and age verified adult “opts-in” to adult content;

more education for parents coordinated by the Secretary of State, conducted by industry; and

strengthen the powers of Ofcom and ATVOD, including requiring Ofcom to come up with a code of practice.

37. We believe that in combination these elements will ensure that children and young people are protected much more than they have been, that the proposals are proportionate, and that they will be welcomed by parents who will be greatly helped by a joined-up safety regime.

September 2013

1 All of the above quotes are taken from the report: “Basically... porn is everywhere” A Rapid Evidence Assessment on the Effect that Access and Exposure to Pornography has on Children and Young People, published by the Childrens Commissioner on 23 May 2013 (http://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/content/publications/content_668 accessed 24 September 2013) pp.7–8

2 Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report, Ofcom, October 2012 p.6

3 Parents’ views on parental controls Findings of qualitative research, prepared for Ofcom and used in Ofcom

4 The code of practice and mobile operators implementations can be found here: http://www.aimelink.org/docs/UK_MNO_Age_Verification_Procedures.pdf (accessed on 25 September 2013)

5 Talk Talk have implemented what they call HomeSafe (http://www.talktalk.co.uk/security/homesafe-demo.html accessed 25 September 2013)

6 John Carr the secretary of the childrens charities coalition on internet safety and senior technology consultant to the UN has writen on the subject here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/john-carr/another-step-forward-for-_b_1951957.html (accessed 25 September 2013)

7 http://www.ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2013/08/uk-government-to-finally-repeal-isp-website-blocking-powers.html
(accessed 25 September 2013)

8 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-internet-and-pornography-prime-minister-calls-for-action
(accessed 25 September 2013)

9 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/10322072/Banks-to-block-internet-porn-sites.html
(accessed 25 September 2013)

10 http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2012-13/onlinesafety.html (accessed 25 September 2013)

11 There are some parallels with the recommendations made by Claire Perry MP, the Prime Minister’s online child safety advisor in an independent parliamentary report, http://www.claireperry.org.uk/downloads/independent-parliamentary-inquiry-into-online-child-protection.pdf (accessed 25 September 2013)

Prepared 18th March 2014