Online safety - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

Government response

The Government is pleased to respond to conclusions and recommendations set out in the Committee's Report on Online Safety published on 19 March 2014.

Protecting children and vulnerable people online remains a priority for the Government and we continue to work closely with a range of stakeholders including law enforcement, charities, and industry, to ensure the UK remains at the forefront in this important area. Overall, Government's policy when it comes to addressing the internet is clear - where something is illegal offline it is illegal online.

A number of the Committee's recommendations are aimed directly at independent organisations and while Government will continue to work closely with them, these are recommendations which are outside of Government's remit to deliver.

Addressing your conclusions and recommendations directly we are pleased to provide the following response, which comprises contributions from a number of Government Departments.

1. We believe that the Government should, in due course, consolidate the law around child abuse images into a single Act of Parliament with a view to providing even greater clarity for the purposes of law enforcement and deterrence.

Response: The United Kingdom is a world leader in the fight against child abuse images. The laws in these areas are rightly robust and clear. They are respected internationally and apply equally to material online and offline. They have stood the test of time against a background of rapidly developing new technology.

These laws are effective and are well understood by legal practitioners, the courts and the police. The Government is unaware of any evidence to suggest there is a need further to amend these laws in the manner suggested. Whilst they are kept under constant review the Government has no current plans to consolidate them.

2. Given the worldwide nature of online crime, we recommend that the Government press for wider international adoption of both the Budapest and Lanzarote Conventions. The Government should ratify the Lanzarote Convention as soon as practicable.

Response: The UK already works closely with EU member states and other international partners in combating online crime and the protection of children online.

The UK signed the Council of Europe's Convention on the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse in 2008 (the Lanzarote Convention). Home Office officials are completing their assessment of what needs to be done under domestic legislation and other arrangements to ensure full compliance and will complete that work this year. In addition to work on the Convention, the Government has set out a comprehensive programme to tackle sexual violence in the action plan of the Sexual Violence Against Children and Vulnerable People National Group.

The Government strongly supports the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime. We ratified it in 2011, and have supported the promotion of the Convention and the work to build global capacity to tackle cybercrime, that the Council of Europe is leading.

3. We recommend that the Government examines whether adequate resources are being deployed to track down online paedophiles in sufficient numbers to act as a meaningful deterrent to others. If not, additional funding should be provided to recruit and train a sufficiently large number of police officers adequate to the task.

Response: As part of the National Crime Agency (NCA), the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Command has access to extensive specialist resources to deal with complex cases of child sexual exploitation and abuse. We welcome that the Select Committee recognised this as a "game-changer". Every one of the NCA's 4500 officers has a legal duty to safeguard children and promote child welfare. Staff can be deployed from across the Agency to meet operational needs including for detection of online paedophiles. The NCA also work with other law enforcement agencies such as the police to track down offenders.

Since the creation of the NCA, CEOP has benefited from the support of its specialist functions such as the National Cyber Crime Unit (NCCU) and the local knowledge of officers stationed in over 40 countries. This has allowed the UK's child protection expertise to be deployed more effectively overseas in areas targeted by paedophiles.

In a recent operation, four individuals were sentenced to a total of 20 years' imprisonment in Bahrain, following an investigation by the NCA in partnership with Surrey Police and Bahraini authorities. The men were found guilty of a range of sexual offences against children involving online extortion. As a result of the operation over 200 children have been safeguarded. Operations such as this one give a clear message regarding the work our law enforcement agencies do in partnership with other countries to tackle online paedophiles. This in turn acts as a deterrent to others.

Work is also underway to develop a national image database that will hold images seized by the police. This will help police in different parts of the country work together more effectively to close the net on paedophiles, and safeguard victims.

4. CEOP 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. We therefore recommend that CEOP continues to publish an annual review which includes an assessment of its ongoing contribution to all three elements of its mission—education, social care and criminal justice.

Response: As part of the NCA, CEOP command is continuing its education and social care work, such as its 'Think U Know' campaign, which has already attracted over 16m hits on its website. In line with the Crime and Courts Act 2013, the NCA will publish a report annually on the exercise of its functions during that year. This Annual Report will include reporting on the full range of the Agency's activity to tackle child abuse.

5. We welcome the increasing use of alerting tools to identify individuals who seek out child abuse and other illegal material online provided these tools are deployed in ways that do not unduly compromise the privacy of the law-abiding majority.

Response: The Government supports this recommendation, and believes that organisations have a responsibility to take steps to identify those individuals who seek such imagery. Compliance by organisations with the UK's data protection laws ensure that the correct balance is maintained between protecting the privacy of the law-abiding majority and tackling child abuse and other illegal material online.

6. We very much welcome the commitment by the Internet Watch Foundation 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 seven additional staff might 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.

Response: The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is an independent, industry-funded self-regulatory body. We welcome the Internet Watch Foundation's decision to embark on proactive searching for online child abuse images. Following the Internet Summit where this was agreed, the MOU between the IWF and the Crown Prosecution Service and Association of Chief Police Officers was updated to reflect the IWF's new function.

Government will continue to work with the IWF to ensure children are protected, for instance we are engaging with them on a project, together with the CEOP Command and industry, with the aim of preventing the distribution of torrent files which enable the download of child sexual abuse images.

7. Search engines and other internet service providers have a vital role in ensuring that access to online child abuse images is prevented and deterred. We expect the Government to monitor closely their degree of commitment and success and to consider the introduction of legislation should they fall short of reasonable expectations.

Response: Working with the private sector is an important part of the Government's approach to tackling online child abuse. Industry has already done significant work to tackle indecent images, through their support of the Internet Watch Foundation and through blocking illegal images hosted outside the UK.

At the Prime Minister's summit with internet industry representatives on 18 November 2013 Microsoft and Google announced that they had introduced a number of changes to their search function, not only in the UK, but across the world and National Crime Agency testing of the new measures shows that child abuse images, videos or pathways are no longer being returned against a blacklist of search terms at present.

The changes introduced by the search engines include:

·  the introduction of new algorithms that will block child abuse images, videos and pathways that lead to illegal content, covering 100,000 unique searches on Google worldwide

·  stopping auto-complete features from offering people child abuse search terms

·  Google and Microsoft will now work with the National Crime Agency and the Internet Watch Foundation to bring forward a plan to tackle peer to peer networks featuring child abuse images

·  Google will bring forward new technology that will put a unique identification mark on illegal child abuse videos, which will mean all copies are removed from the web once a single copy is identified.

We will ensure monitoring is carried out to check the continued effectiveness of these changes. The Government is also setting up a pilot project with the Internet Watch Foundation, NCA CEOP Command, Google and Microsoft, with the aim of removing, from search results, torrent URLs claiming either in the title or in associated text to provide access to illegal child sexual abuse material.

8. We welcome the Government's decision to include pornographic depictions of rape in the definition of extreme pornography. It has been illegal to publish such images for many years; outlawing their possession is long overdue.

Response: We are grateful for the Committee's support for the Government's proposals to extend the extreme pornography offence.

9. There is clearly a need to obtain wider international consensus and cooperation in relation to combating criminally obscene adult material and terrorist material and we urge the Government to use all the influences it can bring to bear to bring this about within a transparent, legal framework.

Response: The UK Government is a world-leader in online child safety and is committed to raising these issues on the international stage - for instance we are planning a summit for December to drive international action to tackle illegal images.

The Government is also committed to working through existing international forums to tackle violence against women and girls to raise opportunities for further action with key international partners.

The UK has the Terrorism Acts 2000 and 2006 as the legal basis for taking action against illegal terrorist content online. The Government plays a full and active part in international discussions about combating terrorist material online; is improving cooperation with the internet industry and seeks to be open and clear regarding the legal basis for UK domestic action against illegal terrorist content.

10. We believe that the existing obscenity laws already proscribe the publication of adult material in ways that make it readily available to children. However, we are concerned that no prosecutions have been brought despite the proliferation of pornography sites which make no attempt to restrict access by children. We welcome the Government's declared intention to legislate to clarify the law in this area. However, in the meantime, we urge the prosecuting authorities to use the existing law to crack down on the worst offenders in order to put pressure on all suppliers of hardcore pornography to make greater efforts to ensure that such material is accessible only by adults.

Response: Government's response to recommendations 10 and 11 is below.

The Government will legislate shortly to ensure that video-on-demand material that would be rated R18 by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is put behind access controls and to ban the provision of material that would not receive any classification by the BBFC. This will ensure that we have the same level of protection for hard-copy and on-demand material based in the UK which is rated R18.We will work with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to strengthen the enforcement of these laws (recommendation 10).

The UK already works closely with member states across the EU in the development of child internet safety measures, as part of the EU Commission's Safer Internet Programme (recommendation 11). This programme provides advice to parents, professionals and children, as well as providing a hotline to report illegal material. There also is an agreement though the Audio Visual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) that material which might seriously impair minors must not be broadcast at all and must be put behind access controls on video-on-demand platforms.

The UK Government will continue to actively engage in any revisions to the AVMSD and will work to find a common standard throughout the EU for the classification of material that might harm.

We have also engaged intensively with industry to introduce measures that will help parents protect their children from accessing inappropriate material online. The four main ISPs all now provide family friendly network level domestic filtering which allows parents to prevent their children from accessing potentially harmful content. We continue to look at ways in which our policies can be strengthened and are considering whether there are further measures which would help to protect children from accessing pornography.

11. The Government should seek agreement with other European Union Member States to ban on demand programme services that make pornography readily available to children. We further urge the Government to engage with other international partners, particularly the USA, with the aim of securing a similar outcome more widely.

Response: [See above]

12. We believe that, 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.

Response: We welcome the Committee's acknowledgement that content regulation of the internet could give rise to unintended consequences such as stifling the free flow of ideas and expression that lies at the heart of the development of the internet. The UK Government defends strongly the successful record of the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance where government joins stakeholders from the private sector, civil society and technical community on an equal footing.

We agree that Ofcom delivers an important role, through its existing media literacy duties and particularly through its annual Children and Parents; Media Use and Attitudes Report, to raise awareness of the ways in which parents and children approach issues related to online safety.

13. Providers of adult content on the internet should take all reasonable steps to prevent children under 18 from accessing inappropriate and harmful content. Such systems may include, but will not necessarily be restricted to, processes to verify the age of users.

Response: The Government agrees with the Committee that content providers, including those providing adult content, have a key role to play in improved age verification processes. Under the umbrella of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), which brings together a broad range of industry, law enforcement, charities and others with an interest in child internet safety, industry bodies are working together to consider potential age-verification models.

14. We have no reason to suppose that Nominet has either the resources or inclination to police the internet. Age verification, while ideal, is not the only way of preventing children from accessing unsuitable content. However, we believe that no .uk site should offer unimpeded access to adult pornography to children. This should be made a condition of registration.

Response: We welcome the Committee's view that Nominet is not an appropriate body to police content on the internet. Following recommendations made by Lord Macdonald in his Review of .uk Registration Policy Report, Nominet recently amended their terms and conditions of registration to expressly prohibit any .uk domains being used to carry out criminal activity, whether that is related to pornography, fraud, or any other crime. This helps them to act quickly to suspend a domain name when alerted to its use for criminal activity by the police or other law enforcement agencies. Given this general prohibition, Nominet does not consider it necessary to highlight any specific laws that must not be broken in the conditions of registration.

15. Site blocking is highly unlikely to be a suitable approach for adult pornography or violent material much of which is legal (at least if it is unavailable to minors) and which is prevalent on the internet. However, blocking should be considered as a last resort for particularly harmful adult websites that make no serious attempt to hinder access by children.

Response: Government agrees with the Committee that site blocking, while entirely appropriate when it comes to illegal child abuse content, is unlikely to be a suitable approach to restricting access to legal material on the internet. Rather, we believe that the development and implementation of measures that help parents keep their children safe online, such as the free and easy to use family-friendly network-level parental controls which have been introduced by the four largest ISPs and which include age-verification processes, filtered public Wi-Fi where children are likely to be, filtered mobile phones and raising parents awareness of the risks that exist online is a more effective approach to minimising children's access to such content. As noted in response to Recommendation 10 in respect of video-on-demand (VOD) material, Government intends to legislate shortly to ensure that VOD content that would be rated R18 by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is put behind access controls and to ban the provision of material that would not receive any classification by the BBFC.

16. We welcome the introduction of whole home filtering solutions that prompt account holders with a choice to apply them. We encourage all internet service providers to offer their customers this valuable service. Ofcom should monitor the implementation of this filtering and report back on its level of success and adoption.

Response: Government welcomes the Committee's endorsement of the introduction of family-friendly network-level parental control tools and would like to acknowledge the efforts of the four largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media, who together constitute almost 90% of the UK's broadband market, in implementing them.

We agree that other ISPs with domestic customers should consider offering parental control tools and we have been working with the Internet Service Providers Associate (ISPA) to encourage them to do so. We understand a number of the other providers are currently actively working on the development of such tools and we look forward to these being rolled out over the coming year.

Ofcom is currently working with the four largest ISPs on a report, which we expect to be published in the coming months, on how far the ISPs have delivered on the commitments they have made on introduce family-friendly internet tools. In addition, Government asked Ofcom to oversee this work, to judge how well the ISPs are doing and to report back regularly.

17. We value the UK games industry and the many educational and recreational benefits it provides to children. As filtering technologies continue to develop, as they should, we trust parents will be empowered to provide the supervision they want of what games their children play and when.

Response: Clearly many games are specifically designed for children and can offer them rich, rewarding and sometimes educational experiences. Over 50% of games submitted to the UK's Games Rating Authority in 2012 were classified as suitable for young children.

We know many parents value a range of advice and tools which they find helpful in managing their children's access to video games content. This may include labels on individual games showing their age-suitability and content (such as PEGI ratings), parental controls that can work with games ratings to restrict access, or that prevent in-game purchasing or that can be set to limit the amount of time that children spend playing games.

We welcome the video games industry's interest in taking part in the dialogue about filters and we are pleased to see that they have joined UKCISS working group on over-blocking.

18. We agree that the availability and performance of filtering solutions must be closely monitored, both for efficacy and the avoidance of over-blocking. It should also be easy for websites inadvertently blocked to report the fact and for corrective action to be taken.

Response: Government agrees with the Committee that websites which are inadvertently filtered should have a simple reporting route through which this can be addressed.

A UKCCIS Working Group, Chaired by Dave Miles of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) and including representation by the ISPs, charities and content providers has been set up to consider this issue.

The four largest ISPs each has in place processes for customers or site owners to inform them of sites which may have been either inappropriately classified or inadvertently filtered. However, the Working Group is looking at the opportunities for a centralised process and common procedures across the ISPs which are easy to understand and use.

19. Websites that provide adult content should signal the fact clearly to enable filters better to take effect. A failure on the part of the operators of such sites to do so should be a factor in determining what measures should be taken against them.

Response: Government agrees that it is likely that more could be done by content producers to improve the accuracy of metadata to enable filters to take better effect.

20. Filters are clearly a useful tool to protect children online. Ofcom should continue to monitor their effectiveness and the degree to which they can be circumvented.

Response: Government agrees with the Committee that Ofcom plays a valuable role, through its Media Use and Attitude Report, in reporting on parents' and children's experiences of using, and circumventing, filters. Government also notes the Committee's acknowledgement that, as published in Ofcom's Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report in October last year, and in its report on Internet Safety Measures: Strategies of Parental Protection for Children Online of January this year, while 18% of online children aged 12-15 say they know how to disable online filters or controls only 6% report that they have done so. Government awaits with interest Ofcom's 2014 Media Use and Attitudes Report, and notes that the report also monitors a range of other important parental mediation strategies such as communication and rules.

21. We welcome the introduction of ParentPort but believe Ofcom should seek to promote and improve it further. For example, more use could be made of it to collect data on complaints concerning children's access to adult material.

Response: Government's response to recommendations 21, 22 and 31 is below.

We are aware that Ofcom and the other regulators involved with ParentPort are considering how the website could be developed to benefit as many parents and carers as possible. Following the Prime Minister's speech in July last year, the four largest ISPs have been working together to develop a large-scale parental awareness campaign, 'Internet Matters'. This aims to encourage parents to learn about the risks that exist when children are online, talk to their children and actively deal with issues that arise, with the tag-line "Learn about it. Talk about it. Deal with it". This launched in May 2014and directs parents to a range of existing sites of help and advice, including ParentPort; this may help promote the site and raise parents' awareness that the site exists to help them make a complaint in relation to inappropriate content (recommendation 21).

While ParentPort does also now include a wide range of advice for parents and carers to help them keep children safe when they are online, including when using social networking sites, it does not gather data on the speed and effectiveness of social media providers' responses to complaints. We understand that Ofcom intends to review ParentPort to make it as helpful as possible for users and Ofcom may wish to consider the recommendations of the Committee as part of that review (recommendation 31).

Government agrees with the Committee's view that Ofcom has a key role to play in relation to a range of internet safety issues, including reporting on the effectiveness of filters. As the Committee sets out, there are parts of the Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report which cover some of these areas, including children's reporting of online content that is nasty, worrying or offensive. Moreover, Ofcom will be publishing the second of two Internet Safety Measures reports looking at parents' take up, confidence in and awareness of parental control tools including filters, expected in December 2014 (recommendation 22).

Government agrees with the Committee's view that developing a body of research and evidence in relation to a range of internet safety issues, including complaints levelled against social media providers would be helpful. We encourage Ofcom to consider this. The UKCCIS also has an Evidence and Research Working Group which looks at the research and evidence available in this area; Government will consider, through that group, what further research would be helpful. Ofcom is a member of that group.

22. We further recommend that Ofcom regularly reports on children's access to age-restricted material, particularly adult pornography and the effectiveness of filters and age verification measures. Ofcom is well-placed to fulfil this role given the work it does on its Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report.

Response: [See above]

23. We note comments on the state of, and access to, sex and relationships education. We are aware this is a politically contested subject but believe the Government should take into account the views of the young people who gave evidence to us of the value and importance of good quality mandatory sex and relationship education as policy develops. In the meantime, teachers have many opportunities to use their professional judgement in advising children both on online safety and on respect for each other. We believe there is scope for providing teachers with clearer signposting of the advice and educational resources that are already available.

Response: We have recently revised the statutory safeguarding guidance for all schools and colleges: 'Keeping Children Safe in Education'. In it we have made it clear to schools their responsibilities to safeguard children, including online, and ensure that they are safe. This may include using opportunities as part of a broad and balanced curriculum to promote children's welfare - for example through personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) and sex and relationship education (SRE). In the document we have also signposted schools to sources of advice, such as that provided by NSPCC, on specific safeguarding issues. Also, in recognition that children are increasingly accessing the internet from an early age the new computing curriculum includes online safety content at all key stages ensuring that for the first time, primary school pupils will also be taught about online safety.

Schools will welcome the new supplementary advice, 'Sex and relationships education (SRE) for the 21st century', recently published by the PSHE Association, the Sex Education Forum, and Brook. This addresses changes in technology and legislation since 2000, in particular equipping teachers to help protect children and young people from inappropriate online content, and from online bullying, harassment and exploitation.

In addition, the CEO at the PSHE Association has agreed to act as chair and set up a new expert subject group on PSHE education and SRE to support teachers. It will clarify the key areas on which teachers most need further support, and identify the topics that can present the greatest challenge during discussions with pupils. He is keen to ensure that the expert group includes young people's involvement.

24. Any changes to legislation, including consolidation of current laws, which clarify the status of bullying, whether off-line or online, would be welcome. At the same time, much could be achieved by the timely introduction of improved guidance on the interpretation of existing laws.

Response: It is of course the case that what is illegal offline, is illegal online. As the Committee notes, there is a wide range of offences that could cover bullying behaviour depending on the nature of it and the circumstances under which it takes place.

These laws are effective and are well understood by practitioners and the police and appropriately interpreted and enforced by the courts in relation to both on-line and off-line conduct. As things stand, the Government is not aware of any evidence to suggest the need for further clarification in this area and whilst the laws are kept under constant review, the Government has no current plans to consolidate them.

25. Both Facebook and Twitter have sensible terms and conditions attaching to the use of their services. However, these should be made much clearer, explicit and visible. People who might be tempted to misuse social media need to be left in no doubt that abuses online are just as unacceptable as similar misbehaviour face-to-face.

26. Given that Facebook and Twitter are aware of the extent to which their services are accessed by younger children, 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.

27. Twitter told us that users can mark their own tweets as sensitive which by default means a warning message is posted to anyone wishing to view these. This is a good reminder that self-restraint and self-regulation are crucial aspects of any enforcement regime in the online world.

28. In spite of reassuring words from Facebook and Twitter, it is clear that these platforms, in common with other social media providers, could do far more to signal the unacceptability of abuse and to stamp it out when it arises.

29. Social media providers should follow the examples of Facebook and Twitter in having appropriate terms and conditions. We believe there is significant scope for such providers—including Facebook and Twitter—to enforce such conditions with greater robustness.

30. Social media providers should offer a range of prominently displayed options for, and routes to, reporting harmful content and communications. They need to act on these reports much more quickly and effectively, keeping the complainant and—where appropriate—the subject of the complaints informed of outcomes and actions.

Response: The Government notes that recommendations 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 and 32 are aimed at social media companies.

The Government has been clear that we expect social media companies to respond quickly to incidents of abusive behaviour on their networks. Social media companies have responsibilities to their users and it is important that they consider what they will do in future as they are best placed to develop solutions and keep abreast of new usage and challenges. We would also echo the Committee's call for social media companies to give greater consideration to the fact that children may be using their services. We will continue to talk to the industry about these issues and what more might be done to protect people when they are online.

31. Ofcom should monitor and report on complaints it receives, perhaps via an improved ParentPort, regarding the speed and effectiveness of response to complaints by different social media providers.

Response: [See 21]

32. We believe it is in the interests of social media platforms, if they wish to avoid a more regulatory approach, to put their money where their mouths are and provide more funding for the valuable work being done on internet safety by voluntary organisations and charities.

Response: [See 30]

33. A good deal of advice on the safe use of social media is available already. This should be signposted more clearly for teachers, who are likely to be in the front line when it comes to dealing with bullying both in the playground and in the online world.

Response: The Department for Education (DfE) clarified its advice on preventing and tackling bullying in 2011, reducing it from 481 pages to 13 to make it more accessible to teachers. The document provides links to specialist organisations that provide advice on bullying and cyberbullying. This includes the DfE funded guide produced by the Anti-Bullying Alliance on cyber-bullying which focuses on children with special educational needs and disabilities. Schools will also welcome the new supplementary advice, 'Sex and relationships education (SRE) for the 21st century', published recently by the PSHE Association, the Sex Education Forum, and Brook. This addresses changes in technology and legislation since 2000, in particular equipping teachers to help protect children and young people from inappropriate online content, and from online bullying, harassment and exploitation.

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