Memorandum submitted by Children's Charities'
Coalition for Internet Safety
We write to the Committee in relation to various
matters affecting child safety on the Internet and the Communications
Bill. We have written in similar terms to the DTI/DCMS.
There is still a great deal of doubt about whether,
or to what extent, families will use digital TV for the kind of
Internet access that would appeal to or be useful to children.
Certainly if there is only one Internet-connected digital TV in
the house, and it is also the main family TV, it seems unlikely
that other family members will be happy about having to forsake
their favourite viewing while someone else does research for their
homework or downloads the latest games for their console. However,
as digital providers make cheaper and easier connections available,
we have to contemplate the possibility that more Internet connected
TVs will migrate to children's bedrooms or play areas where we
already find 2nd or 3rd family TVs. Many families try to maintain
some sort of control or supervision of their children's use of
the Internet by keeping the PC in a communal part of the house:
that possibility will be greatly reduced if the Internet is also
going to be available through their children's TVs. This adds
to and underlines the importance of the digital TV providers getting
it right in relation to online child safety.
We would also like to comment on an aspect of
the debate on the Communications Bill that we believe highlights
a tension, even possibly a contradiction, in public policy. At
various times commentators have suggested that the Government
has a higher, or at any rate a different, responsibility in relation
to access that is provided through digital TVs where the content
is provided free to air or is universally available. The obvious
implication is that it has a lower or lesser responsibility where
a person has deliberately opted to pay for an additional service
or an extra form of access eg a subscription channel.
However, elsewhere, we note that Government
Ministers have said, repeatedly, that by 2005 there should be
no "involuntary digital divide in the UK" and the advent
of digital TV is seen as being an important mechanism that will
help deliver this objective. This push to get the whole of the
population online is underpinned by a range of other measures
the Government is pursuing eg it has also said that by 2005 all
central Government services that can be provided online should
be provided online. It is also supporting various "e-experiments"
in citizenship and is promoting, for example, the possibility
of voting online.
Against this background, we do not think it
can properly be said that paying to have Internet access through
your digital TV is in any way analogous to subscribing to, say,
Sky Sport 3 or to any of the so-called adult channels, particularly
if digital TV is to provide the only form of Internet access available
in a person's house.
Public policy is driving people towards digital
TV and towards the Internet: where the two meet, public policy
has a particular responsibility to ensure a safe environment,
particularly for children. Internet access is increasingly becoming
more akin to a public utility, and it is becoming less and less
like an optional extra that we must accept entirely at our own
To the extent that digital TV companies are
merely providing a gateway to the Internet as a whole, then subject
to our comments below, we accept that OFCOM cannot have a primary
responsibility for regulating the content of what appears on the
wider Internet. It would be ludicrous for anyone to expect a British
OFCOM to seek to give credible directions or advice to, say, Internet
publishers in Taiwan or Russia. The World Wide Web is a global
publishing medium and no single body would have either the authority
or the wherewithal to undertake such a role in any kind of meaningful
However, we note that it is possible that certain
digital TV services providers will not be providing full access
to the whole of the World Wide Web: they may be providing access
only to sites or services where they have a commercial interest
of some kind or where they make a charge to the publisher to allow
them to put their wares in front of their customers. It may even
be the case that the digital TV company concerned will give specific
technical directions to the publisher as to how material must
Where such circumstances prevail, the digital
TV provider ceases to be a "mere conduit" for other
people's propositions. In these circumstances the digital TV provider
is becoming more closely involved in the process of publishing
and needs to understand that they therefore have a more direct
responsibility for the content and its consequences.
We note that at paragraph 3.2.1 the Government
speaks of the Internet as if it were only concerned with the Web.
But, of course, the Internet is a great deal more than that. There
are several other technologies available on the Internet, some
of which potentially present substantial safety concerns for children
eg Chat Rooms. It is not clear from the Government's response
what expectations exist in relation to these other attributes
of the Internet: at the very least we would expect all providers
of Internet services through digital TV to embrace the minimum
standards currently being formulated through the Home Secretary's
Internet Task Force on Child Protection. These broadly represent
current best practice within the wider UK Internet industry.
At several points in the text eg paragraph 3.2.2,
mention is made of "the industry", but nowhere is it
made clear who exactly is encompassed by this notion. Historically,
when discussing child safety on the Internet, "the industry"
was deemed to cover only the Internet Service Providers. More
recently, within the Home Office Task Force, the definition of
"the industry" has been broadened to cover the major
retailers of computer equipment, various software houses, and
other providers of Internet-based services. Logically, in the
context of this Bill, one would imagine "the industry"
to be made up principally of digital TV providers, but they are
very unlikely to be able to deliver everything on their own.
THE UK DOES
At various points in the text, eg 3.2.2, mention
is made of the UK's existing self-regulatory regime for the Internet
as if this were an established fact, a tangible and successful
instrument of policy. This is an extravagant and misleading use
Since 1996 the UK has benefited from the activities
of the Internet Watch Foundation: I am currently a member of its
Board, and I was also a member of its predecessor body. Throughout
this period, and today, the IWF has had a clear operational remit
to do only one thing: act as a notice and take down service in
relation to child pornography. More recently it has agreed to
act as a notice and take down service for illegal racist material
but this has not yet been implemented.
It is, of course, very important that the UK
has a notice and take down service for child pornography and for
illegal racist material, but even if both were fully functioning
today, which they are not, these two responsibilities alone would
hardly justify the grandiloquence of describing the IWF as "the
UK Internet's self-regulatory body".
The reason why the IWF is often referred to
in such terms is because, at one time, certain elements within
and around the IWF had ambitions to become such a body, and its
officials frequently described the IWF in that way. However, it
is now clear that there is no consensus around the notion that
the IWF should or could adopt a wider or more ambitious role.
Indeed, unless and until the IWF has fully and properly implemented
the results of recent policy changes on how it handles child pornography
on the Internet, its core business, we would vigorously oppose
any expansion of its remit. The IWF is, in short, far too slender
a reed to bear the weight that some people seem to want to put
The shortcomings implied in the UK not having
a single focal point for the discussion or resolution of a range
of concerns about the Internet, have more recently been recognised
within the context of the Home Office Task Force where a special
working group has been established to discuss the formation of
a "One Stop Shop".
OFCOM should make explicit that it may use its
reserve powers to protect children
We entirely endorse the notion expressed in
"OFCOM will work alongside the industry
in developing systems that continue to safeguard children . .
This statement implies that should OFCOM, at
any point, become convinced that "the industry" had
ceased adequately to address issues affecting children's online
safety, OFCOM might consider making regulations to require "the
industry" to take certain steps. We note that the Government
expressly says that it is considering doing something similar
in relation to video-on-demand. Very similar concerns arise here.
This is not taking OFCOM into issues of content
regulation. It is, above all, about ensuring that consumers who
might move frequently between different parts of the digital stream
are always aware that they are potentially moving between regulated
and largely unregulated environments. We see this as being closely
allied to OFCOM's responsibilities to promote media literacy,
but it extends well beyond that. Crucially, it is about recognising
that by closely integrating Internet access into a major household
appliance found in virtually every home in the land, namely the
TV, the digital TV companies are potentially introducing a step
change in the way in which families in general and children in
particular are going to relate to the Internet in the future.
At the very least we think we have a right to expect that the
digital TV companies will at all times observe the very best technological
and other practices designed to keep children as safe as possible
when they go online.
Somewhere within the OFCOM structures there
ought to be a group with responsibility for fleshing out the sentiments
expressed in 3.2.2. The Consumer Panel may be the right place
and in that context we express the hope and expectation that appropriate
means will be found to enlist the right kind of expertise. The
children's charities stand ready to assist as appropriate.