Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 388-399)



  Chairman: Thank you very much. Sorry to keep you waiting, it is a problem of being last on. Can we start off with a question from Lord Hussey.

Lord Hussey of North Bradley

  388. Good morning, we are all sorry to have kept you waiting. Do you think OFCOM can undertake a distinct and valuable role in relation to media literacy and in what particular way would it fulfil that role? You refer to it in your notes.
  (Mr Darlington) The short answer is yes. You have heard a lot of discussion this morning about people's concern that the Internet might be regulated by OFCOM. Obviously we would like as much clarity in the Act as possible. We do not think the government wants the Internet to be regulated and we do not expect OFCOM to regulate the Internet, but it is unquestionably the case that we are going to see more and more convergence not just of telecommunications and broadcasting but of broadcasting and the Internet and therefore a major role of OFCOM will be to raise the level of consumer understanding as to what is happening and how best to respond. I think we are going to move away from the model whereby national regulators, whether it be the BBC or the IBA, decide what is proper for people to see or access at a particular point in time to a model where more and more we empower end users. That is a process which has to be managed because consumer expectations are very different at the moment and therefore OFCOM's programme in relation to media literacy is going to be enormously important to educate consumers to recognise that different delivery mechanisms are going to have different levels of assurances, if you like, as to how the content has or has not been controlled. We will be moving more and more towards a model whereby the end user will be exercising the control through systems like rating and filtering.

  389. Will you be advising on the system and what you think is happening? Will you be constantly criticising the media when it has fallen down on standards?
  (Mr Darlington) We are not constantly criticising.

  390. I am not saying now but looking ahead and being gloomy about what we might find on our screens?
  (Mr Darlington) I do not see why we should be gloomy. The idea of empowering end users should be seen as something that is liberating. There was a time where if we watched a programme on television and went into our place of work we could be sure that half the people round the lunch table had seen the same programme, and when you had that limited volume of programming and limited number of channels and you had a more homogenous society, maybe it was appropriate for the BBC to decide what we should see at any given time. But we now have a multi channel environment in television and with the availability of television channels and increasing broadband Internet connections it is simply not possible for national regulators to decide what is appropriate for any given household to access and to view. Managing that process is going to be difficult because people have had expectations that when they switch on the television set at a particular time, say before 9 o'clock, they are pretty sure they know what they are going to see. If you switch on the PC, especially in a broadband era, you are less sure what you are going to see and what your child is going to access.

  391. That is why I used the word "gloomy".
  (Mr Darlington) I do not know that we should be gloomy. There will be things like rating and filtering and programmes like media literacy which will enable end users to make more sophisticated judgments. Why should we have one standard for every home in the country? Given that we live in an increasingly liberal society and an increasingly secular society and an increasingly multi-cultural society, is it not better that individual households should make decisions and perhaps different decisions in relation to children of different ages? That can be seen as threatening but it can also be seen as very empowering.

  Lord Hussey of North Bradley: I think that is right. I am just interested in your views.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

  392. We are all concerned about children and that is one thing about which we agree. In my experience most children understand technology much better than their parents do. I know families where the child has to operate the video. You have a great optimism that this will work. In fact, most likely the children will be censoring the parents! I accept that we are a liberal and secular society. Well, we are liberal in some things and not in others, but we will not get into the philosophy of this. Does it mean anything beyond the fact that in the end there will be no control?
  (Mr Darlington) That is the alternative to the model I have described—no control. I think, in fact, that parents who are becoming increasingly literate themselves in terms of the media, and who will become more literate as a result of the media literacy programmes of OFCOM, will want to use the growing variety of tools which are available. Some are there now and some will be developed in the future. For example, you have not heard much this morning about the rating system developed by the Internet Content Rating Association which exists now which is a global culture-free system which can be applied to any web site in the world. Technically that can be used to map across to the programming you see on television. You could make a decision as to what is appropriate for your child to see on the Internet or on television and it would be a consistent decision across delivery platforms. Is that not better than the rather random, variegated system we have now?

  393. I see what you are saying and I would not want to dwell on it because it is a rather deep issue but I only make this point because I think all of you are involved in this. I was on the Parole Board for six years and saw human nature at its nastiest. On not one but many occasions rather nasty sexual crimes were influenced by what they had seen on videos. This is a fact. These people, often young people, were not stopped going to it by parents. Just to stand back and say, "We have a responsible, liberal society," denies the facts. I do think that thought ought to be given to that; do you not?
  (Mr Darlington) Can I emphasise that what I have been saying has been in relation to legal content but which many parents would regard as more offensive or less offensive. As regards illegal content we are in a completely different situation and that is very much at the heart of IWF's mission. As regards criminal content, and more especially child pornography, there is no liberalism and there is no relaxation; there is an unremitting and determined effort to get that child pornography removed from the Internet and to assist law enforcement to prosecute the people who put it up there in the first place and who are accessing it.

Anne Picking

  394. You mentioned filtering a little earlier. There seems to be a concern in the Internet sector that OFCOM may set standards for Internet filtering systems, but not to contribute financially to their development. Do you think it is right that OFCOM's research function should extend to active involvement to such a development?
  (Mr Darlington) OFCOM does have a role to play because it will have a lot of expertise and it will have a lot of funds, which are in short supply in the communications industry—at least the regulatory part of it. What we have to recognise, though, is that if we are talking about a ratings system for the Internet, we are talking about a global system. Many colleagues have been trying to emphasise throughout this morning that whether you want to or not you cannot deal with the Internet in the same way that you deal with television because it is a fundamentally different network. One of the ways in which it is different is it is global. For any ratings system to work it has to take account of the very different cultures and values that exist not just in the United Kingdom, not just in Europe, but throughout the world and it has to have a consensus behind it which is genuinely worldwide. There have been two or three attempts to develop ratings systems of that kind. Essentially the only show in town now is the Internet Content Rating Association system which the IWF was a major partner in helping to establish. The challenges now are to get more and more Internet content providers to voluntarily rate their sites according to the ICRA system and get more and more users of the Internet to be aware of this rating system and to make use of it in conjunction with appropriate filtering software. To some extent that is one of our subsidiary roles and it is something which I am sure OFCOM will want to do and with which we all want to work together.

Lord McNally

  395. I was very impressed by Roger Darlington's commitment on child pornography and other issues and we have been reassured on a number of occasions that there is the criminal law there to intervene on abuse of the Internet and on Internet content. I still think the Committee, as Lord Pilkington's concern indicated, is wrestling with this dilemma that there are out there abuses and, as you said, criminal activity. Can we rely purely on the criminal law and voluntary codes of conduct? Are there lessons that can be learned in terms of definition of Internet content or provision? Is there a distinction between provision and editorial content? Are we best to stay out of it and rest upon your codes of conduct and the criminal law or can you see a point for legislation or for powers for OFCOM here?
  (Mr Robbins) If I may answer that. One of the things that we would make a point of in respect of our submissions is that the majority of complaints we have seen are offshore away from the United Kingdom. We are struggling with a volume of complaints which are accessed by subscribers and users in the UK to offshore sites. UK criminal law, of course, is very strong and robust around child pornography, but it is difficult for us to work with European and other international countries which have different forms of legal definitions around child pornography. It is a problem for us and for anybody trying to think about the UK end of it when substantial quantities of material are emanating from offshore.

  396. First of all, are you in regular contact with the Home Office on these issues and are our authorities in contact with international authorities?
  (Mr Robbins) We spend a great deal of time talking about international co-operation. We are a member of INHOPE ( The Internet Hotline Providers in Europe Organisation) which is an arrangement whereby several European countries join together with us to work out common standards and share information and hopefully remove sites that originate from Spain or Sweden or Germany, etcetera, so that they would replicate similar United Kingdom law and have those sites removed.

  397. But in terms of both domestic law and international agreement, is there some continuing consultative process? What you seem to be suggesting is that this is not a role for OFCOM, this is a role for the criminal law, but is there a dialogue between you and the Home Office to see where existing criminal law might be strengthened to give more power over these areas of abuse?
  (Mr Robbins) It is our experience that the laws of the majority of people that we work with internationally across Europe are draconian in child protection anyway, but the type of individuals we are dealing with who are supplying this material are the criminals that chance their arm at everything. The complexity for both the law enforcement agencies and ourselves is tracing, tracking down and having these people arrested and incarcerated.

  398. Do you co-operate, for example, with the National Criminal Intelligence Service?
  (Mr Robbins) Every report that we receive from a UK subscriber is transferred to the National Criminal Intelligence Service and onwards then to Interpol so that gradually it filters across to various other countries who are hosting illegal sites.
  (Mr Davies) Where IWF works very well is dealing with items that are clearly illegal to possess. As soon as you move away from that there is a whole new remit opening up. You can strengthen criminal law but you have to prove that that content is illegal to possess and that is beyond the scope of the IWF at the moment.

Mr Lansley

  399. Have you contemplated in relation to the structure of Bill that not only should OFCOM have a requirement for light touch regulation and only regulate where necessary and so on, but have a requirement to seek to do so by means of self-regulation or co-regulation because that would clearly be consistent with you and a number of other organisations which we may see who believe that OFCOM might have reserve powers but does not need to intervene. Is that something you have thought about at all?
  (Mr Davies) As we were hearing this morning, there are more questions than answers. We are all having trouble predicting the future. I see no compelling reason to change the models of the independent bodies who seem to have done a good job over past years. They are always reviewing their own roles and I see a role for interaction between organisations like IWF, ICSTIS and so on in a conferencing situation with OFCOM. That is not sitting on each other's boards but a process of continued conversation. As to whether you have reserve powers so that you can suddenly step forward, that starts to become a bit more controversial. You are going into this without the additional powers to do it straightaway but if it is going to be two or three years down the road when you might say, "We now want to get involved", that is a different matter.

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