Memorandum by the Children's Charities'
Coalition on Internet Safety
1. The Children's Charities Coalition on
Internet Safety (CHIS) brings together the UK's leading independent
child welfare and child protection organisations to focus on making
the Internet a safer place for children and young people.
2. Below is our response to the questions
on Internet security which the Select Committee has posed in its
Call for Evidence.
3. The Internet has brought immense benefits
to society in general and to children and young people in particular.
That said, there are clearly also serious downsides to the Internet
as far as children and young people are concerned.
4. The Internet is increasingly recognised
as being a public space but, at present, there is a widespread
feeling that there are still too few protections for children
and young people within it. Indeed for some children the Internet
has become an additional medium through which they can be bullied,
harassed, threatened and made to feel unsafe.
5. Wonderful though its many other attributes
are, a major unintended and unforeseen consequence of the growth
of the Internet as a mass consumer product has been the emergence
of categories of risk which hitherto were either completely unknown
or were much more limited in their scope. In relation to children
and young people, many of these risks are poorly understood by
parents, teachers and others with a responsibility for supporting
children through the different stages of their development into
adulthood. Even when the risks are understood at a general level,
there is often a very limited appreciation of what practical steps
could be taken to reduce or minimise them.
6. In a survey conducted for NCH earlier
this year, ICM interviewed a thousand children aged 11-16 and
roughly the same number of their parents.
One third of children surveyed said they regularly used blogs,
yet only 1 per cent of their parents knew that they did. In fact
two-thirds of parents did not know what a blog was. Similarly
79 per cent of children said they used Instant Messaging regularly,
yet only one third of parents understood what Instant Messaging
7. Without doubt this lack of awareness
of some fairly basic aspects of children's and young people's
use of the technology on the part of parents is rooted in the
fact that many of them left school before the Internet became
what it is today. Parents have not had the same opportunity to
gain a similar level of familiarity with the technology as their
children. This more limited knowledge means parents may struggle
to help their children understand or deal with the risks that
the new technologies present.
8. There are two principal security threats
to children and young people posed by the Internet. Firstly it
can facilitate their exposure either to egregiously age inappropriate
content which they may find disturbing or distressing. Secondly
it can also expose them to predatory individuals who mean to harm
or exploit them.
9. The Select Committee might also want
to note that some banks issue, for example, Solo card, to children
as young as 11. These can be used to make online payments. As
the Trading Standards Institute has noted, since a reliable visual
check of a person's age is, for practical purposes, impossible
on the Internet, this has meant that children and young people
have been able to obtain access to age restricted goods or services
in circumstances which would not have obtained in the real world
eg they have been able to gamble, buy knives, alcohol or tobacco,
or adult videos. In addition, children and young people have also
been the victims of frauds which would not so easily have succeeded
had the targets been worldly wise adults.
10. Addressing the security threats to children
and young people outlined above is not only vital in its own right,
from a child protection standpoint, but it is also important because
of the impact any well-publicised failures have on the general
level of public trust and confidence in the Internet. A medium
that is so frequently associated with stories about child pornography,
paedophiles and scams of various kinds is one that many will choose
11. A startling illustration of this enduring
lack of public confidence in the Internet was supplied in a MORI
poll carried out for The Sun in January 2006.
Entitled "Britain Today" it showed that, given a very
wide range of choices, two out of the top five worries of adult
Britons concerned children and the Internet. Whatever view one
might take about the empirical basis for such a level of concern
there is no denying, firstly, that it is grounded in real events
that have happened to real children and, secondly, that it persists.
12. In the UK we are fortunate to have the
recently established (April 2006) Child Exploitation and Online
Protection centre (CEOP). CEOP has recently launched a hugely
ambitious programme to reach, through the schools system, one
million children to present them with safety messages about online
risks. In this endeavour, CEOP is working very closely with and
in many ways is building on the excellent work being done by the
British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta),
a standalone organisation which is a major source of advice and
guidance both to the DfES and individual schools.
13. Running alongside CEOP's and Becta's
work are the activities of the great majority of consumer-facing
Internet Service Providers, mobile phone companies and portals
which similarly put a great deal of effort into publicising key
safety messages aimed at children and young people. Through their
web sites and other outreach efforts, many of the children's charities
themselves also make their own modest contribution to this larger
effort. In our view all of the players in this space have been
greatly encouraged by the strong leadership shown by and through
the Home Secretary's Internet Task Force on Child Protection,
first established in 2001.
14. So far much of the effort referred to
above is directed at increasing children's and young people's
awareness of the risks and how to deal with them. There has also
been work directed at building awareness and capacity among parents,
teachers and others with responsibilities for children and young
people, but we need to do a great deal more to reach out to these
latter groups. As explained above, parents in particular need
to be much better equipped if they are to be able to provide appropriate
and timely support to their children.
15. While all members of CHIS are committed
to the idea and importance of awareness raising and education
initiatives, we also believe there will inevitably be limits to
what they can achieve. We know there are some hard to reach children
and families for whom, whether temporarily or for the longer term,
education and awareness initiatives will either be entirely irrelevant,
entirely inadequate, or of very limited value. Children with certain
kinds of learning difficulties or behavioural problems, or children
and young people who are unusually needy for any number of possible
reasons, might derive little benefit from a web page full of good
advice. Constant supervision is one possible answer, but that
is not always going to be available or practicable.
16. This leads us neatly to a second qualification:
while education and awareness are key tools, in the quintessentially
technical environment which is the Internet we are very clear
that improved technical solutions can also play an enormous part
in helping to keep children and young people safe.
17. The high tech industries are deploying
ever more sophisticated solutions to combat spam, hacking, phishing,
identity theft and all the other familiar problems which bedevil
the Internet. We can see no reason why child protection should
be exempt, and indeed some companies have been devoting a great
deal of time, energy and research resources to this issue, particularly
in the field of filtering technologies. We welcome these moves
and look forward to their deployment on a much larger scale than
we have witnessed up until now. For example, we believe that a
filtering product should be preinstalled on every computer sold
into the domestic market, and it should be set by default to a
high level of security. This is something we have campaigned for
in the past, and we continue to do so. Such a product could be
turned off altogether or the settings could be modified if the
user so wishes. However, it seems to us entirely wrong that computers
are sold into the domestic market with, essentially, haphazard
arrangements being made in terms of ensuring that parents understand
the risks and what to do about them. So far only one UK manufacturer
of PCs has followed the view expressed here and that was Comet,
the electrical retailers. This shows that it can be done, if there
is a will.
18. When one looks across the globe there
is little doubt that within the cohort of liberal democracies
the UK stands out for both the scale of activity in this area,
and its apparent effectiveness. For example, witness the reduction
in the volume of child sex abuse images being published out of
the UK, from 18 per cent of all illegal images in 1997 to less
than 0.4 per cent today. Similarly, pioneering initiatives such
as BT's Cleanfeed are now being taken up in several other countries.
19. It is hard to prove this beyond all
reasonable doubt but it is widely accepted, and justifiably so
in our view, that the UK's self-regulatory regime has played a
major part in allowing the child safety agenda to move as far
and as fast as it has. Again, we believe the Home Office Task
Force has been absolutely pivotal in this respect.
20. At present CHIS is broadly happy with
the current self-regulatory regime, although it is an area of
policy which we keep under constant review. We think there are
many important things that still need to be done, urgently, many
of which will increasingly depend for their success on improved
21. We would like more thinking to be done
about how to develop the international political will and leadership
to tackle the kinds of challenges that can no longer be addressed
domestically eg around the continued growth of child sex abuse
images on the Internet. We doubt that shifting domestically, for
example towards a more dirigiste regime, would materially aid
the situation. Indeed it is likely to make it worse. One volunteer
is worth 10 pressed men.
22. In the field of child protection we
have several on-going concerns in terms of law reform and these
are being pursued within the framework of the Home Office Task
23. Although it is too early to judge what
difference CEOP will make to the overall situation within the
UK, we all have high hopes and expectations, and are fully supportive.
We believe the early signs are very promising. We will be monitoring
CEOP's activities closely and look forward to engaging with and
supporting their future activities.
24. We are not sure if CEOP has the right
level of resources to allow it to deliver its very ambitious programme
of work. There is little doubt, for example, that there has been
insufficient investment generally in the police's forensic capabilities.
The delay in analysing suspects' computers after seizure is still
far too long in far too many forces and in far too many cases.
25. More generally we are aware that the
rate at which police officers are being trained to work in these
high tech areas is still painfully slow and more resources would
probably help speed this up.
26. The leading role the British police
have played on the global stage in this field ought to be recognised
and applauded. However, there are still too many countries which
lag a long way behind and this is bound to remain a major obstacle
to progress. Interpol, Europol, G8 and the Virtual Global Taskforce
need to give more attention to this problem. Ways should also
be found to allow civil society to be drawn into and support the
work of law enforcement internationally.
2 See http://www.nch.org.uk/information/index.php?i=77&r=469 Back
See http://www.mori.com/polls/2006/s060117.shtml Back
Official figures are not always very helpful in allowing anyone
to make judgements about the scale of the problem, much less to
make comparisons with pre-Internet days, but two reports which,
inter alia, present some of the data to do with child sex
abuse on the Internet and child pornography have been submitted
separately to the Select Committee. These are "Child Abuse,
child pornography and the Internet" (2004), and "Out
of Sight, Out of Mind" (2006), both published by NCH. Back