Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240
WEDNESDAY 10 JANUARY 2007
Mr Carr, thank you very much for coming to talk to us. You have
been sitting there, so you have seen how we proceed. Would you
like to introduce yourself, first of all.
Mr Carr: I represent the Children's Charities'
Coalition on Internet Safety. That comprises all of the UK's largest
child welfare charities and child welfare organisations, the NSPCC,
Barnados, NCH, the Children's Society and so on. I am technically
an employee or a consultant, I should say, to NCH and their contribution
to maintaining the coalition is, as it were, to lend me as a resource
to it, so I am an independent consultant, I work for the children's
organisations, but also for other people as well, and I have been
working particularly in this area of child protection on-line
for just over 10 years now.
Is there anything you would like to say as an opening statement?
Mr Carr: Beyond that, no. I endorse certainly
the recommendations that I just heard the police make; I think
they are sound and would be very useful, particularly the first
one about getting child protection made a national policing priority
and it is a mystery why it is not.
Let me start by opening up questions for you and the first one
is: who do you think is responsible for protecting children on-line?
Mr Carr: There is no silver bullet, there is
no one agency or group which has this responsibility exclusively.
I think the industry certainly has a key responsibility, and that
covers a range of different players. The education system absolutely
has a responsibility, as it does to educate children about a whole
range of civic and personal things within the context of education.
Of course the Government and the public services have a responsibility
in terms of promoting a healthy society to make their part, make
their contribution to that process. Again, just to underline the
point that was made before, parents, above all, have a responsibility
and children themselves do as well.
Do you have any thoughts about what we should do about this? You
have identified a significant gap between what children are doing
on the Internet, blogs and instant messaging, et cetera, and the
level of knowledge of parents, who in most cases have never even
heard of these technologies.
Mr Carr: Yes, without a doubt, I regard one
of the most important things that public policy needs to address
is how we close that gap because parents are always going to be
the first, and best, line of defence and support for their children.
No-one knows or no-one ought to know a child better than their
parents do and no-one is going to be in a better position to help
a child deal with a whole range of things, but if the parent lacks
the knowledge of certain fundamental things or things that their
children are doing, it is very hard to see how they are going
to be able to help their child to the best effect, so bridging
that gap is a huge challenge for public policy. We, as NCH, were
commissioned by the DfES two years ago now to run, and this addresses
a question I heard you ask earlier, Internet safety classes for
parents working through individual schools and we in fact set
these things up in 200 schools in different parts of England,
in middle-class, rural areas, in inner-city areas and so on, and
the response was very, very diverse. At some of the events we
turned up to, one parent came along. At other schools, 250 parents
came along. Schools are the logical or obvious way to try and
reach out to parents, but the attendance of parents at these sorts
of events seemed to depend largely upon how successful the PTA
in that school was in attracting parents to a whole range of other
things as well. It seemed to me that relying only or even principally
on schools as a means of reaching parents to help them bridge
that gap was not going to work because you would be in effect
devolving the responsibility to agencies that we already know
are very patchy in terms of their effectiveness, so obviously
it would be worthwhile continuing to try and make that work better,
but we also need to find other ways of reaching parents as well.
Q244 Lord Harris of Haringey:
In your evidence, you refer to two principal security threats,
exposure to what you describe as "egregiously age-inappropriate
content" and then the exposure to predatory individuals.
Can you give us some sort of indication of the risks, the relative
frequency and the gravity of it?
Mr Carr: This may shock some of you, but I am
in my 50s now, I know I do not look it, but I can remember with
crystal clarity the first time I saw what you might generally
call a "hard-core" pornographic image. I was 19 years
old and I was on holiday in Denmark. Now, that type of image,
and I still have a vivid recollection of that particular image
because I had never seen anything like it before in my life, that
type of image is now kind of commonplace on the Internet. I will
give you numbers in a second, but it is seen not infrequently
by children as young as six, seven, eight, nine and so on. There
are a whole range of possible views that one might take about
how bad the impact of those types of images might be on children.
Some people think they are absolutely inconsequential and that
they do not do any real damage at all. Others, and I would associate
myself with this second category, think that this can be very
scarring and very damaging and very shocking particularly for
younger children to be exposed to. Just to turn to the numbers,
the most authoritative source of data, by the way, in this field
is, without doubt, the survey done by Professor Sonia Livingstone
of the London School of Economics and I ought to make clear that
I was a member of the advisory group that helped devise this survey
and helped as an adviser generally with that project. What they
found in the LSE survey, and this is all available on-line in
a publication called "UK Children Go On-Line", was that
57 per cent of youngsters between the ages of nine and 19 who
were regular users of the Internet had come into contact with
on-line pornography and 38 per cent of those had seen it as a
result of pop-ups that had appeared on their screens, so again
unsolicited, unsought, unlooked for, 36 per cent had found it
accidentally and 25 per cent had seen these types of images as
a result of opening up spam which they had received, unsolicited
email. The scale and frequency is not, I think, really in dispute
any more. One would hope that, as anti-spam technology improves,
as the messages get through about the importance of not opening
spam if you do not know the source and so on, these will reduce,
but I still think that, however successful those sorts of initiatives
are likely to be, the residual component of that type of activity
is still going to be substantial. How scarring and how bad could
the exposure to this type of material be for an individual child?
It is very hard to say because these are subjective things and
there are no objective criteria that you can refer to that are
of any great assistance. For a particular child seeing a particular
image in a given context, it may have very little effect, but
at another time being exposed to those sorts of images, for a
different child, a more sensitive child, a more sheltered child,
it could be very, very damaging indeed, very scarring indeed.
I am happy to develop on that if you want me to, but I will move
on now to the question of contact and communications. Again if
I refer to the LSE study, one third of regular users of the Internet
between the ages of nine and 19 said that they had received unwanted
sexual messages and 31 per cent said that they had received "nasty
comments" on-line or through their mobile phones. In this
study, by the way, which was done face to face where they interviewed
the parents of the children afterwards and separately, only 7
per cent of the parents were aware that these types of things
were happening to their children. A significant proportion, in
the LSE study again, around about 8 per cent of children who had
met people for the first time on-line went off to meet them in
real life. Now, that is obviously potentially the most risky thing
that can happen, a child meeting somebody in a chatroom or in
a virtual environment and being invited to go and meet them in
real life and then actually going off to do that. There was one
case which was documented by the University of Central Lancashire
where I think a nine-year-old boy, who lived in Preston, went
off to meet somebody whom he had met on-line and got on the bus
and went to Blackburn to meet the person. As it happens, it turned
out they were both great football fans of Manchester United, so
nothing bad came of it, but it does illustrate the possibilities
that can arise from this.
Q245 Lord Mitchell:
You have advocated the compulsory reinstallation of filtering
systems on computers, and the police have called them "nanny
programs", to be set at a high level of security. Do you
have any measure of the effectiveness of such filtering systems?
Mr Carr: The short answer is no, but we will
do soon. The Home Office speaker previously referred to the fact
that there is a government working party, of which I am actually
the Chairman, by the way, which is looking into developing a kite-mark,
working with the British Standards Institute to give a quality
assurance mark for filtering products.
Q246 Lord Mitchell:
Do they work?
Mr Carr: Yes, they work. The question which
we have not yet finally resolved is what numerically will be an
acceptable level of false positives essentially, which is what
it will come down to. We would hope that the filtering software
will work at the same type of level of efficiency as anti-spam
and anti-phishing programs already do. Whatever filtering program
that you might imagine will be used in this environment is never
going to be 100 per cent perfect; it will over-block or it will
under-block. The question is: what is an acceptable level?
Q247 Lord Mitchell:
If I wanted to turn on anti-spam on my computer, I would be doing
it because I wanted to do it. If a parent turns it on, the parent
knowing probably a lot less than the child as to how the computer
works, the child can then turn that off quite easily presumably.
Mr Carr: Only if the parent has done it badly.
Sadly, it is worse than that because typically what will happen
is that the parent will say to the child, "Here's the blocking
software. Would you mind installing it, please", so the child
will invent the password or, alternatively, the parent will tell
the child the password. This gets to one of the issues and one
of the problems with the blocking software, that the software
has to be very good, otherwise parents will simply turn it off.
If a parent is being called up to the child's bedroom or study
every five minutes because a site is being blocked and the child
cannot read it and the parent needs to make a decision about whether
to override it or not, they are going to get fed up of that pretty
quickly and they are going to stop using it, so the software has
to work at a very high level of efficiency and be very smart.
Some of the software products which came out in the early days
were very poor and that is why the take-up of them, in part at
any rate, has not been as good as it might be. What we hope is
that, if we develop a BSI standard which will be on the boxes
in the shops or on the websites when parents go to it, when parents
see that BSI kite-mark on the products, this will give them some
level of confidence in the quality of the software and it will
encourage them to download and use it. I might just say, you asked
a question earlier about what the response from the industry has
been, and obviously the manufacturers of this software are very
keen on this initiative because they imagine it will mean that
their products will sell more, but the really difficult bit of
the equation is getting the computer manufacturers to agree to
the pre-installation because it is at the factory where these
settings are first put on the machine. One manufacturer has already
done it and that was Comet. Now, Comet are a major electrical
retailer, they are not major computer manufacturers, but they
do have their own brand, they are a manufacturer of computers
and they did do it on their own-brand machines. That demonstrates
that it is possible, but only if you want to do it. The cost of
doing it is negligible. I went to the factory to see the whole
process being done and the manager of the factory that I visited
said quite frankly that it is impossible to compute the cost of
that extra step in the manufacturing process because, in essence,
all they do is make the settings once, they put them on the goldmaster
disk and that goldmaster disk is then copied along with everything
else, the operating system, the office software and what-have-you,
on to the hard drive, so in terms of additional cost in the manufacturing
process, it is nearly nil.
Q248 Baroness Sharp of Guildford:
In your evidence, you express support for the UK's self-regulatory
approach, but are there areas where you think regulation might
be more appropriate?
Mr Carr: No, but a qualified no. Self-regulation
is always going to be a better approach because it is more flexible
and quicker. Leaving aside acknowledged national emergencies and
so on, if you look at the typical gestation period for an idea
coming into the public policy arena and ending up as a law, it
will typically be four or five years or something like that. If
you have a self-regulatory environment, it is possible to move
a lot more quickly and of course self-regulation, by definition,
means that you have got the co-operation of industry and, if you
have got the co-operation of industry, then you have got access
to their expertise and they are going to be much more enthusiastic
about getting on and doing it. Self-regulation has worked very
well in the UK up to now, but I have to say, and I do not want
to be disingenuous about this, I think one of the reasons it works
so well is because the industry believe that, if self-regulation
is not seen to work, the Government will step in and legislate,
and that is what they want to avoid and for very well-known reasons
that we need not rehearse. It is very much in the industry's interest,
I believe, to continue to make the self-regulatory environment
Q249 Earl of Erroll:
How does the risk of going on-line actually compare to the general
risk in society?
Mr Carr: Of living, you mean?
Q250 Earl of Erroll:
Yes. There is a risk out there anyway of children being kidnapped
and abused, et cetera, but is that risk greater on-line?
Mr Carr: Well, I do not mean to be facetious,
but more people get killed falling down stairs every year than
do, I think, crossing the road or something of that kind, but
do we all live in bungalows? No, we do not. If you are a parent
and you are aware of an avoidable risk to your child, you will
want to avoid that risk if you reasonably can, so in that sense,
whether the risk is one in 10 billion or one in 10,000 or one
in 100, it is irrelevant from your point of view as a parent.
What you want to know is: is my child at risk, what is the risk
and how do I avoid it? With the Internet, what we are talking
about are a number of risks which are, to a greater or lesser
degree, avoidable and that is why the search is for solutions
which help minimise, or eliminate, these risks.
Q251 Earl of Erroll:
I suppose I was thinking of how does the frequency of abuse as
a result of someone they have met on-line compare to the abuse
which comes from friends, family and neighbours, which we actually
know is significant as well? Do we have any figures on this?
Mr Carr: There is no comparison between the
two. The level of abuse in real life far, far outweighs and outnumbers
the number of cases of on-line abuse of children, as far as we
are aware, if I can put it that way. Let me, however, issue one
caveat. First of all, the way the crime figures are collected
does not help us with an objective determination or in providing
an objective answer to your question. I think I am right in saying
that even today in the crime statistics it is not recorded whether
or not a computer was a key part of the way in which the crime
was committed. For example, if a child is sexually abused as a
result of an on-line contact, it will not show up as an on-line
offence, it will simply show up as a contact offence. We do have
some numbers which we can point to relating to child pornography
offences and I have published them in a document which came out
two years ago. If you look at the incidence of child pornography
offences, the line is absolutely straight up and correlates almost
entirely with the growth of the Internet. That is not to say that
the Internet is the cause of child pornography, it has been around
for centuries, but what is undoubtedly true is that the Internet
has provided a readier means of people with a latent, or already
acknowledged, interest in child pornography to act upon it and
gain access to it, and the numbers are very striking and there
is no doubt that the Internet has played a part in facilitating
Q252 Baroness Hilton of Eggardon:
Several responses have mentioned bullying as an on-line issue.
Have you any idea about what the incidence is?
Mr Carr: We do. At NCH, we carried out a survey
which was in 2005 and those are the figures I have here, but we
did a kind of check last year as well and they were broadly the
same. Bearing in mind that the ownership of mobile phones is almost
universal amongst the teenage group from about 11 or 12 upwards,
what we found was that 20 per cent of all children have experienced
some sort of digital bullying, 14 per cent by mobile phone text
messaging, 5 per cent in Internet chatrooms and 4 per cent by
email, so one in five basically of all children, because they
are all on-line and they have all got mobile phones, is being
bullied in one way or another through the on-line environment.
Q253 Baroness Hilton of Eggardon:
Bullying is normally by someone that you know or by a group of
people that you know, so it is probably more likely to be on mobile
phones perhaps where you know who the perpetrators are.
Mr Carr: And the numbers do suggest that.
Q254 Baroness Hilton of Eggardon:
It is not normally a matter that the police can deal with.
Mr Carr: There are potentially three different
crimes involved in bullying. One is an offence under the Malicious
Communications Act, one is an offence under the anti-stalking
laws and one is an offence under the Telecommunications Act, but
you are right, that these matters are not traditionally police
matters. Perhaps I could just say a word about on-line bullying.
When I was a lad in Leeds, there was bullying going on in our
school and I can remember being the victim of it myself on one
occasion, but pre-Internet, pre-mobile phones a kid knew that,
when they got home and they closed the street door behind them
or they went up to their room and closed their bedroom door, the
bullying stopped and they had found a sanctuary. That is no longer
true. The whole point of having a mobile phone is that it is on
so that your parents or your mates, whatever, can get you as and
when they need to. The whole point of having a computer and the
Internet is so that you can use it to do your homework or whatever,
but it also means of course that the bullies can get at you 24/7
too, so in some ways it is a very insidious, intrusive development
in the way bullying works.
Q255 Lord Howie of Troon:
I am told that there are a number of social networking sites and
two names have been suggested to me, with which I am unfamiliar,
I have to say, Bebo and MySpace. First of all, what is your general
view of these sites and, secondly, do the sites do enough themselves
to protect children?
Mr Carr: I should declare an interest here.
I made it clear at the beginning that I work not just for children's
organisations, but for companies as well and I am an adviser to
MySpace, so I have some inside knowledge, as it were, of that
Q256 Lord Howie of Troon:
Open up then.
Mr Carr: The phenomenon of social networking
sites is huge. In the on-line stats which were published last
month, I think, MySpace finally overtook Yahoo as the most visited
in the United States. MySpace has six million subscribers here
in the UK and Bebo has also a very substantial number of members
too. The social networking sites in general are not an entirely
new phenomenon. What they have done in a very clever way, which
is why they have become so popular so quickly, is brought together
a number of different technologies that previously people used
discreetly or individually, so you have now got in one place,
in a very convenient way, access to video, access to messaging-type
services, access to pictures and photographs and they have all
been brought together into this single place, so they are very,
very attractive and that is why they have been hugely popular
with youngsters. All of the social networking sites are very keen
to ensure that their users are aware of some of the risks. We
heard Jim Gamble earlier speaking about the image of a child walking
between Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road with a billboard
giving all of their personal information to any potential passer-by.
That is the kind of thing that could happen on a social networking
site and it is why each of the companies that I am aware of anyway
is putting a great deal of energy, effort and resources into getting
the messages across.
Q257 Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan:
You have raised the question of Solo cards being issued to very
young children in the absence of visual checks, which means that
they can enter into transactions and the like. What do you think
needs to be done? Do you think the banks need to stop issuing
them? What would be your answer to this problem?
Mr Carr: I certainly do not think the banks
will stop issuing them, and I am an agnostic as to whether they
should or not. My own children both got them when they were 11
because we opened up bank accounts for them with NatWest and they
were part of the package that they got. What we need is a reliable
means of age verification. Children tell lies about their age
and they have done since time immemorial. Traders should not take
it for granted that people make truthful statements where the
product that they are selling is an age-sensitive or an age-restricted
Q258 Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan:
So how can service providers do this?
Mr Carr: Well, as you know, the Gambling Bill,
which went through last year, has increased the penalties on gambling
companies and I think we are going to see similar things happening
in other areas of policy as well. It is technically possible to
do it, but they need to be made to do it.
Q259 Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan:
I had a son who was once two years older than his older brother!
Mr Carr: There you go!
Mr Carr, thank you very much indeed. If there are any other thoughts
you might have for us, please submit them in writing for us.
Mr Carr: Will do. Thank you.