Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 260)



  Q240  Chairman: 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.

  Q241  Chairman: 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.

  Q242  Chairman: 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.

  Q243  Chairman: 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 work.

  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 that growth.

  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 particular company.

  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 one.

  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!

  Q260  Chairman: 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.

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