Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1020
WEDNESDAY 18 APRIL 2007
Q1020 Earl of Erroll:
But in general Government tries to protect its citizens and also
provide a good environment for business to operate in and for
citizens to live in and providing that security for society is
part of our responsibility, one would feel, and yet this does
not seem to be part of your responsibility, to try and make it
a more secure environment for consumers or users on the Internet.
Do you not feel it should be, perhaps?
Mr Willis: At the moment there is a review of
the framework which governs these things going on in Europe at
the moment, as I am sure you are aware, and one of the things
that review is looking to do is to extend the framework in these
areas to cover more of this sort of activity. You can come up
against a number of problems. One relates back to the example
of the moving of the road signs. There is the potential that if
end users feel the security and safety responsibility is not with
them any more, that the network will look after them, that reduces
the likelihood and the ability of the users to take responsibility
for their own actions and there is only a certain degree to which
the networks can ever protect the end users. We have also concerns
over putting in place hard wired regulations to cover those things.
The framework is not desperately old, but it could not have been
possible to have pre-empted a lot of the problems we are now seeing
when that was written and hard wiring this into regulation is
not likely to be a very effective method. So it would be very
difficult for us to write down, for instance, what it is we would
expect the ISPs to do specifically, and it would change day by
Q1021 Earl of Erroll:
So you have been effectively working on the Code of Practice with
the ISPs? That is what I gathered you were saying?
Mr Suter: No. There are the Framework Directives,
which are the European governing frameworks, which are currently
under review in Europe.
Mr Willis: And they govern which aspects of
the service we do and do not regulate.
Q1022 Earl of Erroll:
Right, but you are not talking to the ISPs about trying to do
something of that kind?
Mr Suter: Where we are talking about, for instance,
labelling and information, then we are indeed talking to content
providers, but in the context that this is a service they can
provide to consumers rather than one we mandate.
Mr Olivier: I think it is worth adding that
in relation specifically to the question of how Ofcom is working
to improve consumer security our focus and attention has not been
on trying to force ISPs to take on that responsibility in a traditional
kind of bilateral industry regulator model, but rather on helping
ensure consumers are effectively enabled to take on that responsibility
themselves, to run their own firewalls, and so forth. It is for
that reason that Ofcom participated in and part funded an initiative
to develop a kite mark for filtering tools in the UK, which I
think is largely complete but the marketing of which has not yet
launched, but the objective of that is to enable audiences, consumers,
to have confidence in adopting tools which will, for example,
enable them to protect their children against harmful or offensive
content more effectively.
Mr Willis: I think there are other examples
of that in the written response as well.
You do work with ISPs to try and fix the problems and despite
firewalls and despite antivirus software a hell of a lot gets
through. Phishing is going on, it is alive and well, and so is
quite malicious spam, so presumably you sit down with the ISPs
and see if you could not figure out a way to stop this?
Mr Suter: I think the important answer is that
we certainly want to understand the actions which are being taken
by those who can prevent it, but we do not see it as our role
to prevent it.
Mr Willis: Yes, I think that is right and there
is no simple answer to these problems. I think the industry is
moving in the right direction and there is a lot more which is
being done. There is no perfect answer and it is not because somebody
knows what it is and they are not bothering to do it, it is an
ongoing arms race, if you like, and I think it will always be
But are you saying it is not your responsibility, even if a perfect
answer to filtering the content, for example, was discovered,
that that should be implemented? We would all like not to receive
phishing emails or malicious, unpleasant spam. It might seem to
us that it would be your responsibility, should a solution exist,
to ensure that that solution was implemented?
Mr Suter: I think we would see our responsibility,
certainly, as understanding what those who are responsible for
delivering the solution (which in this instance we would see as
being those providing the service) ought to put in place and encouraging
them to do so, and working with consumers to make sure they are
aware of all the protections that are available.
Chairman: All right, let us move on.
Q1025 Baroness Hilton of Eggardon:
You have a role, I think, in developing media literacy, do you
not, in the population? Do you think that part of that is ensuring
that people understand what they should do in relation to the
Internet to make them safe and secure, and so on? Is that part
of your remit?
Mr Suter: It is certainly part of our remit
to help consumers to both access and understand the communication
services which are available to them and that will include making
sure, as far as possible, that they know of the tools which are
available to help them manage that environment in a way they want
to manage it.
Q1026 Baroness Hilton of Eggardon:
So how do you set about doing that?
Mr Suter: The first issue we have tackledand
I think some of the evidence is in our submission to youis
at least establishing a base of where we are. Where can we feel
confident? Where do we think there are issues? Are they in relation
to particular age groups? Are they in relation to particular activities?
Are they in relation to particular bits of awareness? I will not
go through the details because I know it is all in the memorandum
which we supplied, and we will be very happy to supply you with
the much more extensive media literacy audit. It suggests that
there is a mismatch between what parents, for instance, think
they do to control the environment in which their children are
operating and what children think their parents do to control
that environment. You might expect there to be a mismatch. It
may not strike you as large, it may strike you as worrying, but
nevertheless there is a mismatch. Parents think they apply the
rules; children think they do not. So we have to understand, first
of all, what is the environment that people are working in, and
then to understand what are the most effective tools we can offer.
As I think we have talked about at some length already, one of
the key issues is giving people information about the content
they are about to consume so that they can make a choice, giving
people information about the kinds of Internet protection which
are there, which is the work we have been doing with the Home
Office on the kite mark. Our work on the audit allows us to focus
on what are the key issues we ought to tackle.
Q1027 Baroness Hilton of Eggardon:
Yes, but your audit is just about understanding, it is not about
actually taking actions to inform people?
Mr Suter: Indeed, and our duty is to promote
rather than to enforce.
Q1028 Baroness Hilton of Eggardon:
I did not say "enforce", I said "inform".
Are you actually doing anything to inform individual consumers?
Mr Suter: Oh, I hope we are doing something
to inform, certainly, through the kite mark programme. That will
have a very wide availability and it will be marketed very widely,
and I think that is an important thing that we will do. That is
playing our part, if you like, to inform consumers of what is
there, working with those content providers to ensure that they
inform consumers about every piece of content they might be about
to consume. This is indeed information.
Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: Thank you.
Chairman: Lord Harris, you touch on this
in your question.
Q1029 Lord Harris of Haringey:
Section 14 of the Communications Act requires you to conduct consumer
research, for example, into the experience of consumers in purchasing
electronic communications services and you have outlined some
of the research in your evidence. What you have not told us is
what you have done with the results. Perhaps you could outline
that and also Section 14(1)(d) covers other matters "incidental"
to consumers' experiences. I would be interested to know how you
Mr Suter: I will certainly do the first part.
The second part I will invite Ben or Jeremy, if they want to,
to come in on, otherwise I am afraid I am not sure that I will
be able to give you a full answer and I might have to write to
you on that. In terms of the first part, indeed the consumer experience
research gave us quite a broad understanding across the piece
of the consumer experience and allowed us to identify three things
where we thought we ought to take action. The first was around
mis-selling and slamming, the second was silent calls, they were
a considerable concern to consumers, and in the third area there
were issues around switching. So we have taken action in relation
to all three of those. If I just give you briefly the headlines,
we started an active programme in 2005 on mis-selling and we have
got current investigations against a number of big suppliers there
and there is quite a lot of close monitoring that we are doing.
On silent calls, I think you will have seen some of the enforcement
action we have taken and some of the fines we have levied. On
switching, you will be aware, I think, that in the middle of February
we introduced new rules around the provision of MAC codes which
would make switching easier. This is the kind of thing which our
consumer experience research is designed to support, alongside
the reflections which it made on people's experience of safety,
particularly safety of content online and in particular in relation
to their children, which is why we are doing more work now on
public attitudes to the regulation of content on the Internet.
Mr Olivier: I am afraid I cannot comment.
Mr Willis: No, I cannot either.
Mr Suter: We will definitely write to you on
Lord Harris of Haringey: Thank you very
Chairman: A final question from Lord
Young on 999 calls.
Q1030 Lord Young of Graffham:
It is a sort of Catch 22, is it not? The voice-over-IP industry
tells us that they cannot provide 999 calls because if they do
they would be caught by the regulations which apply to wire line,
which are quite rigorous and very necessary for that. But in this
way we are being deprived of the traditional 999 facilities where
everybody is going to avoid them and there are more and more of
these going to come. Is that not something you should be looking
Mr Willis: Absolutely, it is something we should
be looking into, and we are and have been for a number of years
in fact. Our duties here are to try and balance the benefits of
the innovation and competition that VoIP brings with consumer
protection for the 999 services, clearly. We first looked at this
issue back in 2004 when VoIP was considerably less important in
a market sense than it is today. It was a smaller and more geeky
activity. We were aware then of exactly this problem and what
we did was we came up with a policy of forbearance with regard
to VoIP services. So we wrote a statement which essentially said
to the VoIP operators that we would give them a period while the
market was establishing itself where we would not enforce exactly
the conditions they are referring to here on them if they chose
to offer 999 services. What we were hoping to do with that was
to try and take away any regulatory disincentives for offering
999 services, the balance being that it was better to have some
999 access than none at all. Obviously, the ideal is a gold-plated
version of 999 access, which we have on the fixed line. We reviewed
that and we produced a statement at the end of last month on this,
effectively bringing that forbearance policy to an end. We observe
that even while that forbearance policy has been active, for the
last two and a half to three years, there have been very, very
few VoIP operators who have chosen to introduce 999 services even
then, but we are aware that with that period coming to an end
there are certainly going to be increasing issues for VoIP operators
who want to offer these services. With that in mind, what we have
undertaken to do is a further consultation on this whole area
of voice-over-IP and the availability of 999 services and we are
committed to do that consultation during the summer of this year
and we will be addressing exactly those issues in that, and that
work is already under way.
Good. Thank you very much. That is our last question, I think,
and thank you very much for coming to answer our questions. It
has been very valuable to us. As I said to the others, if you
think of anything which you think might be useful to us, please
send it to us.
Mr Suter: Thank you, Chairman. We have very
much enjoyed the session. We clearly owe you a letter anyway on
the Section 14.
Chairman: Thank you very much.