Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1020 - 1031)



  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 day.

  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.

  Q1023  Chairman: 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 that.

  Q1024  Chairman: 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 tackled—and I think some of the evidence is in our submission to you—is 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 interpret that.

  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 that.

  Lord Harris of Haringey: Thank you very much.

  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 into?

  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.

  Q1031  Chairman: 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.

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