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The advantage over the telephone is that you do not just share information with one person; you share it with your whole group of friends simultaneously. You can tell them what you want, or you can reply how you want; you can post or text photos, video clips and video conversations. In effect, young people are doing quite a lot of the video-conferencing that we find slightly awkward, but which is beginning to come naturally to them. They are simultaneously playing games online with other children. A whole range of games is offered to them.

Children and adults get a lot of pleasure from this activity. The Ofcom research indicated that the majority of adult and child users found it a fun and easy leisure activity and were very positive about its benefits. Perhaps because of this the downside risks in relation to privacy and safety are very far from most people's thoughts. Another interesting aspect of this is posting profiles and the degree to which people can use those profiles in a sort of Walter Mitty sense, in so far as they aspire to have a different profile. However, those who use social networking sites must register, and that involves setting up a profile. How much information is posted on the profile is up to the individual, but many children readily register their name, school, address, telephone number and date of birth, post photographs and video clips and describe their likes, dislikes and favourite things. As they get older, they talk about sex, sexual attitudes and, indeed, sexual practices. As I say, the profile is open to all those registered as friends, but unless it is specifically limited to friends or to a particular group by privacy controls it will be open to anyone.

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The Ofcom research indicated that 41 per cent of children in the eight to 17 year-old group had set controls to make their profiles visible to anybody. American research has revealed that one-third of sites are regularly visited by strangers. Twenty-two per cent of young adults in the 16 to 24 year-old group deliberately use profiles to communicate with people whom they do not know. There is a certain thrill in communicating with new people and making new friends. Eleven per cent of teenage girls said that they had been contacted via social networking sites by strangers who made them feel uncomfortable.

The risks of sexual harassment and sexual grooming of young people, cyber-stalking and exposure to inappropriate material have been described. If no stops are put on a computer or a mobile phone, violent websites and websites with sexually explicit material can be accessed. The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, mentioned violence through games and the changed behaviour that can result from that. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, mentioned cyber-bullying, particularly through the posting of photographs and comments. It is interesting to note that 54 per cent of the 18 to 24 year-old group said that other people had posted photographs on their social networking sites without their consent. Cyber-bullying applies to children and teachers. Indeed, there is a big issue of cyber-bullying of teachers.

Given these risks, why do people not use privacy controls? The Byron report lists four main reasons. The first is a lack of awareness of the risks. Many parents do not have the technological capabilities of their children, particularly teenage children. Those children are far ahead of their parents in terms of digital technology and can use and manipulate activities on site. It is well known that, even where parents invest in parental controls, they often ask the children to set them up for them, and that the children can manipulate those controls. As I say, for young people who see this as such a fun and easy activity, the risks seem very far away. Parents perceive the risks but for young people the activity is fun. They want to get on with it and not worry about tomorrow.

Secondly, there is a lack of awareness of what controls there are and how to manipulate them. Parents, especially when confronted by a proliferation of access points, are confused and find it very difficult to know what controls to use. I stress that it is one thing to have parental controls on the home computer but how on earth do you cope with the proliferation of mobile telephony that now hits us?

Thirdly, it is assumed that responsibility for controlling access to content lies with the site provider. A great many parents, and users of sites for that matter, assume that this is the case and learn the hard way that it is not. Lastly, and by no means least, young people are overconfident that they can handle and manage any such risks. They see themselves as masters of the universe in this area. It is daring to take risks: allowing strangers to see and comment on your profile is a risky thing, but what fun. This is the difficulty one faces.

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So what are we going to do about it? I looked back at our report, and I was very struck by this quotation from Professor Jonathan Zittrain, of the Oxford Internet Institute. He referred to,

Let me follow that up with a quotation from the Byron report:

“The internet is a vast, many-to-many network”—

that picks up what Professor Zittrain said—

This is indeed where we are going in terms of controls. Following the Byron report, we have seen the setting-up of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. The emphasis, first, is on the availability of material on the most popular sites, with better regulation of user-generated content, and the development of a voluntary code of practice.

Secondly, the emphasis is on raising parental awareness of their responsibility in managing their children's access to websites, in making sure that children do not reveal personal and contact details. It needs to be made much easier for parents to know what controls there are and to learn how to operate them, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris.

Lastly, children must be empowered to manage risk. As in the off-line world, one cannot eliminate risk completely; therefore one must build up resilience in children and educate them about the risks and how to minimise them. Criminal activities continue to be policed by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, run by the police, which has been, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, very successful. The degree to which it has run down paedophile rings and helped children has been impressive.

One aspect was the rolling-out of an education programme. Last night, I was at a governors’ meeting at a primary school where I am a governor, and I was questioning them about internet security. I discovered that, where there is cyber-bullying, they get in touch with the local community police officer. They have a parent liaison worker, who works with the police officer. Then they get the parents in and talk to them about it. All of this struck me as a rather sensible approach to cyber-bullying.

However, we need to consider whether we are doing enough. One of the strongest conclusions in our report raised some questions about where we are going at the moment:

“The current assumption that end-users should be responsible for security”—

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in other words, parents and children should be responsible for their own security—

Is the voluntary code of practice under the new UK Council for Child Internet Safety for children enough? Do we not need to go further? Are we doing enough in schools? Schools are safe environments, and their ICT suites are all kept very clean, but kids get outside that environment. Are we doing enough to educate children to make them resilient? Who has responsibility for educating the parents? We could use schools, and there was talk in the Tanya Byron report about using the extended schools initiative. That has not yet been rolled out very far, so who has responsibility for educating parents and how do we propose to do it?

3.46 pm

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for giving the House this excellent opportunity to discuss what for us is an unusual subject. It is obvious that there have been a number of reviews and reports, but I was struck by the noble Lord's speech, because it almost entirely concentrated on the hazards that come from this internet siting for young people. We have all read and we all know from the papers what happens when things go horribly wrong, as they do, and children are completely misled, not only by adults but by their own friends. There are many areas here where we all feel extremely uncomfortable about the use of the internet, however/ miraculous it is.

Listening to the debate, I felt rather thankful that I had moved beyond the days when my chief worry was about what the children were watching on the television that they had managed to get from the video shop marked, “Not to be seen by the under-18s”. They managed to bluff their way through that to look at some unsuitable films that I then had to retrieve. This is a long way from that, and it makes it much more difficult, as many speakers have said, to have parental control and overview of what children are doing.

I was much taken by the insightful contribution made by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, which was unusual and different from those that we might have had from others. It was said somewhere that the noble Baroness was a thinker in residence; perhaps I now know why, with those thoughts coming through.

It is important to try to understand why children feel the need to undertake these pretty dangerous exploits into the internet. The reports have been referred to. Dr Tanya Byron’s review covered the social networking internet sites, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned the Select Committee report on harmful content on the internet and in video games. Both reports have informed our debates, and they have certainly informed people’s views about what may or may not be able to be done.

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The Government have made their contribution in setting up the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. It is clear that the onus for responding to this debate fell to the Home Office, but it could equally have gone to three or four other departments. The noble Lord, Lord Brett, drew the short straw and, as a result, I drew the short straw, so we have all had to do our homework. We have the DCMS, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, and it is essential that there is co-ordination between them if any of the recommendations that have been made are to be effectively implemented. The Minister might like to say how he thinks that co-ordination is taking place at the moment.

Like almost everyone who has issued recommendations on the subject, we agree that self-regulation is difficult and that there is some responsibility on those who run internet sites to supervise and check what is going on and to look at the content. Since many of the firms are based overseas, there are few feasible ways to proceed. Similarly, given the extraordinary rate of change in both technology and usage of the internet, legislation, as we know, can only do so much. However, companies can be involved in the interface between the public and the internet—the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, was not quite sure about this. They are best placed to observe the ever changing risks that are posed and to develop the most effective ways of countering those risks. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has said, this must be backed up by the internet sites monitoring what is going on and, particularly, verifying the ages of young users where they can. I was particularly pleased, therefore, to see the announcement this week that 17 of the leading web firms that provide social networking sites have voluntarily signed up to an agreement that increases the protection for minors. Perhaps it is a small step on the road to protection, but it is a step.

Of course other measures can be taken. Setting the default setting of the pages of under-18 year-olds to “private”, restricting what they can be searching for, the clear and simple reporting of abuse, which was also mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, the involvement of schools, and education—these are the sorts of steps that were recommended in the Byron review and which we hope are now being implemented. However, there are further things that could be done: the improvement of take-down times after the reporting of abuse, for example, and the clearer labelling of potentially inappropriate material. I would be interested to hear from the noble Lord if these recommendations are being considered and what is being done about them.

There is much more that the Government could be doing in this area. The most important of these, apart from encouraging more firms to sign up to codes of conduct, is informing the public. This is one of the most serious things to come out of our debate today. The public—adults, by and large—do not seem to be aware of what is going on, what the children are doing, what they are seeing and how they are entertaining themselves. It may be that many adults are simply thankful that their children are quiet and it is not until they come home and find the house trashed that they realise what it was all about. There must be some form of education set up, whether that is for the television

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and internet companies to undertake themselves, I do not know, but if we do not do it, there will be a lot more trouble and a lot more risks for our children in the future.

Perhaps we cannot rely on sites such as Facebook and MySpace to keep inappropriate material away from children, and parents must take an active role themselves, but unfortunately, not all do. There are tools that can help them in this, such as the parental controls, but it is unfortunate that so many of these are not fully understood and used effectively.

The debate has been timely and interesting. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure this House that the Government are doing as much as they can to keep parents informed about the options open to them, but also to work with companies to ensure that they are not shirking their responsibilities in this matter.

3.54 pm

Lord Brett: My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey for bringing this apposite debate before us. The Government also welcome the debate on the use by children and young people of internet services, and social networking in particular. The debate comes at a time when there is growing interest in the safety of children on the internet. As has been aptly demonstrated, more and more children have access to the technology and take to it with a vengeance and interest that they do not perhaps show in every other aspect of life.

Of course, the point has correctly been made that there are benefits to individuals and children of being able to use online services such as social networking. They have fun, share gossip, play games and build friendships online. It has allowed more and more children to use these services and, indeed, some of the child-specific social networking services that did not really get a mention in the debate, such as Club Penguin, which are now among the most heavily used sites for younger children. More well known services such as Bebo, MySpace and Facebook are heavily used by older children and young adults.

As has also been said, and as I should say from the outset, protecting children from any risk does not divide this House. We would all be united on that. The question has already been put: are we doing enough and can we do more? It might be useful to set out what we are seeking to do. We have heard what is beneficial about the use of new technology, as it was called in my day, and the Government are fully behind and encourage internet use in schools and homes. When used responsibly and with care, these services are a boon to children’s lives and children wish to use them. These technologies bring new, fantastic opportunities for fun and enjoyment, but we need to get the balance, which is not always obvious to children. There are risks, and parents have real worries, when children are online. We have always recognised that there is a darker side to the internet, and it rightly falls to the Government to help to develop a response to help to protect our children.

A number of noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lord Harris, graphically set out the kind of threats and risks to children who are online. While

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how children use the internet has changed—through, for example, the rapid development of social networking in the past two years—the risks from those who misuse the internet to contact children have been around for some time. Although recent research, both within the EU and the US, shows that the threat of sexual predators contacting children is in reality limited compared to other risks mentioned in the debate such as cyber-bullying, to which I will return, I have no doubt whatsoever that, in most people’s eyes danger from predators remains the most potent threat to children’s safety online.

The Government responded by setting up the Child Exploitation & Online Protection centre, CEOP, about which I will talk in more detail shortly. It was set up in 2006, the first centre of its kind, to address the growing concerns of which we have heard. Its success in targeting online predators and in forming crucial partnerships with international law enforcement agencies means that the UK is recognised as world leader in serious online protection.

That said, the Government are not complacent about the potential threat to children from those who would seek to harm them by approaching them through social networking services or in other ways. We take the issue seriously and have been active on the matter over a considerable time. Reference was made to the Home Secretary’s Task Force for Child Protection on the Internet, which was set up as long ago as 2001 and has been successful in bringing together industry, law enforcement, charities and government departments to develop measures to protect children in the fast-moving world of technology. Internet technology certainly moves much quicker than I can take on board, but not so quickly that 10 year-olds cannot take it on board with much greater speed than adults. That is, of course, one of the problems that has been referred to.

The technology may be new but many of the offences committed that we are frightened of are actually old offences committed in a new medium. There is a need to learn from the experience of law enforcement agencies, charities, industry and other expert groups to ensure that the Government’s response to online threats keeps up to date with changes in how online services develop and are used. Indeed, it was through the work of the task force that the Government introduced the offence of “grooming” in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which makes it an offence to communicate with a child and arrange to meet for sexual purposes.

This legislation made it clear that such activities would not be tolerated in the United Kingdom, and subsequently a number of people have been convicted of this offence. We were, I understand, the first country in Europe to introduce this offence and I am aware that other countries have introduced, or are considering introducing, similar offences. Indeed, only a few weeks ago, four and a half years after the UK introduced the offence of grooming, the European Parliament recommended that all European Community members do so.

The Government have also recognised that the growth of broadband and the development of social networking have led to many more children going online regularly. We heard graphic statistics of how this has exploded

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in only two years. We have considered how law enforcement can be provided to protect children. Again, CEOP has played a crucial role in this area.

I took the opportunity to visit CEOP to talk to Jim Gamble, the chief executive, and his colleagues. I was very impressed by the dedication of the staff, by their efficiency and, most of all, by the work that they are doing, all of which have been covered in a number of contributions. Through its development of a dedicated “report abuse” button and a reporting website, it enables members of the public to make reports directly to law enforcement agencies about possible incidents of grooming. I believe that these reports are now running at approximately 400 per month. I saw for myself Microsoft UK’s Windows line messenger, which has the red button on it. Microsoft UK should be congratulated on being the first to ensure that children in danger can go straight to CEOP. Many other companies now provide links to the CEOP website to enable children to report directly to it. As new services develop, we strongly encourage them to speak to CEOP about incorporating this reporting facility on its site.

Much has been said about the need to educate children, parents and carers. CEOP has developed an educational programme for children, their parents and carers, called, Think U Know. This is based on its research and the experience that it has gathered in the course of its work. The Think U Know website contains excellent advice, and I recommend that all noble Lords log in and look at it. It also contains an education programme, delivered by local professionals such as teachers and police officers, who have been specially trained by CEOP. Since its launch in 2006, the Think U Know educational programme has reached 3.3 million children, which is a considerable number.

In introducing the debate, my noble friend Lord Harris mentioned “Safer Internet Day”, which took place two days ago. I had the privilege of seeing in advance a video that was produced for that day, which is now available to teachers, schools and parents. It graphically shows a child putting a placard containing all their details in the front garden and leaving the door open. Then 10 or 12 year-old schoolchildren are asked whether that is a sensible thing to do and of course they all scoff that it is a terrible thing to do. By the end of the video, after a number of other examples, they are asked whether they go online, whether they give their name or picture to people they do not know and—this is a key question—whether they have anything on their site that their parents would not like. All of them seemed to giggle and say yes to that. Then it is pointed out that all they are doing in the new meeting place of cyberspace is what they would not do in real life, in their street, road or town. The video seemed very impressive to me, but whether it impresses children of 10 or 12, I do not know. However, I am told that immediately after they have been shown the video, there is a very positive reaction from children. Whether it remains positive when they get home and whether they go through their procedures for privacy, I am not quite so sure. Certainly, the education programme continues.

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The Government want children to be able to use these services safely but to ensure that they understand the potential risks that they face. That is a very important point which noble Lords made. To that extent, we recognise that privacy and the protection of sensitive information are a major concern to the users of social networking sites. There is a responsibility upon service providers.

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