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Government, parents and carers recognise the dangers and must ensure that safeguards are available to enable children to protect themselves online. This is not only a matter of ensuring that the providers of information given to children use it in accordance with the law, but that there is a proactive approach to educating all users of the consequences of the use or misuse of information.

Earlier this year, the Home Secretary’s Task Force for Child Protection on the Internet, a working group involving industry, law enforcement and charities, considered how children using social networking services could be better guided. Guidance has been put forward, containing a number of recommendations. It focused on how children could be kept safe, by asking service providers to ensure that safety information was clearly available, that there were links to external groups that could provide assistance, including law enforcement and the children’s charities, and that there were settings in the service to allow children to keep their personal information private and that tools were provided to empower children to protect themselves from other users whom they did not wish to be contacted by.

The guidance set out recommendations to the suppliers and was brought about by collaborating with the industry. Responsible network providers understand the problems, and we are pleased to report that all the parties, including some of the biggest social networking sites in the world, worked hard to deliver this guidance, which was launched in April last year. It was the first such document in the world. The guidance received support from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in the United States and the Australian Communications and Media Authority, and it has been adopted by the European Union as the gold standard for 17 major social networking sites across Europe.

The convergence of games, the internet and other media also poses challenges and the Government continue to monitor these technological changes. As several noble Lords have mentioned, the Prime Minister in September 2007 asked Tanya Byron to look at these challenges, and her recommendations contained an analysis of how we might manage risk in a fast-paced and fast-changing media environment. As the noble Baronesses, Lady Sharp and Lady Massey, said, the result was that the Government launched the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, or UKCCIS, to carry on the work of the task force and bring together a wider range of groups and industries, and to carry on the dialogue between the different sectors. Some of the emphasis will be on self-regulation; for example, the council is developing voluntary codes of practice for the moderation of user-generated content, but we want these to be developed through partnership working.

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More than 100 organisations are now members of the council, which is a reflection of the growing awareness and importance of child safety issues online. UKCCIS will take forward the work of the task force, and later in the year will publish an information resource aimed at parents, to help them to understand how social networking sites can be used safely. This will be based on the work done as part of the development of the social networking guidance. UKCCIS will also work with the producers of other forms of online entertainment, such as online games, to ensure that children are protected when they are enjoying these. The issue of protecting information has also been addressed by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which has published guidance for users online on how they should protect their information. It also has dedicated material aimed at children.

The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and other noble Lords raised a question about age verification or identity authentication. These are difficult issues. There is no silver bullet in this area, as it is not easy to fully authenticate a user because of the limited data sources on children available to the industry that can be checked remotely and in real time—unlike with adults, for whom, of course, there are alternative forms of checking through credit cards, electoral rolls and so on. Notwithstanding this, individual service providers use a range of methods to safeguard children and young people using their services when they are registered as under-18, such as automatically setting their profiles to be shown as private. If there is a message to be taken from this debate, it is that more urgent work needs to be done and there is a considerable desire at large for the reassurance of knowing that age verification could be put in place to exclude children from being exposed to this problem.

I shall try to respond to the other points raised in the debate. The guidance that my noble friend Lord Harris called for in seeking better information will be part of what I have already said. He also raised the question of COPPA. We continue to work on that with our international partners. We are seen as the leader in this field but you cannot be a leader if you cannot learn from the experience of others. That is an important part of continuing to deal with an international problem in a sensible, international way.

I first came across cyber-bullying when I chaired a transatlantic working party on bullying in schools a few years ago. Then, it was almost in its infancy but it has now become a major problem, with some 22 per cent of children saying that they have been subjected to it. Much work has been done on this. UKCCIS is looking at “safe to learn” guidance, which will include special material on how to prevent and tackle cyber-bullying. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, gave a very good example of a practical approach to that in a school.

Ultimately, serious cases of cyber-bullying should be referred to law enforcement, as they can be considered under the Protection from Harassment Act. My noble friend Lady Massey pointed out that children in the US had been charged for this offence, but that has not happened in the UK. To date, the attitude of the authorities has been that it is better to put things right

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in these circumstances than to criminalise children, but it is a real problem and it is receiving ongoing attention.

I found the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, absolutely fascinating. I cannot pretend that I have anything in my brief that would even start to provide an answer to her. I think that what she raised deserves a debate in its own right, because it goes beyond anything that the Government currently have in mind. In her report, Dr Byron, a clinical psychologist, referred to some literature and reviews which could take us forward, and more research is being done. In her visionary contribution, the noble Baroness showed us the dangers of seeing things only in relation to the speed of the technology. Unfortunately, human beings do not move as quickly as technology, but her contribution opened my mind to things that I had not even thought of, which at my age is fairly rare.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, asked what we are doing to ensure that parents and others have a better understanding of the dangers involved. An e-safety awareness campaign began last summer. It is supported by a £9 million investment and has been developed in conjunction with UKCCIS. We are aiming to have a one-stop shop approach on our child safety website. People may say, “Well, you’ve had this campaign, but it hasn’t been very successful because I didn’t know about it”. However, we are endeavouring to use the media in the most sensible way to get information across to parents, and, to that end, CEOP and the council have just launched an e-safety week. We hope that all these things will bring greater awareness.

This debate may not be the most well attended in this House and perhaps it will not be the most watched on television, but that does not in any way suggest that we are any less concerned with this issue as a House. The Government will continue to respond to the need for changes in legislation and they will continue to work with providers. On the question of voluntary versus compulsory work, the short answer is that we hope to get self-regulation to work but, if it fails, undoubtedly calls for more enforced regulation will grow and the Government will have to respond.

I hope that I have covered most of the points raised. We think that we have the right structure in place and are proud of being world leaders. We are not complacent: much more needs to be done, if only to keep up with the technology. Again, I thank all noble Lords who have participated for educating me and others about the ongoing need to increase activity and not to sit on our laurels or be complacent.

4.15 pm

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I am enormously grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate, which has been wide-ranging, extremely interesting and valuable. There was a clear consensus about the need to balance the opportunities and the circumstances in which children and young people can grow using the internet with the need for appropriate and sensible measures to protect their interests.

I was struck by the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, about how much has happened since the report Personal Internet Security, with which we were

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both involved, was written. If we couple that with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, about the long-term implications for brain/mind plasticity, it raises some interesting questions about how quickly we are responding to rapid technological investments.

I took what my noble friend Lord Brett said about age verification to indicate tacit government support for the Bill that my noble friend Lady Massey is planning to introduce. Given the consensus in the House about the value of age verification legislation, I am sure that that will be welcomed—if indeed it was tacit support. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, talked about the need for co-ordination. She listed the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. BERR also has a role, as does the Cabinet Office.

Lord Brett: My Lords, my noble friend said that I was offering tacit government support. My comments come with a health warning—it is my health that I am concerned about. We cannot relate the comments in

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this debate to any other proposed legislation. I am responding to this debate only. For the health of the nation and myself, nothing much can be added to it.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, that must count as one of the most prolific health warnings that we have ever heard in this House. However, I hope that my noble friend will take back to ministerial colleagues and all the government departments that I listed, whose activities need to be co-ordinated, the message that there would be a great deal of support in this House for the principle of age verification.

I close by thanking everyone who has taken part in the debate and I just make the point that we cannot hope to eliminate danger from all children and young people—nor should we. Part of growing up is learning to cope with danger and challenges. We must take the sensible precautions that noble Lords have talked about today. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

House adjourned at 4.17 pm.

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