Internet (Child Protection)

Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 8:07 pm on 6th February 2008.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Blizzard.]

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art 8:09 pm, 6th February 2008

Seven or so years ago, a Home Office Minister said in a parliamentary answer on the taskforce for child protection that the

"aim is to make the United Kingdom (UK) the best and safest place in the world for children to use the internet".—[ Hansard, 4 February 2002; Vol. 379, c. 671W.]

Last year, however, 32 per cent. of children said that they had received unwanted, nasty or sexual comments while on the web. Freedom of information and the unhampered exchange of that information are, of course, at the heart of a free world. What we do not want is Government control of the internet, such as exists in China and elsewhere. The internet is a space for creativity, communication and a fantastic tool for use in education. Too often, any discussion of internet safety leads to the internet being labelled as a bad thing. Clearly, the reverse is the case, but internet users should expect a degree of protection not least from fraud and illegal content, and, for our children, from harmful content.

I start by paying tribute to the impressive work of Dr. Tanya Byron and her Byron review, and I look forward with interest to her recommendations. The Culture, Media and Sport Committee—whose Chairman, my hon. Friend Mr. Whittingdale, is present—is about to start taking oral evidence on this issue, and my hon. Friend Mr. Brazier has put forward a private Member's Bill to classify video content downloads, in order to help protect children, among other things. So I believe that this subject is topical.

Tonight's debate takes on increasing relevance given the recent spate of suicides in Bridgend. Today, we awoke to the tragic news that there had been a 14th victim. Mrs. Moon has raised this in Parliament and has secured an Adjournment debate tomorrow, which I am sure will be well attended.

The Government have the option to make content illegal, as they have with extreme pornography, race hatred and child abuse. The Government also have a role to protect children, and that is what I want to focus on this evening. Schools' hard-pressed IT departments do not have the resources, nor parents the know-how, to protect our children.

Another problem is that eight Government Departments have an interest in internet content: the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Health, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. There is a real lack of ownership within Government of internet content regulation.

The Government can solve that by establishing a lead Department and developing a co-regulatory structure to regulate internet content, bringing together, for example, charities, parents, academics, relevant Government Departments, law enforcement agencies and the industry itself, to decide codes of conduct in grey areas. That could work along the lines of the Advertising Standards Authority or the Press Complaints Commission, and would replace the current piecemeal and knee-jerk codes of conduct and self-regulation; let us call it the "internet standards authority". Harmful content—that is content where cultural, taste and decency judgments have to be made—would come under the internet standards authority remit and could include glorification of violence and terrorism, pornography, cyber-bullying, suicide, internet gambling and anorexia websites, some of which Members might think are worth banning. However, the list is not exhaustive.

The internet standards authority would build a dynamic filter and create a blacklist database which would be updated hourly. Internet service providers would then offer two choices of content, one for adults and one for children. I envisage the child content would be the default, with adult content accessed with a pin code, or some such protective device. South Korea is an example of where that ISP regulatory system has been successfully implemented, and Australia is considering it. Further filtering could continue at the personal computer level "on the fly" which would look for unacceptable terms and images.

Robust internet filtering is a technological area that is fast developing, although it is not there yet, which is why I believe ISPs should take the lead in filtering at the network level. I know the British Standards Institution is developing a kitemark, which is a welcome, if belated, development. Hopefully, technological progress will solve some of the issues that we cannot control now. Webcams and peer-to-peer and encrypted content will always present challenges. I do not intend to predict future technological innovations, but filtering web 2.2 generation content when, for example, eight hours of footage per minute is uploaded on to YouTube, will present challenges.

An internet standards authority would be more responsive to new internet trends and lighter on its feet than Government legislation. Perversely, ISPs are being held back from implementing best efforts to protect customers and children lest they be held liable for overblocking or for harmful content being accessed. A number of ISPs do offer content-filtering for children, such as AOL's KOL Jr. pre-school, KOL ages six to 12 and RED ages 13 to 17, and I welcome that, but ISPs are as concerned as I am about the low take-up of available tools. That is why I believe my opt-out approach has merit. An internet standards authority would have the ability to promote its work and improve transparency while also educating parents and ensuring that children surf responsibly.

Promoting a safer environment and raising awareness—what I describe as soft power improvements—also present challenges and will cost money. Internet playgrounds should be supervised in the same way as parks used to be supervised. We need to empower parents and teachers so they are able to supervise, advise and guide children in exploring the online world.

We need to set up a new co-regulatory structure, an internet standards authority, to fight illegal and harmful content, promote a safer environment and raise awareness. ISPs should deliver an acceptable service for children whereby they would be able safely to access the internet while adults could access all other content through a PIN or similar device. We should ensure that internet companies that advertise carry responsibility messages, such as those we see on alcohol advertising and cigarette packages. A hotline number in the UK is operated by the excellent Internet Watch Foundation, and it should be displayed. We need to empower parents, teachers and children in respect of their responsibilities and the risks of going online. Finally, any internet-ready platform should be sold with a robust, self-updating, tamper-proof internet filter pre-installed.

Those proposals are not about censorship; they are about creating the regulatory environment to enable our children to surf safely, so that they can expand the horizons of their knowledge. Of course, I do not believe we can remove all risk to children, but we can make this country a safer place in what, at times, seems to be an increasingly dangerous world for our children.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 8:17 pm, 6th February 2008

I congratulate Mr. Swire on securing this important debate, and thank him for the measured way in which he put some important points to the House. He made a good contribution to the discussion on this matter. I know that he takes an interest in this subject and is very knowledgeable about it.

I also welcome the attendance of Mr. Whittingdale, who is Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. We all look forward to the work that it is going to do in an incredibly important area. In many respects, as soon as one moves forward in the virtual and internet world, one almost has to move forward again. This evening's debate, albeit short, will play an important part in continuing to raise awareness of this extremely important issue. I look forward to the Committee's inquiry and to the continuing dialogue that the hon. Member for East Devon doubtless wishes to take place. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to come to the Department to talk about these matters, that would be useful—I extend that invitation to all those who wish to participate in such talks.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

I am grateful to the Minister for his kind words. My hon. Friend Mr. Swire made the valid point that there are many Departments involved in this issue. It appears that Dr. Byron is taking the lead in setting up her review, and that is being conducted mainly under the Department for Children, Schools and Families, supported by officials from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, so while I am delighted to see the Minister here this evening, I am slightly puzzled about why the Home Office is responding to the debate. Perhaps he could say something about how all these different Departments will work together.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I will address that issue, but as chair of the Home Secretary's taskforce for child protection on the internet I have worked with officials from many Departments, who come to the meetings and are involved in developing good practice and discussing the various issues. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is a new Department, with a particular emphasis on preventing harm to children and protecting families, and that is one reason why the Byron review is being conducted under that Department. However, I have also met Dr. Byron, and will do so again, to talk about the work that we are doing. I know that she is especially interested in the way that the taskforce has taken the agenda forward. It has brought not only Departments together, but industry and children's charities—those who have an interest in making progress in this area.

Whatever system we set up—and the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford may also consider that—it is important to ensure that the work of Departments is co-ordinated and that we involve industry and stakeholders in the machinery of government. We will see over the next few weeks that that collaboration and co-operation has resulted in significant progress, without any debate about possible legislation.

The hon. Member for East Devon mentioned the terrible events in Bridgend, and my hon. Friend Mrs. Moon has a debate on the issue tomorrow. She has already met with various people to discuss those events. I wish to extend my sympathy to the families and all those affected. However, the issues behind the deaths are likely to be very complicated. We are very much aware of some media reports claiming that there is an internet aspect to these incidents, but other reports cast doubt on that. It would be wrong to prejudge the investigations that are already taking place, and we will wish to follow further developments closely.

We also recognise that young people will discuss many difficult issues, including that of suicide, on various websites. That requires very sensitive handling and we need to be wary of preventing them from discussing their thoughts and feelings openly. We are working, through the Home Secretary's taskforce for child protection on the internet, with social networking companies to ensure that there are links to support bodies such as ChildLine and the Samaritans for those who seek support and advice on this issue.

On the very separate matter of what are commonly referred to as suicide websites, the Government have been working with service providers to discourage them from hosting sites that appear to encourage suicide. While the internet remains a fantastic environment for obtaining all sorts of information, there is no doubt that it does have a darker side. Indeed, the Prime Minister has recently shown his concern about the issue of harmful and inappropriate content by setting up the Byron review. The Byron review team has been doing a lot of work to gather views from all stakeholders, and is due to report in March. The Home Office fully supports the review, and looks forward to seeing the final report. I have met with Dr. Byron and her team, as I said, and have been impressed by the work that they are doing—indeed, one member of her team attended the most recent taskforce meeting—and the approach that they are taking in working with all groups to look at the problems in this area.

The internet and mobile technologies have helped to provide children with education, entertainment, and the ability to communicate with their friends. These technologies bring our children new opportunities and lots of fun, but we need to balance that with the risks and worries that parents have about their children accessing inappropriate content.

There is no doubt that most of the time the internet is a safe place, and the Government have encouraged its use in schools and in the home. It therefore rightly falls on Government to help to develop a response to help protect our children and we have been active in that area. Since 2001, the Home Secretary's taskforce has been a very successful method of bringing together Departments, industry, law enforcement and charities to develop measures to help protect children from illegal content and sexual predators in the fast-moving world of technology and the internet.

The taskforce is periodically reviewing its membership and is eager to include all bodies involved in protecting children online. Indeed, cyber-bullying is a relatively new phenomenon and we are looking to widen the range of partners involved in the taskforce in order to look at the issue more closely. I look forward to meeting the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan, to discuss the matter in the near future.

I would welcome further information from the hon. Member for East Devon on the South Korean model that he mentioned. That could be a good focus for the meeting that I suggested. If the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford wants to come to that meeting, I would be happy to hear in more detail about the points that he has made. I am not averse to learning from other countries. If they have something that might benefit us, we ought to try to learn from that. I will be happy to meet both hon. Gentlemen and to talk to them about that model.

I welcome the support that industry has given to the process, which I believe is an exceptionally useful method for tackling issues effectively and in a collaborative way through self-regulation and without the need for legislation. One of the major pieces of work that the taskforce has recently completed is the definition of a British Standards Institution specification for filtering tools for home users of the internet. Although filtering tools have been around for many years now, concerns have been raised about their effectiveness and their usability.

The new specification will allow the developers of filtering products to test them against the standard designed to protect children and other users from illegal or unsuitable content. That specification has been developed with the BSI, Ofcom and industry and will be launched in the near future. Companies whose products pass the tests will be able to display the child safety online kitemark on their products, allowing members of the public to identify them as having reached that standard. I want to encourage as many companies as possible that offer filtering products to the market to apply for the kitemark once it is launched. I am sure that we all hope that that will happen.

All hon. Members will also be aware that the internet is misused by paedophiles to share and distribute terrible images of children being sexually abused. We also know that adults will use the internet to gain access to children and young people so that they can groom them for sexual abuse. I am sure that we all agree that everything that can be done should be done to prevent the distribution of these images and to protect children from unwanted contact from predatory adults.

The Internet Watch Foundation was funded and formed by the industry in 1996 following agreement between the Government, police and the internet industry that a partnership approach was needed to tackle the distribution of child sexual abuse images on the internet. The IWF operates the only authorised hotline in the UK for the public to report their inadvertent exposure to illegal content on the internet, providing a notice and take-down service to internet service providers in the UK so they can remove potentially illegal content from their servers. The IWF works closely with law enforcement agencies at home and abroad to help them trace offenders.

The IWF estimates that since 2003, less than 1 per cent. of child abuse image websites are hosted in the UK compared to 18 per cent. in 1996. We would all like that figure to be 0 per cent., but that shows considerable progress. In addition, the IWF has developed a service to provide a list of URLs where illegal images are hosted. That list, which has been made available to the industry, enables the sites containing child abuse images to be blocked.

Since 2004, blocking of these sites on consumer broadband in the UK has gone from nothing to 95 per cent., thanks to the work carried out by the industry. The Home Office is working with a number of smaller ISPs to identify ways that they can implement blocking economically. Once that has been done, the number of connections covered by blocking will rise further.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

The Minister is right that the IWF has done a great deal to tackle the problem of child pornography on the internet, but the "Panorama" programme a few weeks ago exposed the problem of paedophiles posing as young girls to access social networking sites. That enables them to find out information that they are then able post for almost anybody to see. What progress has been made in dealing with that?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

One problem is that paedophiles will always try to find a way around our attempts to keep them out. The guidance on social networking that we will publish soon will look at what is good practice for ISPs in tackling that problem, but CEOP—the child exploitation and online protection centre—and other organisations are also taking the law enforcement approach. If the hon. Gentleman has not visited Jim Gamble and CEOP already, he should consider doing so, as that would enable him to see all the different types of work being undertaken. The people involved—police officers, technical experts and others—are very dedicated in their attempts to trap the paedophiles who use the internet in such a horrific way.

The work is hi-tech, because paedophiles who suspect that they have been traced tend to move on. Moreover, they have astonishing technical expertise in using the internet, and that can be countered only by people with matching ability. I am sure that anyone who sees what is being done by CEOP will be as impressed as I have been.

Blocking is not an issue for personal computers only: with more and more children using mobile phones, and with mobile phone technology growing exponentially, it is imperative that we engage with that part of the industry. All UK mobile phone providers are members of the Home Secretary's taskforce and have actively supported the development of good practice models. They are also members of the IWF and have agreed to block customer access to sites that the IWF has listed as containing illegal images of child abuse.

Mobile telephone operators in the UK have been pioneers in the protection of their child customers. They have shown that they take protecting children from inappropriate content very seriously, and they were the first in the world to publish a self-regulatory content code for mobiles. That requires customers to prove that they are at least 18 years of age before they can get access to adult commercial content.

As chair of the taskforce for child protection on the internet, I know how important it is to ensure that we remain ahead of the game when it comes to protecting children. I am proud of the taskforce's work: it has attracted interest from around the world, with many people asking how it operates. Since its inception, the taskforce has developed good practice guidance for web services, the internet, relay chat, safe searching and moderation services, but we all know that the internet keeps evolving. For example, very few of us had heard of social networking sites 18 months ago, but many millions of people now have profiles or web pages on such sites.

A multi-stakeholder project group from the taskforce has been working on developing good practice guidance for social networking and user interactive services. Leading players in the industry—and especially those involved in providing social networking services—along with CEOP, the child protection charities and others have been involved in, and contributed to, the production of the good practice guidance. I am pleased to say that the document will be launched in the near future, and I should like to ask the hon. Members for East Devon and for Maldon and East Chelmsford to attend that event. I hope that they will be able to accept that invitation.

As most hon. Members will be aware, CEOP was established in April 2006 to tackle the abuse and exploitation of children and young people, particularly from sexual predators who use the internet to distribute illegal images of children and young people, and to gain access to them so that they can be groomed for abuse. Staffed by the police, as well as child protection, education and industry specialists, the centre provides a single online 24-hour-a-day mechanism for reporting those who seek to use the internet to abuse children.

On a point that the hon. Member for East Devon raised, CEOP launched and ran an education programme, which last year reached 1.1 million children and their parents. He made the important point that we must educate not only children, but parents, so that they understand what their children can do on the internet. I am sure he, like me, finds that when he talks to parents, they sometimes have a much more limited understanding of the virtual world than their children do. We all have a big role to play in trying to help parents understand what is possible on the internet, so that they can work with their children to try to protect them, although the state must do its bit, too.

As I say, CEOP works with parents, and it plans to ensure that a further 3.5 million children are reached over the next two years, and that every primary school is provided with free resources. It also runs the thinkuknow website for children, parents and teachers. Since CEOP began operating in April 2006, some 240 offenders have been arrested, three paedophile rings have been smashed, and 138 children have been rescued from harm. That is a major achievement for UK law enforcement, and the creation of CEOP makes it clear that we are determined to protect children in the digital environment.

Today's children are sophisticated users of the internet, and their knowledge of it is ever-evolving, but we should never forget that they are children. Protecting them must therefore continue to be one of our priorities. The fact that the work is about protecting children in our communities can often get lost in all the technology issues. A collaborative approach to tackling the issue is essential if we are to prevent the exploitation of children on the internet. By working together with industry, Government, law enforcement agencies, children's charities and other interested parties, the taskforce has made progress in protecting children online. However, I recognise that there is always more to be done.

I welcome the Byron review, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman's debate. I look forward to meeting him, and perhaps the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, to discuss the subject, and in particular the Korean model that the hon. Member for East Devon presented to us. We can discuss that and many other matters, while we all pursue our common goal of doing all that we can to protect our children on the internet.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Nine o'clock.