Abusive Images (Internet)

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 11th March 2009.

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Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley 11:00 am, 11th March 2009

I am delighted to have secured this debate on abusive images on the internet. The internet opens a window on the world in a wonderful way, enabling us to find information and communicate with others, but we must be vigilant about the ways in which it can be misused. I shall focus on three areas today and ask the Minister to crack down further on access to images of child abuse on the net; to put pressure on the social networking sites to take down and monitor proactively disturbing videos; and to continue to promote the education of young people about safety on the net.

A huge amount of work on all those matters has been done in the UK by Government, internet service providers, children's charities and the police. I pay tribute to all of them and to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing is to reply to the debate, as he did a massive amount of excellent work when he had direct responsibility for policy in this area. I also thank John Carr, secretary of the Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety, who first alerted me to the issues and briefed me for this debate.

First, I come to images of child abuse. In my own area and elsewhere, we have people who use the internet to download thousands, or even tens of thousands, of images of child abuse. Recently in my patch, a GP was convicted of such a crime—the second such case in my area. Each image of child abuse represents a real child or a baby being raped or otherwise abused. The crime is not one of someone innocently looking at a Lolita-type image. The Internet Watch Foundation tells me that half the images uncovered are of children under 10 and more than half depict the worst categories of abuse, which makes it almost impossible for any normal human being to watch. The idea of someone downloading the image of a baby being raped for their sick gratification is extraordinary.

The UK has an exemplary record on dealing with child abuse images on the internet. We can all feel justly proud that no other democracy in the world can match our achievements. Many other countries are copying the British approach and, as we know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

When records of such images first started to be kept in the late 1990s, something like 19 per cent. of all the child abuse images found on the internet in the UK were also being published by servers physically located in the UK. Today, that proportion has gone down to around 0.2 per cent., which is a fantastic success. That is in no small part due to the work of the IWF, which was founded in 1996 by the internet service providers.

For those who do not know the history behind that development—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister does—I will explain how the system works. The IWF receives a report of an alleged illegal image. The staff look at the image and if they confirm that it is illegal and it is housed on a server within the UK, a notice is issued to the UK host and the police. No UK ISP has ever been prosecuted for child pornography offences because they all act immediately to remove such images the instant they receive a notice from the IWF. British ISPs also block the Usernet newsgroups of which they are notified by IWF when abusive images keep reappearing.

To eliminate nearly all abusive images on servers hosted in the UK is a great success, but the other 99 per cent. plus of child abuse images reside on overseas servers in which the IWF writ does not run. The local police may be notified, but whether or not action is taken depends on the way in which the police operate, on the systems in those countries and on the speed of response. Child abuse websites hosted overseas are available via the world wide web to anyone anywhere in the world, so they are available to UK residents to download. That in turn puts UK children at risk, because a proportion of the people who download such images are likely to go on to act out in real life some of the sexual fantasies involving children that have been fuelled by those images. Do not think that such people just look at those images, appalling though that is.

At the Derbyshire safeguarding children board annual meeting last Friday, Jim Gamble from CEOP discussed some recent research, which may not have yet been published. Of those sent to prison for downloading child abuse images, only 26 per cent. said that they had been involved in a contact offence. Obviously that is bad enough, but when they were re-interviewed using polygraphs, 90 per cent. were found to have gone on to engage in contact offences. Therefore, they had committed offences both online and offline.

The problem is not just that someone might go on to commit contact offences, but that the trade in such images puts UK children at risk of abuse. By definition, those images are evidence of a crime that has been committed against the child depicted in the image. Every re-publication of the image is, in a sense, a way of re-abusing the child. Very often, people say. "Why are you taking action against people who are just downloading and looking at images?" They do not understand the seriousness of the crime. The crime is one of children and babies being abused and raped solely for profit and sexual gratification, and that is just unbelievably appalling.

It is very difficult to identify and locate those children. Interpol says that it has identified and rescued 900 children, but many more are out there being abused to service the trade. Anyone who downloads such disgusting images is contributing very directly to keeping in business a commercial trade that is often run by organised criminal gangs. Moreover, they are ensuring the continuation of other methods which may not involve criminal gangs but which involve the trade in images of children being abused. They are directly contributing to the abuse of the children shown in the images; they are abusers by proxy.

Many of us have been considering better ways to disrupt and reduce the traffic in child abuse images. In 2004, in Prime Minister's questions, I was able to welcome the steps taken by BT to develop its cleanfeed technology. It showed how it could take the IWF's list of known child abuse websites and use the cleanfeed system to block access by all its customers in those sites. Anyone using cleanfeed technology to access the internet would not be able to access any of the sites notified by the IWF, including those hosted overseas from which most of the images come. Obviously, such a system is not foolproof, but it clearly has limited hugely and prevented a range of illegal and accidental access.

In April 2006, the Government, in the form of my hon. Friend the Minister, said that they wanted all internet service providers voluntarily to adopt a cleanfeed system, enabling them to envisage a time when 100 per cent. of UK-based ISPs were doing their bit to reduce the volume of images being traded over the internet. The Government gave the industry until 31 December 2007 to come into line with that policy, adding that if providers were not willing to do that, "other means" would be considered to secure that end. The matter has been considered at various times since then. The Internet Services Providers Association told me that it has discussed with some providers the difficulties of such a measure. None the less, the providers have now had 18 months in which to get their house in order.

In an answer to a parliamentary question last month, tabled by my hon. Friend Margaret Moran, who has been very involved in this issue, the Government confirmed that only 95 per cent. of UK households with broadband connections belonged to ISPs that use the technology to block images. That sounds like a great success, and I applaud it. None the less, that 5 per cent. difference means that nearly three-quarters of a million UK households with broadband connections still have unfettered access to the child abuse websites. That is too many, and I hope that Minister will say what we can do now to crack down on those last few ISPs that are not taking the matter seriously and honouring the pledge to clamp down on this evil and appalling trade. Self-regulation has clearly not worked. It is no good having a code that says it can be ignored. The time has come for action.

I have been approached by the ISPA and the IWF, who say that some small firms may have some technical difficulties. To be frank, however, car producers who say, "I am unable to fit a brake system in the car that I am producing," are not allowed to produce cars. The onus is on us, the trade and the industry to find ways to enable companies that say they have problems to block access to the images. It is not acceptable for ISPs to allow households access to those evil and abusive images. The ISPs that have taken action should be annoyed about those that have not done so. If 100 per cent. of ISPs do not take action, the pressure for legislation will become irresistible. I hope that the Minister will say that we will crack down on ISPs that have not taken such action.

The trade in these images is evil. I could not bear even to look at them, so I applaud those who do so on behalf of our society. The IWF and others look at those images and take action with the police and service providers to stop people carrying on that evil and appalling trade, which causes so many children and babies to be abused in the most horrendous way. The time has come to crack down on that last remaining group so that the UK can have a really proud record of saying, "We stop our citizens from being able to access those images."

I want to raise a couple of other related issues, the first of which concerns disturbing videos on social networking sites. The Derby Evening Telegraph, one of my local papers, uncovered videos posted on YouTube including videos of attacks by teenagers on youngsters in Belper, dangerous stunts by young drivers in Derby, animal cruelty and dog fighting. A recent BBC radio documentary stated that 90 young people have received police cautions because of images of themselves that they have posted on the net. Some social networking sites, including MySpace, proactively monitor their sites to take down disturbing videos, but YouTube, which is part of Google, and others just wait for complaints, saying that it is too difficult to proactively monitor their sites. To be frank, a person who enjoys watching such videos is hardly going to complain and ask for the sites to be taken down.

Those sites are not taking action despite Home Office guidance for social networking sites issued in 2008, following recommendations made by the clinical psychologist, Dr. Tanya Byron, who was directly commissioned by the Prime Minister to look at how children could use the net safely and avert risks and dangers. Her recommendations were endorsed by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, so there is a lot of force behind the idea that social networking sites have a responsibility to look at what is being posted and to take action to take down unacceptable sites.

The new UK Council on Child Internet Safety, which was recommended by Dr. Byron, has now had two meetings. It will look at social networking sites and some of the mechanics of taking action. However, I take this opportunity to say to YouTube and other social networking sites, "You have to take your responsibilities seriously. You have a responsibility to the many people that use your sites to ensure that they are used responsibly." Again, I ask the Minister to take that on board and to continue to put pressure on such sites to follow UKCCIS's advice. Sites should take on board the recommendation that they proactively monitor sites and take down those that are not acceptable.

That leads me to touch briefly on the question of the education of young people and their parents in how to use the net safely. The internet is an incredibly exciting place, but it should also be treated as an open space, like a park. We must learn how to avoid dangers and take sensible precautions against those who would do us harm. They could be strangers posing as friends—the CEOP site has a very graphic demonstration of somebody talking to somebody, another child, talking to somebody else, another child, talking to somebody else, who seems like a child but is in fact a 30-year-old man. People do not know to whom they are talking on the net, so they do not know whether people are merely posing as friends. We need to know how to deal with bullying on the net, which is common, and how to ensure that people do not post images of themselves on the net that will come back to haunt them, say, in a job interview 20 years later, or because people have seen embarrassing pictures.

I assume that the 90 young people who, I am horrified to hear, have police cautions, posted images of themselves in sexually provocative poses on the net, and that they are very young people. Clearly, they would not have cautions if the images were not classified as illegal. They will have been child abuse images or child pornography images, if we want to use that phrase. If social networking sites proactively monitored their content, they could ensure either that clearly illegal images did not go up, or that they were taken down straight away. Obviously, that raises the question of how to ensure that young people are not foolish and that they know how to use the net, what is acceptable and how to stop themselves getting into real danger.

I was delighted that the Derbyshire safeguarding children board conference last Friday had Jim Gamble as a speaker. He talked about how CEOP's website contains advice for children and their parents on how to work safely. I was also delighted that 140 social workers and teachers in Derbyshire have been trained by CEOP to go into schools to talk to children about how to behave safely when using the net.

For the great majority of youngsters, use of the internet and social networking sites will be perfectly safe and enjoyable. We do not want to be damp squibs or to pour scorn on the internet and say that it is dangerous, appalling and awful and that people should not ever use it. However, just as people take some care when they walk around in the real world, so they need to take care when moving around on the net. Following a few simple rules we can ensure that the internet is a place where young people can enjoy themselves safely. I am sure that the Minister and his colleagues will continue to promote the education of young people and their parents in how to use the net safely.

These are the three things that we should be doing: cracking down on child abuse images; cracking down on social networking sites and ensuring that they act responsibly and monitor what is on their sites; and ensuring that young children are educated. We need to ensure that the internet is indeed a wonderful place, and not a place where all sorts of dangers and uncomfortable things lurk.

T

Why is the government trying to set up a censoring and monitoring network which will not work for the stated purpose?

This approach seems unlikely to be effective because of the ability to route traffic via other machines.

Anonymising proxies allow one to route traffic via a machine in another country with little - so that it is this unfiltered machine which is connecting to any materials. I sincerely hope that the government is not planning to ban these, as this would seem to be a major imposition on people civil liberties.

But more than this it, is quite easy (of the order of a couple of hours work) to set up you own proxy if you rent a server in another country for as little as £15 a month. This could encrypt all communication. Are the government intending to ban renting of servers in other countries (this would cause economic distortion and would surely count as protectionism), or monitor traffic within other countries.

Besides this people are quite capable of sharing information without any centralised server (e.g file sharing etc)

Submitted by Tom Wright

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security) 11:18 am, 11th March 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Judy Mallaber on securing this hugely important debate. I pay tribute to her work with John Carr, who has done an excellent job, and many other people in highlighting this matter. She has not simply come to it in the past couple of weeks, but has worked on it dedicatedly and passionately for a number of years. People should be aware that if it was not for the campaigning that she and a number of other hon. Members have done, notwithstanding the challenges that she has made this morning, we would be far behind where we are now. I want to put that on the record. Sincerely and genuinely, children are safe today who would not have been but for the actions of such people.

I will address my hon. Friend's points as I go on, but to reassure her, the Government want 100 per cent. blocking and we will consider legislating for it. We believe that the companies responsible for social networking sites have a responsibility to monitor and act proactively to ensure that the sites conform to the various codes that have been produced.

We also believe that the role of parents is crucial. They should know what is happening in their child's bedroom with respect to the internet. We want to encourage parents to take responsibility for that, as many do. The education of children themselves is also hugely important. I reassure my hon. Friend on all the direct questions that she raised. Blocking in particular is something that we will be taking forward proactively.

We are appalled by the continuing misuse of the internet to distribute images of child sexual abuse. They are not virtual images of fictional activity; they are images of real children being abused, whether in the UK or elsewhere. We are fully committed to tackling the creation, sale and possession of such images. As most people already know, for a substantial period of time the UK has completely prohibited the production, possession and distribution of images of child sexual abuse.

Shortly after use of the internet became widespread, it was recognised that it was being misused to spread such images. The UK industry responded in 1996 by setting up the Internet Watch Foundation to operate the world's first dedicated hotline for reporting images of child sexual abuse. With the support of industry, Government and law enforcement, the IWF has been very successful in tackling hosting of such images in the UK.

As a result of that partnership approach, the percentage of child sexual abuse content reported to the IWF or found by the IWF to be hosted in the UK has been reduced from approximately 18 per cent. in 1997 to less than 1 per cent. now. That means that sexually abusive images of children are primarily hosted abroad. To protect UK users from inadvertent exposure to such content, the IWF also facilitated an industry-led initiative by blocking access to it through the provision of a dynamic list of child sexual abuse internet addresses. I draw to the House's attention the fact that the UK internet industry was the first in Europe to commit voluntarily to blocking access to such images. We should recognise that the vast majority of the industry has joined together responsibly to do so. The process is now being considered and recommended in countries all over Europe and elsewhere.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, 95 per cent. of our broadband services use the blocking list. I am grateful to the industry members whose efforts have contributed to its success for their continued support for the Internet Watch Foundation. However, the Government are committed to achieving a target of 100 per cent. blocking on all commercial networks. At a Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre conference last week, the Home Secretary made it clear that we want the target to be met and that we are happy to discuss with the industry any genuine issues that need to be resolved to see how we can help. If that approach does not work, we are considering a number of other options, including legislation if necessary. We hope it will not come to that, but if more formal regulation is needed, we will consider it.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

Has any time scale been put on that process? The industry has had 18 months and most internet service providers have gone along with it. Does my hon. Friend have any idea how long we will give them to come back with their problems and discussions before taking more drastic action?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

We said originally that it should be by the end of 2007, as my hon. Friend is aware. We thought it appropriate to wait a year or so to see whether we could meet the target voluntarily and tell the industry that we need it to do so. The issue will not go away. We will now take it forward much more proactively to address the problem and resolve the issues. As she said, the industry says that it is having problems, but to the public, access is available to abusive images of the vilest kind, which none of us wants to see.

One of the ways in which the Government have responded to the issue is by setting up CEOP, one of the first such centres in the world. CEOP has had marked success in targeting online predators and in forming crucial partnerships with international law enforcement agencies, meaning that the UK continues to be recognised as a world leader in serious online protection. I pay tribute to the work of Jim Gamble and all the people at CEOP.

The Government have never been complacent about the potential threat to children from those who would seek to harm them online. We have been active on the issue for a considerable time. As a result of a recommendation by the Home Secretary's taskforce, we introduced an offence of grooming in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which makes it an offence to communicate with a child and arrange to meet them for sexual purposes. Again, we were the first country in Europe to introduce such an offence. Other countries have now introduced or are considering introducing similar offences. Only a few weeks ago, four and a half years after the introduction of the offence in the UK, the European Parliament recommended that all European Community members do so.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

Another issue raised by Jim Gamble at the conference on Friday was the need to ensure that all sites have a clear and easily available child abuse alert button, so that if a child feels that something is going on that they are not comfortable with, they can press the button and be put through to the appropriate agency to report it. I know that a number of sites have such buttons. Will my hon. Friend ensure that point is taken on board so that there is consistency and all available sites have such a facility for children to report abuse?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

Again, my hon. Friend knows that CEOP has been campaigning for the provision of a "report abuse" button on social networking and other sites. We have encouraged it, and a number of companies, including social networking sites, are now providing such buttons. We wish to see their number increase, and we are actively pursuing that with CEOP.

As well as law enforcement, CEOP has been successful in its educational initiatives. Its educational programmes have now been delivered to more than 3 million children in schools around the UK. That is another way in which we can protect young people from harm on the internet.

In April 2008, Dr. Tanya Byron published her report "Safer Children in a Digital World", and the Government accepted all her recommendations in full. In September last year, we launched UKCCIS, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, a key Byron recommendation that brings together industry, charities, law enforcement and Government to help protect children online. I would like to put on record my personal thanks to Dr. Tanya Byron for her excellent work.

The council will consider issues such as social networking sites and how to ensure that harmful and inappropriate content can be kept away from children, and it will work with content hosts to establish an independently monitored, voluntary code of practice for the moderation of user-generated content. Sites will be encouraged to sign up to specific, public commitments on how long they will take to remove content violating their acceptable use policies after it has been reported to them.

Through UKCCIS, the Government will raise awareness of e-safety issues through a public awareness campaign targeting parents and children as part of a £9 million investment. We will also implement sustainable education and children's service initiatives to improve e-safety skills in children and parents. The initiatives will promote the use of filtering software, particularly the British Standards Institution kitemark launched in April last year. The Government strongly support the kitemark and encourage companies to apply for it.

My hon. Friend is right that we have led the way on the issue. There is a lot more to do. We want the 100 per cent. target to be met. We want more action to be taken across borders in Europe, the United States and other countries so that we can work together globally to tackle the movement of such appalling imagery across networks. The fact that it is not hosted in the UK is a cause for great celebration for us, but we know that it is still accessible on sites hosted overseas. That is of concern to us, and we need to continue to work together to address it. My hon. Friend is right. It is a priority for us all.

Sitting suspended.