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John Whittingdale calls for tougher controls on the Internet

John_whittingdaleThere are a number of issues on which sincere Conservatives sincerely disagree. One of them is media content, and the extent to which the Government should intervene on matters of decency and to protect the vulnerable.

On Thursday, Westminster Hall hosted a debate on the Internet and video games. It was chaired by Buckingham MP (and former Shadow Cabinet member) John Bercow. What price Mr Bercow will one day be a candidate for Speaker?

John Whittingdale chairs the Culture, Media and Sport select committee (and is a former Shadow Culture Secretary). His committee undertook a "a major inquiry into the whole question of harmful content on the internet and in video games". Mr Whittingdale said that although extremely violent and sexually explicit material was an obvious concern, as was the use of the Internet to harm children, these were not the only matters that the committee considered. The encouragement of suicide, the glorification of guns and gangs, the encouragement of anorexics not to eat, terrorist networks and cyberbullying were all of interest.

Mr Whittingdale made clear that he was a fan of the Internet but that it can be misused:

"I want to preface everything that I say by making it clear that in my view, and in the view of the Committee, the internet is an extraordinary development that is overwhelmingly a force for good. ... It has revolutionised life, and there is no going back. We cannot disinvent it; nor would anyone want to. It has rapidly become a research tool, a source of information and knowledge, a means of communication and a convenient method of purchase. We do not wish to give the impression that we think that the internet is a bad thing that has to be controlled, even if it were possible to do so. None the less, the truth is that it can be abused. The purpose of our inquiry was to focus on those areas in which abuse can take place and to consider ways in which it can be tackled."

Mr Whittingdale supported what can be described as a low standard of proof for tackling potentially harmful material:

"Much of our conclusion was based on the fact that evidence of harm does not necessarily exist. If one looks for empirical, hard, factual evidence that viewing a particular video or playing a video game has led someone to go out and commit a crime such as a rape or an act of violence, there is very little. Our view was therefore not that we should necessarily say “In that case, we cannot act,” but that we should act on the probability of risk. Where there is a probable risk that someone would be influenced by exposure to such material, that is sufficient cause for intervention to protect that person from being exposed to it."

The committee's report is available here. It was published back on 31 July 2008. Its conclusions are quite lengthy, but they include the following:

"We agree that any approach to the protection of children from online dangers should be based on the probability of risk. We believe that incontrovertible evidence of harm is not necessarily required in order to justify a restriction of access to certain types of content in any medium."

"It is sensible that parents set boundaries for their children’s online activities, but a totally risk-averse culture in parenting will not equip children to face dangers which they will inevitably encounter as they grow older."

"The Home Office Task Force on Child Internet Safety has, by common consent, done good work and has served its purpose well; but its loose funding and support structures have given the impression that its work is of a comparatively low priority."

"We strongly recommend that terms and conditions which guide consumers on the types of content which are acceptable on a site should be prominent. It should be made more difficult for users to avoid seeing and reading the conditions of use: as a consequence, it would become more difficult for users to claim ignorance of terms and conditions if they upload inappropriate content."

"We are also concerned that user-generated video content on sites such as YouTube does not carry any age classification, nor is there a watershed before which it cannot be viewed. We welcome efforts by YouTube to identify material only suitable for adults, such as that containing foul language, and to develop potential controls to prevent children from accessing it."

"We found the arguments put forward by Google/You Tube against their staff undertaking any kind of proactive screening to be unconvincing. To plead that the volume of traffic prevents screening of content is clearly not correct: indeed, major providers such as MySpace have not been deterred from reviewing material posted on their sites. Even if review of every bit of content is not practical, that is not an argument to undertake none at all."

"We find it shocking that a take-down time of 24 hours for removal of child abuse content should be an industry standard."

"At a time of rapid technological change, it is difficult to judge whether blocking access to Internet content at network level by Internet service providers is likely to become ineffective in the near future. However, this is not a reason for not doing so while it is still effective for the overwhelming majority of users."

"We believe that there would be advantage in establishing a forum at which governments or regulators from across the world could try to find common ground on how access to content on the Internet should be treated."

"It is clear that many users of social networking sites, particularly children, do not realise that by posting information about themselves, they may be making it publicly available for all to see. We recommend that social networking sites should have a default setting restricting access and that users should be required to take a deliberate decision to make their personal information more widely available. We also recommend that consideration be given to alerting users through pop-up displays about the risks involved in submitting personal details without restricting access."

"We recommend that network operators and manufacturers of mobile devices should assess whether it is technically possible to enable images sent from mobile devices to be traced and viewed by law enforcement officers with the appropriate authority."

"We expect the Government to apply continuing, and if necessary, escalating pressure on Internet service providers who are showing reluctance to block access to illegal content hosted abroad. In a lucrative market, the cost to Internet service providers of installing software to block access to child pornography sites should not come second to child safety."

"We believe that leaving individual companies in the Internet services sector to regulate themselves in the protection of users from potential harm has resulted in a piecemeal approach which we find unsatisfactory."

"Our preferred model for any new body to maintain standards among providers of Internet-based services is that of the Advertising Standards Authority, which is generally successful at securing compliance with codes for advertising standards but which, if necessary, may refer companies which persistently breach those standards to statutory regulators that can apply penalties."

"We commend the Government for the action it has taken to motivate the Internet industry, the voluntary sector and others to work together to improve the level of protection from risks from the Internet, particularly for children. However, we regret that much of this work remains unknown and has therefore done little to increase public confidence. We look to the UK Council to build on the existing agreements and to ensure a much greater public awareness of what has already been achieved."

"We also note that the Government originally suggested that four different Ministers should give evidence to our inquiry and it does seem that there is scope for improved co-ordination of activity between different Government departments. We recommend that a single Minister should have responsibility for co-ordinating the Government’s effort in improving levels of protection from harm from the Internet, overseeing complementary initiatives led by different Government departments, and monitoring the resourcing of relevant Government-funded bodies."

"We agree with Ofcom that parents will need to take on greater responsibility for protecting children from harm from the Internet and from video games. In particular, they should be aware of the consequences of buying devices which allow unsupervised access to the Internet; they should have more knowledge of young children’s social networking activities and be more familiar with video game content, thereby gaining a better understanding of the risks; and they should, wherever possible, discuss those risks openly with their children. We recommend that the UK Council for Child Internet Safety should investigate ways of communicating these messages to parents."

Too much, too little, just right? Thoughts please.


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