Examination of Witnesses (Questions 388-399)|
THURSDAY 13 JUNE 2002
Chairman: Thank you very much. Sorry to keep
you waiting, it is a problem of being last on. Can we start off
with a question from Lord Hussey.
Lord Hussey of North Bradley
388. Good morning, we are all sorry to have
kept you waiting. Do you think OFCOM can undertake a distinct
and valuable role in relation to media literacy and in what particular
way would it fulfil that role? You refer to it in your notes.
(Mr Darlington) The short answer is yes. You have
heard a lot of discussion this morning about people's concern
that the Internet might be regulated by OFCOM. Obviously we would
like as much clarity in the Act as possible. We do not think the
government wants the Internet to be regulated and we do not expect
OFCOM to regulate the Internet, but it is unquestionably the case
that we are going to see more and more convergence not just of
telecommunications and broadcasting but of broadcasting and the
Internet and therefore a major role of OFCOM will be to raise
the level of consumer understanding as to what is happening and
how best to respond. I think we are going to move away from the
model whereby national regulators, whether it be the BBC or the
IBA, decide what is proper for people to see or access at a particular
point in time to a model where more and more we empower end users.
That is a process which has to be managed because consumer expectations
are very different at the moment and therefore OFCOM's programme
in relation to media literacy is going to be enormously important
to educate consumers to recognise that different delivery mechanisms
are going to have different levels of assurances, if you like,
as to how the content has or has not been controlled. We will
be moving more and more towards a model whereby the end user will
be exercising the control through systems like rating and filtering.
389. Will you be advising on the system and
what you think is happening? Will you be constantly criticising
the media when it has fallen down on standards?
(Mr Darlington) We are not constantly criticising.
390. I am not saying now but looking ahead and
being gloomy about what we might find on our screens?
(Mr Darlington) I do not see why we should be gloomy.
The idea of empowering end users should be seen as something that
is liberating. There was a time where if we watched a programme
on television and went into our place of work we could be sure
that half the people round the lunch table had seen the same programme,
and when you had that limited volume of programming and limited
number of channels and you had a more homogenous society, maybe
it was appropriate for the BBC to decide what we should see at
any given time. But we now have a multi channel environment in
television and with the availability of television channels and
increasing broadband Internet connections it is simply not possible
for national regulators to decide what is appropriate for any
given household to access and to view. Managing that process is
going to be difficult because people have had expectations that
when they switch on the television set at a particular time, say
before 9 o'clock, they are pretty sure they know what they are
going to see. If you switch on the PC, especially in a broadband
era, you are less sure what you are going to see and what your
child is going to access.
391. That is why I used the word "gloomy".
(Mr Darlington) I do not know that we should be gloomy.
There will be things like rating and filtering and programmes
like media literacy which will enable end users to make more sophisticated
judgments. Why should we have one standard for every home in the
country? Given that we live in an increasingly liberal society
and an increasingly secular society and an increasingly multi-cultural
society, is it not better that individual households should make
decisions and perhaps different decisions in relation to children
of different ages? That can be seen as threatening but it can
also be seen as very empowering.
Lord Hussey of North Bradley: I think that is
right. I am just interested in your views.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford
392. We are all concerned about children and
that is one thing about which we agree. In my experience most
children understand technology much better than their parents
do. I know families where the child has to operate the video.
You have a great optimism that this will work. In fact, most likely
the children will be censoring the parents! I accept that we are
a liberal and secular society. Well, we are liberal in some things
and not in others, but we will not get into the philosophy of
this. Does it mean anything beyond the fact that in the end there
will be no control?
(Mr Darlington) That is the alternative to the model
I have describedno control. I think, in fact, that parents
who are becoming increasingly literate themselves in terms of
the media, and who will become more literate as a result of the
media literacy programmes of OFCOM, will want to use the growing
variety of tools which are available. Some are there now and some
will be developed in the future. For example, you have not heard
much this morning about the rating system developed by the Internet
Content Rating Association which exists now which is a global
culture-free system which can be applied to any web site in the
world. Technically that can be used to map across to the programming
you see on television. You could make a decision as to what is
appropriate for your child to see on the Internet or on television
and it would be a consistent decision across delivery platforms.
Is that not better than the rather random, variegated system we
393. I see what you are saying and I would not
want to dwell on it because it is a rather deep issue but I only
make this point because I think all of you are involved in this.
I was on the Parole Board for six years and saw human nature at
its nastiest. On not one but many occasions rather nasty sexual
crimes were influenced by what they had seen on videos. This is
a fact. These people, often young people, were not stopped going
to it by parents. Just to stand back and say, "We have a
responsible, liberal society," denies the facts. I do think
that thought ought to be given to that; do you not?
(Mr Darlington) Can I emphasise that what I have been
saying has been in relation to legal content but which many parents
would regard as more offensive or less offensive. As regards illegal
content we are in a completely different situation and that is
very much at the heart of IWF's mission. As regards criminal content,
and more especially child pornography, there is no liberalism
and there is no relaxation; there is an unremitting and determined
effort to get that child pornography removed from the Internet
and to assist law enforcement to prosecute the people who put
it up there in the first place and who are accessing it.
394. You mentioned filtering a little earlier.
There seems to be a concern in the Internet sector that OFCOM
may set standards for Internet filtering systems, but not to contribute
financially to their development. Do you think it is right that
OFCOM's research function should extend to active involvement
to such a development?
(Mr Darlington) OFCOM does have a role to play because
it will have a lot of expertise and it will have a lot of funds,
which are in short supply in the communications industryat
least the regulatory part of it. What we have to recognise, though,
is that if we are talking about a ratings system for the Internet,
we are talking about a global system. Many colleagues have been
trying to emphasise throughout this morning that whether you want
to or not you cannot deal with the Internet in the same way that
you deal with television because it is a fundamentally different
network. One of the ways in which it is different is it is global.
For any ratings system to work it has to take account of the very
different cultures and values that exist not just in the United
Kingdom, not just in Europe, but throughout the world and it has
to have a consensus behind it which is genuinely worldwide. There
have been two or three attempts to develop ratings systems of
that kind. Essentially the only show in town now is the Internet
Content Rating Association system which the IWF was a major partner
in helping to establish. The challenges now are to get more and
more Internet content providers to voluntarily rate their sites
according to the ICRA system and get more and more users of the
Internet to be aware of this rating system and to make use of
it in conjunction with appropriate filtering software. To some
extent that is one of our subsidiary roles and it is something
which I am sure OFCOM will want to do and with which we all want
to work together.
395. I was very impressed by Roger Darlington's
commitment on child pornography and other issues and we have been
reassured on a number of occasions that there is the criminal
law there to intervene on abuse of the Internet and on Internet
content. I still think the Committee, as Lord Pilkington's concern
indicated, is wrestling with this dilemma that there are out there
abuses and, as you said, criminal activity. Can we rely purely
on the criminal law and voluntary codes of conduct? Are there
lessons that can be learned in terms of definition of Internet
content or provision? Is there a distinction between provision
and editorial content? Are we best to stay out of it and rest
upon your codes of conduct and the criminal law or can you see
a point for legislation or for powers for OFCOM here?
(Mr Robbins) If I may answer that. One of the things
that we would make a point of in respect of our submissions is
that the majority of complaints we have seen are offshore away
from the United Kingdom. We are struggling with a volume of complaints
which are accessed by subscribers and users in the UK to offshore
sites. UK criminal law, of course, is very strong and robust around
child pornography, but it is difficult for us to work with European
and other international countries which have different forms of
legal definitions around child pornography. It is a problem for
us and for anybody trying to think about the UK end of it when
substantial quantities of material are emanating from offshore.
396. First of all, are you in regular contact
with the Home Office on these issues and are our authorities in
contact with international authorities?
(Mr Robbins) We spend a great deal of time talking
about international co-operation. We are a member of INHOPE (
The Internet Hotline Providers in Europe Organisation) which is
an arrangement whereby several European countries join together
with us to work out common standards and share information and
hopefully remove sites that originate from Spain or Sweden or
Germany, etcetera, so that they would replicate similar United
Kingdom law and have those sites removed.
397. But in terms of both domestic law and international
agreement, is there some continuing consultative process? What
you seem to be suggesting is that this is not a role for OFCOM,
this is a role for the criminal law, but is there a dialogue between
you and the Home Office to see where existing criminal law might
be strengthened to give more power over these areas of abuse?
(Mr Robbins) It is our experience that the laws of
the majority of people that we work with internationally across
Europe are draconian in child protection anyway, but the type
of individuals we are dealing with who are supplying this material
are the criminals that chance their arm at everything. The complexity
for both the law enforcement agencies and ourselves is tracing,
tracking down and having these people arrested and incarcerated.
398. Do you co-operate, for example, with the
National Criminal Intelligence Service?
(Mr Robbins) Every report that we receive from a UK
subscriber is transferred to the National Criminal Intelligence
Service and onwards then to Interpol so that gradually it filters
across to various other countries who are hosting illegal sites.
(Mr Davies) Where IWF works very well is dealing with
items that are clearly illegal to possess. As soon as you move
away from that there is a whole new remit opening up. You can
strengthen criminal law but you have to prove that that content
is illegal to possess and that is beyond the scope of the IWF
at the moment.
399. Have you contemplated in relation to the
structure of Bill that not only should OFCOM have a requirement
for light touch regulation and only regulate where necessary and
so on, but have a requirement to seek to do so by means of self-regulation
or co-regulation because that would clearly be consistent with
you and a number of other organisations which we may see who believe
that OFCOM might have reserve powers but does not need to intervene.
Is that something you have thought about at all?
(Mr Davies) As we were hearing this morning, there
are more questions than answers. We are all having trouble predicting
the future. I see no compelling reason to change the models of
the independent bodies who seem to have done a good job over past
years. They are always reviewing their own roles and I see a role
for interaction between organisations like IWF, ICSTIS and so
on in a conferencing situation with OFCOM. That is not sitting
on each other's boards but a process of continued conversation.
As to whether you have reserve powers so that you can suddenly
step forward, that starts to become a bit more controversial.
You are going into this without the additional powers to do it
straightaway but if it is going to be two or three years down
the road when you might say, "We now want to get involved",
that is a different matter.