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Online Child and Adult Protection

Volume 507: debated on Tuesday 16 March 2010

We now move on to the next debate, but before calling the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), I seek clarification. Have the hon. Gentleman and the Minister agreed to the participation of another hon. Member?

It is a pleasure, Mr. Key, to have you in the Chair for this debate. I am delighted to have secured it, and to have the opportunity of exchanging views with my hon. Friend the Minister. I look forward to hearing his comments, and his commitment on the wider issues that I shall raise. I shall start by discussing the current state of child and adult online protection in the social media, and what can be done to improve matters.

I was brought to this subject today following events in recent weeks, and the sad deaths of Ashleigh Hall and Camille Mathurasingh. Ms Mathurasingh was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend, after he viewed pictures of her with another man on a social media account. Although the case received mass media attention, I am aware that it is an impossible area in which to legislate.

The case of Ashleigh Hall is more worrying. She was stalked by a 33-year-old paedophile posing as someone half his age. He met up with Ms Hall, and then abducted, raped and murdered her. Although the circumstances of the cases differ, they illustrate the problems of protecting ourselves in the virtual world from danger in the real world.

Social media websites, such as Facebook, have inextricably changed the level of interaction in our society in the last few years. The concept of friendship has been downgraded, and we show pictures and share intimate details with hundreds or thousands of so-called friends, many of whom we have never even met. I speak with experience, because I have 500 new friends on Facebook whom I never knew I had. On a serious note, the downgrading of personal friendship bonds online has hidden consequences. Online relationships spring up without face-to-face contact ever being made, and children may have communication with people of which their parents are unaware.

Social networking websites are clearly at the forefront of that new level of communications. According to a recent Ofcom report, UK internet users spend more time on networking websites than any other country in Europe, with 39 per cent. of UK adults using them regularly. Facebook is particularly primed for the UK, where it makes up 45 per cent. of the social networking market—double that of Bebo and more than three times that of MySpace. That is impressive if one considers that the total global social networking website market is topped by MySpace, which has 71.92 per cent. of the market, while Facebook holds only 16.91 per cent. The success of Facebook in the UK compared with the US is due to the fact that it has managed to spread beyond university students and has socially stratified down to other levels of society. That is not the case in the US, where Facebook and MySpace are divided along lines of ethnicity and class, with Afro-Caribbean and Latino school leavers favouring MySpace, and university students favouring Facebook.

Recent research, commissioned during the national year of reading 2008 on white working class boys—C2 and DE grades—aged between 11 and 15, found that 80 per cent. had access to the internet through computers in the home. That highlights the fact that this issue affects everybody in our society, and even those who are not online might have family members who are. It is understandable that problems of security will arise in such a diluted online community.

Some experts link the rise in teenage rape, which was up 23 per cent. on last year, to a growing sexualisation of young teenage girls on social network sites. I do not believe that that is the only reason for the rise, but it may be an influential factor. Either way, that reiterates the fear that we have about this matter. In the case of Ashleigh Hall, more could have been done by the social networking site Facebook to protect her by adding a report button. I know about the report button from my work as chair of the all-party group on communications. It was created by the Home Office’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre—CEOP—and is free to use for any social media website, with no charge for take-up. CEOP has stated that since its creation, the button receives thousands of clicks a month. Facebook has had access to the button since 2006, but has not yet put it on its user sites. I read in the papers that internet security consultants in the USA found 8,000 paedophiles on that website, and it is well documented that MySpace removed 90,000 paedophiles from its website. However, in spite of that, neither website has fitted the report button. Will the Minister help in this matter, and try to find out why those internet service providers will not put that button on their sites?

The problem is that no industry code exists that requires social media websites to fit such buttons. Many people believe, as I do, that the market cannot and does not regulate itself, and often, the commercial entities that come into these environments are driven by venture capital. Companies try to do as much as possible for as little as possible, until they are bought over. Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with the business model, but when talking about child safety, companies must operate in an enterprise zone with special terms and conditions. That could be based around business rates and other incentives, but people should not be allowed to operate in blatant and flagrant abuse of construction, use or child safety regulations. That should be no different in the online environment; a panic button should be present. It is free, and will not cost a thing.

I feel that the Government should ask questions of those sites that do not have such a button and have never answered those questions. In my role as chair of the all-party group on communications, I have come into contact with many leading figures in the online sector. Last summer, the group held an inquiry into internet trafficking and took evidence from Jim Gamble from CEOP. He informed the group that if someone could click on a CEOP red button, it would do three things. First, it would reassure parents that the button was present and that there was a route to law enforcement services other than the police. Secondly, it would deter the offender in the same way that a burglar alarm on the front of a house moves a burglar to the next house. Thirdly, it would reassure the child who has lessons in school—there are 4.3 million of them and numbers are growing—and teach them that there is someone they can go to who will make a positive difference and help them. Many questions should be asked of social networking websites that do not have such a button. The online infrastructure is in place for social media websites to use it, so why does every website not want to have that type of reassuring mechanism built into it for the protection of their users?

No one wants to detract from the fact that Ashleigh Hall’s murderer was a depraved and sick individual, and let me be clear that, although Facebook is in the news at the moment, it is not the only such site and Bebo, MySpace and other industry leaders are equally culpable. Social media websites such as Facebook and others have a responsibility to do their bit to ensure the safety of their users, especially their young users. I return to what I said earlier—the 90,000 paedophiles that MySpace in America threw off its site, and the 8,000 removed by Facebook, would suggest that there are a lot more. That was just in the United States; we have not looked at the issue anywhere else.

Every site that is a public place online, be it a social networking site or another self-generating site through Web 2.0, should have the CEOP report button, for example, on its screen. I support the Government’s policy on ID cards, but we are having this debate because in a world where we give our personal details to social media websites based in California, there is a need for the individual to secure their identity. I feel that more has to be done to secure our online identity, and I welcome the Government’s moves in that area.

As a result of their close connections with Facebook and other social media platforms, search engines such as Google put all our identities online and make them accessible to anyone and everyone. The caveat is that privacy options are provided, but as anyone with young children will know, most young people never consider the ramifications of not securing their identity and personal details. In an online world where social networking websites have a responsibility towards young people, they should provide an area of safety for the young in our society.

In this technological world, the internet is accessible on mobile phones, which causes another concern. I believe that network operators and retailers should work together to provide e-safety for mobile phones. Ofcom should insist that all mobile access devices are fitted with child protection filters that protect the identity of the child. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that.

I do not want to paint a completely dark picture because some ISP providers are doing something about this issue. For example, last year BT estimated that 42 per cent. of its broadband customers with children between 5 and 15 years old had set up BT Yahoo! content-filtering control settings. However, that is a small proportion and there is a lack of knowledge on the subject. I should be interested to know the Minister’s thoughts on that.

In conclusion, I know that there is no panacea, but small steps can be taken to increase online protection. I recognise that the Government and the Minister have done a considerable amount, but I feel that there is much more to do. As the Minister will be aware, paedophiles must register all their e-mail addresses and, if found using an alternative one, can expect a five-year jail sentence. What does my hon. Friend think of expanding that idea to social media accounts?

What can be done to encourage the uptake of CEOP’s report button by social networking websites? Will the Minister consider forcing all mobile phone companies and internet providers to provide child protection filters with every contract to under-18s? What does he think of my suggestion that everyone in the country should have their own e-mail account on a website such as Directgov? That would help to increase people’s knowledge of online provision. What does my hon. Friend believe can be done to improve online child protection on social media sites? What plans are there to increase awareness among parents and children of child protection filters available from ISPs? Will my hon. Friend consider the increasing use of CEOP and how else it could be used? I look forward to hearing from him.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Key, and to the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) for allowing me to make a brief speech. I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman said, and it is a tribute to him that he has brought this issue forward. There must be a proper balance between new technologies and the uses to which they may be put. That is something that we have experienced over many centuries. I am thinking of the introduction of printing, the introduction of books on a massive scale, and radio and television. We are now into the new technology of the type that the hon. Gentleman so clearly described.

The problem, as I see it, goes back to a wave of very considerable laxity that developed in the latter period after the war, in the 1950s and ’60s, which gradually developed to such a point that in 1977 my then hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath, Mr. Cyril Townsend, came to see me to try to stop child pornography, because at that time it was possible for a person to take photographs of children but to escape conviction under the then enactments, as they had not touched the child. Through a simple change in legislation, we introduced the Protection of Children Act 1978, which was bitterly opposed, I have to say, by Labour Ministers until the late Lord Callaghan became Prime Minister. I asked him what made him give extra time to a private Member’s Bill on Report, which was so unusual in those days and still is. It was very simple. He said, “We took it to the Cabinet because there was so much concern, and my wife told me that she wouldn’t speak to me again if I didn’t get the Bill through.” That was the beginning of a change, and I pay tribute to the late Lord Callaghan and to all those who were responsible for making that change.

With regard to what followed from that, I think that I am right in recollecting that in the 1990s, when my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) and I were in the House, he, too, took a great interest in the question of how to deal in a proportionate manner with the difficulties of child pornography. We were often criticised for invading freedom of speech, freedom of expression and so on, but let us just consider briefly the fact that what we are discussing leads to horrific murders in certain cases or to the general degradation of society, and that although it may not be fashionable to do this, cycles in appreciation of these matters do occur over the decades and we are due for a rebalancing of what I would describe as the moral force. That needs to be brought in to get the balance right. We do not seek to be negative about the new technologies or the advantages that can come from them, but we wish to make absolutely sure that we do not expose children to paedophile rings. I may say that the Protection of Children Act, as amended, has been used to deal with international paedophilia to great effect.

So I strongly support what the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West said. The return to a balance, and all the suggestions that he made, are practical measures that could be implemented. Claims of freedom of expression must not be allowed to interfere. This has nothing to do with freedom of expression. The Government must properly regulate the evil people who use the new technologies to pervert and undermine young children. That has to stop, and I am sure that the Minister will have something constructive to say along those lines.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) on securing a debate on an important matter that ought to concern us all. Let me deal with the speech from the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). He warned me last week that on some matters, I might be agreeing with him too much for the good of my career, but I very much welcome his contribution and I broadly agree with him. He reminded us of the history of some of the issues, which was valuable, but he also raised the ongoing challenge that new technology brings and the balance that there must be, with safeguards for the public. I agree about the need to have that debate.

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments and, through him, I thank the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) for his contribution. It just shows that the issues are not new; we have been here before. Although the technology is new, the problem is the same.

Indeed. I was about to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work as chair of the all-party group on communications, which means that he brings to these matters considerable experience and wisdom.

Let me place on the record my condolences to the families of Ashleigh Hall and Camille Mathurasingh, whose lives were taken in tragic circumstances—circumstances on which we all need to reflect to see what more can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future.

In the time that I have, I should like to say a little about the context in which the debate is taking place and to return specifically to the questions that my hon. Friend raised. Like him, the Government recognise the benefits to individuals and, indeed, to children of being able to use online services, including social networking services. I have to confess that I am of a generation that finds them rather baffling and makes limited use of them, but my children use new technology as a matter of course and, as a parent, I am of course concerned about their safety and the use that they make of those services.

The reality is that social networking sites enable children to have fun in a different way, to share gossip, to play games, to build online friendships and to use some of the services available online, but as my hon. Friend pointed out, that raises issues about how we can keep them safe in those environments, particularly when there is an unusual friendship and when social contact clearly does not take place in the traditional way, which can bring protection to children. The process can be quite isolated, if we are not careful.

It falls to Government to ensure that we keep children safe online as far as we can. There will always be people who look to use new technology for criminal ends. The horrific case of Ashleigh Hall demonstrated how the internet can be used by those who seek to harm others. At one extreme, as in Ashleigh’s case, we are talking about murder, but elsewhere on the scale there is a whole range of criminal activities, including fraud, for example.

I want to say something about the way in which we have tried to keep children safe. Sometimes this is forgotten, particularly when individual cases make headlines, but we in the United Kingdom have one of the most robust mechanisms in the world for dealing with sex offenders, and for protecting children from them when offline. We work, and have tried very hard, to ensure that the same principles apply in the online world. That means having the right legislation in place to deal with online and offline offences against children. It means a dedicated law enforcement response to handling reports of online threats to children and to tackling offenders, and a structure to bring together all the groups with a contribution to make in protecting children online.

That latter point is important. The Government believe—as the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee said in its report on personal internet safety—that although the Government have responsibilities on the issue, they cannot address all the problems facing us on the internet on their own.

What we have done, and will do if necessary, is turn to legislation. Many of the offences committed online are old offences, albeit in a new medium. We must ensure that our legislation keeps pace with the fast-changing online world. That is why the Sexual Offences Act 2003 introduced the offence of grooming and made it a crime to attempt to prey on children, including through the internet, for sexual purposes. The law made it clear that such activities would not be tolerated in the United Kingdom. Subsequently, more than 100 people have been convicted of the offence. We will continue to respond to the need for changes in legislation as technology and services change.

Does the Minister agree that schools should have an educational role in that regard, so that children have specific advice on such matters?

Yes. I will come to that point. That is very much a pillar of the work that we want to do. As has been said, ensuring that we have the legislation in place is not a panacea, but it does help to build confidence among adults and children.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West, is interested in blocking illegal images, so let me briefly say something about that. We want to make sure that people are protected online from images that might be sent to them. My hon. Friend will know of the excellent Internet Watch Foundation list and of our efforts to ensure that internet service providers take it up, but we want to go further. We have already discussed with the Office of Government Commerce the idea that one of the criteria in the selection process for Government contracts for IT services should be the need for suppliers to block access to sites containing illegal images, as held on the Internet Watch Foundation list, and I am pleased to say that the OGC will be issuing guidance. That is important in itself, but it also sends a message to the industry that we are putting our house in order and that it should therefore do everything that it can to put its own in order.

On law enforcement, we recognised that the growth of the internet and children’s use of social networking and other services that allow online contacts to be made raised significant safety issues. Many children were going online regularly, and there was a need to consider how law enforcement could be provided to help protect children. In 2006, the Government set up the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre to tackle threats to children online. I am pleased to say that, under the superb leadership of Jim Gamble, CEOP has been tremendously successful in safeguarding more than 500 children and in helping to track down those who use the internet to contact and harm children. Using intelligence gathered through the “Click CEOP” button and other sources, it has made more than 800 arrests of suspected offenders, both itself and working with the wider UK law enforcement community. It has also worked closely with non-UK law enforcement agencies to tackle what is clearly an international problem.

The hon. Member for Stone mentioned education in his intervention, and a major element in protecting children online is educating them about the threats and giving them information on how to protect themselves. CEOP has developed an education programme for children and their parents and carers called thinkuknow. It is based on CEOP’s research and on the experience that it has gathered during its work. The thinkuknow website contains advice for children in clear and relevant language, as well as information for parents, carers and teachers on the dangers and how they can help children to avoid them.

In addition, the Home Office, working with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, created the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. UKCCIS launched the “Click Clever Click Safe” campaign on safer internet day, which was on 9 February. A core element of the campaign is the “Click Clever Click Safe” code, which has been designed to give parents the confidence to help their children to enjoy the internet safely, and to give children and young people a better understanding of how their online experiences can expose them to risks. We want that code to be as familiar as the green cross code is to children, who are in danger of having accidents when crossing the road.

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but part of the problem is that children are much more adept at using the internet than their parents. We should perhaps be talking about educating parents, rather than children.

I agree very much. That is why a key part of the strategy is not just about the number of children who have gone through the programme in schools and elsewhere, but about working proactively with parents to make sure that they understand the risks and how to address them, and take whatever precautions they can.

I am grateful for the work of not only CEOP and others, but charities and industries, which have played an important part through the Home Secretary’s taskforce for the protection of children on the internet and, following the Byron report, UKCCIS. One of the first pieces of work carried out by the taskforce was the development of guidance for social networking providers. That guidance set out good practice, and that was at the core of my hon. Friend’s speech. Some of the big social networking sites work hard to deliver on that guidance. When it was launched in 2008, the document was the first in the world dealing with how children can be kept safe and what service providers can do to ensure that children have safety information available to them, and that includes using the “Click CEOP” button.

None the less, we remain disappointed that a number of major providers of such services have not yet implemented the “Click CEOP” button. I expect those responsible for the provision of services online to take responsibility for providing safety mechanisms and information to their users. In the case of services where there can be communication between people who have not previously known each other and where identities can be invented, I expect providers to make the “Click CEOP” button available to allow users who feel threatened or vulnerable to make a report.

My hon. Friend posed a number of questions, to which I want to respond directly, although I hope that I have touched on them in my remarks. He talked about registering paedophiles’ e-mail addresses. He will know that we have legislated for a power to add such a requirement to the existing sex offenders register notification requirements, but that power has not yet been implemented. That is because we are awaiting legal advice. We will get that advice after a judgment from the Supreme Court on the F v. Thompson case. We certainly do not want to prejudice that appeal, but once we get that advice, and provided that it does not rule out adding new restrictions, we can and will work with social networking companies to see how information can best be used to protect children online. If that means disclosing details of child sex offenders’ e-mail addresses to social networking sites, so be it.

My hon. Friend’s second question was on the use of the CEOP button by social networking sites. As I said, we have argued that it should be used by all sites. Many sites, such as Bebo, have taken it up, while others have agreed to do so at some point in the future. We see absolutely no reason why sites should not take it up. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the Home Secretary and I will meet representatives of Facebook later this week to impress on them the need to allow users who feel threatened to have access to the CEOP button.

My hon. Friend asked about child protection filters on mobile phones. We work closely with the mobile phone industry, where technology is moving very quickly. As part of those ongoing discussions, we are considering child safety issues relating to the use of a new generation of phones, rather than exclusively to images. I was interested by what he said about people having a personal e-mail account on a website such as Directgov. Let me take that idea away and think about it. If I may, I will write to him in detail on the issue.

What more can we do to improve online child protection on social media sites? As I said, we have taken a number of actions, but the most important point is that all of us, including the industry, have a responsibility to work together to tackle the problem and to ensure that children are safe on the internet. The Government will continue to provide a law enforcement response, as well as information and education about the threats, but we expect the providers of services to play their part by providing those who feel threatened with links to law enforcement bodies, support and information. I hope that I have reassured hon. Members that the Government take these matters seriously and that work is very much in progress.