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Online Gaming (Consumer Protection)

Volume 614: debated on Tuesday 13 September 2016

[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered consumer protection for online gaming.

First, I probably should declare an interest as an avid gamer myself, which is largely how a number of the topics I will speak about came to my attention, initially at least. I particularly want to draw attention to the protections for children and the UK and international regulatory frameworks, and to consider whether the ever-changing industry is regulated appropriately now and whether provisions have been made to ensure that the legislation can adapt to future developments and challenges.

Gaming has changed a lot since my childhood, when I played on my Super Nintendo and Amiga 1200 and my friends’ Mega Drives. Now there is no longer a need for the consoles or games, or even the reams of wire that often came out of the back of the television. Instead, today’s gamers often find that purchasing the latest game leads to a further purchase. For example, with “Star Wars Battlefront”, gamers buy a season pass if they want to access the full content of the game and they need to spend game currency, which is often bought with real money, to ensure that their character has the best weapons, equipment and experience.

In the 2016 GameTrack survey, only 24% of respondents reported that they gamed on consoles, with 24% playing on computers, 21% on smart phones, 16% on tablets and 11% on handheld devices. The new digital age has revolutionised how we access digital content and how and where we as consumers spend. A staggering 45% of households own either an Android phone or an iPhone and the UK app market is now worth £500 million, with half of that spent on games. UK consumer spending on video games in total is increasing.

According to figures from the Entertainment Retailers Association—the ERA—the total value of consumer sales was about £2.8 million in 2015, up 10% on the year before. Critically, the ERA also found that UK consumers spent £1,899,000—67% of the total—on digital video game media, compared with just £928,000, only 33%, on physical copies of the games. That trend is not confined to the type of content purchased; it is also seen in where customers buy their video games. Only 22% of purchases last year were made in a traditional bricks-and-mortar retailer, which means that the traditional consumer protections that go with owning products purchased by way of a transaction with a retailer do not exist. Instead, we have become consumer slaves to terms and conditions.

As an ever-larger proportion of the games industry moves towards right to access content, in-app purchases and other digital content, it is vital that the law properly protects UK consumers. The change in the industry, particularly in gaming, has been happening for some time. From a few key players in the 1990s, there has been a swing towards small and micro-sized businesses, which now account for 95% of the UK games industry. The change in consumer demand has allowed budding and talented digital entrepreneurs to adapt quickly, and the in-app purchase model now represents 76% of the revenue share of UK apps. Although it is right that we should support the growth of the business, it is also vital to support sensible measures to protect our consumers.

On the economy, 21,000 jobs are supported by the industry across the EU, with the UK taking the largest share, at 5,000. Additionally, the core UK video games sector—that is, video games supported wholly or partially in the UK—supports 12,100 full-time equivalent posts of employment, with the UK also enjoying a raft of successes in the industry. In-app development in the UK is performing well internationally, a key example being “Monument Valley” by ustwo studio. Also, “The Room 2”, produced by Fireproof Studios, was awarded the App Store iPad game of the year in Apple’s best of 2012 line-up, and “Candy Crush Sage” by King had reached 500 million installations by November 2013. When considering the performance of the UK, it is interesting to note that on revenue per download figures the UK is the best positioned country in western Europe, with a potential of $0.47 per download, making the UK more profitable than Germany, the United States and China.

The international markets are crucial to the industry, with 95% of UK games businesses exporting at least some of their products or services to overseas markets. On average, 45% of a UK games company’s turnover is generated from international sales. That becomes crucial in consumer protection, as exporters and importers become the customers, as customers agree to terms they might not expect—or indeed read—and as protections that are in place when someone walks into their local games store and makes a purchase no longer exist.

It took until 2015 to set out in legislation consumer rights regarding digital content. Although I am grateful for the progress that has been made and for the foresight with which the legislation was drafted to accommodate further developments, I fear there are already inconsistencies between the good intentions of the legislation and the markets in which consumers buy, and businesses sell, content. In some instances, transactions take place outside of any monetary transactions, but the consumer could pay dearly. With the recently launched “Pokémon GO”—a popular game that I cannot deny has sometimes seen me battling in the gyms and throwing Poké Balls around—there are some interesting terms and conditions. The data protection clause, for example, states that Niantic restricts users from bringing forward any legal action, should data holders wish to do so.

As for the legislative framework, the main legislation that directly regulates online gaming purchases is the Consumer Rights Act 2015. The Act sets out the basic rules governing how consumers buy, and businesses sell, digital content, including online gaming apps, in the UK. However, it works in terms of international agreements. For example, if an online game is purchased from outside the UK, whether UK consumer protection law or the law of the host country applies depends on the exact terms of the contract entered into by the two parties and also on the buyer’s own terms and conditions, which should stipulate which jurisdiction applies. Although such information must be given to the consumer before the contract is entered into, it is far removed from the easier days of buying a disk or a cartridge for my old Super Nintendo.

The 2015 Act came into force on 1 October 2015. Part 1 changes consumer rules on what to do if goods, services or digital content are faulty. For the first time, consumers’ statutory rights regarding digital content were set out in legislation, following calls by consumers, watchdogs and the gaming industry for such clarity over many years. For the purposes of the 2015 Act, digital content was described as

“data which are produced and supplied in digital form”,

which would include downloadable apps, computer games, films, e-books and computer software. However, there is another side to the consumer contract. At times we give data back and, with widely used apps such as Pokémon, loss of those data can be of little consequence to the data holder, but of huge consequence to the consumer.

Recently, WhatsApp, an app that allows people to have conversations, was at the centre of a data opt-out controversy, whereby unless consumers read a long list of technical terms and conditions, they would automatically be allowing the transfer of some data to Google. Although I and the Scottish National party support fair regulations, I find the mass collection of behavioural data unnerving at the very least.

When such data are collected from unknowing or unwitting consumers, who do not have the inclination or understanding—or, to be honest, the time—to read through long-winded terms and conditions in an agreement about the legality of court arbitration, we must look again at the legislative framework and its ability to adapt. With more and more app providers looking for access to content, and for that to be currency-as-such in a consumer contract, that should also be an essential component of legislation that seeks to protect consumers in that market.

I welcome the attempts of the Consumer Rights Act to rightly define when the legislation can and should be used. I welcome the fact that it clearly sets out that digital content will be regulated when it is

“supplied for a price…supplied free with goods or services or other digital content”,

or is

“not generally available to consumers unless they have paid a price for it”.

To pose a question that will perhaps widen the debate further, what are we using for currency with free apps? We allow those apps to use our photos, favourite places, restaurants, credit cards and where we go and how we go about our lives—our most personal moments and sometimes our most precious. At what point do we draw a line? At what point do we consider that as being the currency for digital content?

The legislation does not yet appear to be working, even in straightforward terms. Even since the 2015 Act came into force as the flagship legislation, consumers have had issues with the most straightforward elements. For example, the games “Dead Rising 2” and “Dead Rising 2: Off the Record” caused quite a fuss among the gaming community. Users have claimed that PlayStation UK will not refund customers who believe the product to be faulty. In the run-up to today’s debate, I was contacted by a number of people who have had similar issues with the recently launched “No Man’s Sky”.

On further research, it seems that the companies’ interpretation of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 varies. A number of individuals purchased the game through Sony PlayStation’s online platform. The game proved to be faulty, and the individuals are now trying to receive redress and money back, but Sony says that it will not do that, because under the terms and conditions the money-back option is available only if they have not yet downloaded the content. If people are purchasing content online and the only way to access it is to download it, it seems to go against the ambitions of the 2015 Act somewhat if a company’s terms and conditions immediately count that as beyond terms. That is a particular challenge when accessing a game online: to own it, people need to download it, and to download it, they need to buy it first.

Frustrated users have taken to Twitter to complain that the game crashes repeatedly and that promised features never materialised. Others claim that to request a refund, consumers are required to run through a list of troubleshooting options with a customer services representative before the case is passed over to the PlayStation investigation team, who then decide whether the case justifies a refund. That is an especially important aspect when we consider that some young children can access digital content and at times enter into binding consumer agreements that can have financial consequences for bill payers. That brings into question the ability of the current legislation to impact on that. We have several types of overlapping legislation, with different regulators. Perhaps now is the time to pool the legislation together.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. On the issue of children, does he agree that we need to ensure constant vigilance, particularly when companies package games in ways that are exceptionally attractive to children, who try to pressure their adults into buying added-on features as a result of the initial product they purchased?

I absolutely agree. That is one of the critical aspects. I accept that steps have been taken to ensure that free apps are not necessarily advertised as free apps if there are in-game purchases, but that will not satisfy a relatively young child who simply wants to play the full content of the game they have downloaded or bought. If that requires a season pass or the purchase of additional content, it could become difficult to manage that child’s demands and expectations and to explain the terms and conditions and why they cannot have that additional content. We need to be particularly vigilant in that area.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On the subject of children, is it not the case that young children, in particular very young children, will often not even realise what they are doing if they are playing a game and sign up for an in-app purchase or some kind of enhancement? I met recently with StepChange Debt Charity in Glasgow, and it had numerous stories of parents faced with outrageous bills that they had no chance of ever affording. Their children were buying enhancements to the games without realising. Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as regulation, developers have to take some responsibility?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The situation he describes is familiar to me. I am aware of a number of cases where that has happened. I accept that steps have been taken and there have been improvements, but it is still possible for young children, because they are playing these games online, to rack up large bills perhaps without realising what they are doing.

To illustrate the situation further, it is worth noting that the Advertising Standards Authority, which is the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all media, applies the advertising codes, which are written by the Committees of Advertising Practice, and those codes include acting on complaints and proactively checking media to take action against misleading, harmful or offensive advertisements, including media used to encourage children to purchase and/or downloads apps. Specifically with children in mind, the rules contained in the codes are designed to ensure that adverts addressed to, targeted directly at or featuring children do not contain anything likely to result in their physical, mental or moral harm.

The ASA states that the way in which children perceive and react to ads is influenced by their age, experience and the context in which the message is delivered. It is therefore crucial that the adverts that children see, hear and interact with do not confuse, mislead or directly exhort them to make purchases. That said, with the best will in the world, if a young person is playing a game, they want to be able to access the content. If their friends are advancing faster than they are, it is likely that, regardless of any adverts, they will want to purchase further enhancements so that they can catch up.

This issue is not a new concern. In April 2013, the Office of Fair Trading launched an investigation into the ways in which online and app-based games encourage children to make purchases. It investigated whether there was general market compliance with consumer protection law and explored whether online and app-based games included commercial practices that might be considered misleading, aggressive or otherwise unfair under the legislation. As part of that, the OFT published several publications and sent out a stark warning that the online games industry must improve in this specific area.

In January 2015, “The OFT’s Principles for online and app-based games” clarified the OFT’s view of the online and app-based games industry’s obligations under consumer protection law. The principles focus on how games are advertised to children and state that consumers should be told up front about the costs associated with a game, in-game advertising and any important information, such as whether their personal data are being shared with other parties for marketing purposes. The principles also make it clear that in-game payments are not authorised and should not be taken unless the payment account holder, such as a parent, has given his or her express informed consent. Failure to comply with the principles could risk enforcement action. In the press release that accompanied the publication of its principles, the OFT spoke of its aim to raise standards globally. It said:

“Many games are produced abroad and the OFT has been leading the global debate on these issues. By working closely with international partners, the OFT has ensured that the principles are consistent with the laws of most key jurisdictions to help to raise standards globally.”

The OFT also published guidance for parents to help to ensure that children are not pressured into making in-game purchases and to reduce the risk of their making unauthorised payments.

Specifically, the OFT advice suggests that parents take various actions, including restricting payments, playing the game themselves, and being aware of automatic updates that may change either the game content or the associated terms and conditions. That is clearly sensible and good advice. I would certainly recommend that advice to any parent or gamer, although it is clear that it is not always practical in today’s modern world, where recording an appointment or making a call requires an app.

In terms of progress, it is encouraging that the Competition and Markets Authority, which has taken over the functions of the Competition Commission and certain consumer functions of the OFT, has an overarching responsibility for monitoring the gaming app sector to assess its compliance with consumer protection law. The CMA has affirmed the OFT’s principles for online and app-based games guidance. However, it is important to note that the original text was retained unamended and so does not reflect or take account of developments in case law, legislation or practice since its original publication. That is a missed opportunity.

In June 2015, the CMA concluded its work monitoring the children’s online and app-based games market and referred three online games to the Advertising Standards Authority for investigation on the basis that they may have breached the UK non-broadcast advertising code, by directly encouraging children to buy or ask their parents to buy extra game features. On 26 August 2015, the ASA ruled that both the “Moshi Monsters” and “Bin Weevils” games had breached the advertising code by putting pressure on children to buy a membership subscription and stated that the adverts in each of those games must not appear again in their current form. The third game was referred to the equivalent Spanish advertising self-regulation organisation.

On 4 June 2015, the CMA also published a short guide providing advice to parents and carers about the games, again prompting parents to assess purchases. It also released further information about progress overall. It stated that it had worked closely with the European Commission, the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network and national consumer protection authorities around the world and that, as a result, Google and Apple had made changes, in particular to strengthen payment authorisation settings and to ask games makers to stop describing games as free when they contain in-app purchases. Those changes are designed to prevent parents from being landed with unexpected bills from in-app purchases made by their children. The CMA at that point was encouraged by

“positive changes in business practices since we started looking at this sector”,

but was

“concerned that some games may directly encourage children to buy extra features during the game.”

Therefore, to present the Consumer Rights Act 2015 as legislation that can guide and help consumers and protect children and businesses may at this point be a little ambitious at best.

In noting that last point about the CMA’s work, it cannot go without saying that we should value the work of our European partners. My colleagues and I in the Scottish National party are very concerned about the effect of being taken out of the European Union, not only on our collaboration on issues such as consumer protection, but on the value of our world-leading video games industry. Gaming is one of Scotland’s many success stories, from creating the globally renowned “Grand Theft Auto” series to a whole host of other massive successes. There is a huge talent pool available that could see significant impacts as a result of the decision to leave the European Union. Scotland is internationally recognised for innovative game development and for its groundbreaking university courses. Clive Gillman, director of creative industries at Creative Scotland, recently said:

“Scotland’s games are played by millions all over the world—there is no doubt that Scotland has played a hugely significant role in establishing this industry as one of the leading forms of entertainment globally.”

Looking further into the future, we must address concerns and uncertainties about the status of European-based funding. Horizon 2020 is the European Commission’s largest primary funding programme for research and innovation, with a budget of €79 billion. It allocates funding through two-year work programmes administered by the Commission, and includes calls for tenders for interactive entertainment projects such as games. Creative Europe, administered by the European Commission, has a budget of €1.46 billion, of which €3.4 million has been set aside for the development of new video games with high circulation potential. In 2015, the UK was the largest beneficiary of that fund. I would welcome any clarity the Minister could provide on the likelihood of such funding for the games industry continuing in the post-Brexit environment. Concerns have also been raised about the validity of international licences and our ability to affect and be compatible with EU consumer law.

The last point I want to touch on is an incredibly important one. In an industry driven by talent, led by talent and entrepreneurs, we want to encourage a market supported by Government that is fair for both consumers and businesses. Right now, that is being put at huge risk, particularly in Scotland, by restrictive UK immigration laws and, crucially, the status of the post-study work visa. It is simply economic vandalism that the ability to travel, work and study across the EU is now at risk following Brexit, and it is a further lack of judgment by the Home Secretary to refuse Scotland an opportunity to take part in the trial of a new post-study work visa scheme. That is an appalling missed opportunity.

I look forward to the Minister’s response. This is a topic on which we could expand at endless length and I very much hope that progress can be made to recognise the ever-moving feast that we see within the games industry. With that, I simply say: game over.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), I have to confess that I am not a gamer, but I understand the importance and reach of the industry and the challenges that it poses for us in consumer protection.

We know that online gaming has never been so popular or so important in terms of our leisure and our economy as it is now. UK consumer spend on video games is increasing. The total value of consumer sales stood at around £2.8 million in 2015, up 10% on the year before. The direction of travel is clear: the industry will continue to grow and prosper, and the figures clearly show that video game consumers spend more on digital content than physical content.

Of particular concern is the way in which online and app-based games encourage children to make purchases. The Office of Fair Trading set out principles stating that consumers must be told up front about costs associated with a game and about in-game advertising, as well as whether important information, such as personal data, is to be shared with other parties for marketing purposes. Those principles further state that in-gaming payments are not authorised and should not be taken unless the payment account holder, such as a parent, has given express and informed consent. Those words are very important. Failure to comply with the principles can lead to enforcement action.

Guidance for parents is also set out to help ensure that children are not pressured into making in-game purchases, thus reducing the risk of their making unauthorised payments. Despite those principles and precautions, the Competition and Markets Authority, following its monitoring of the children’s online and app-based games market, had cause to refer three online games to the Advertising Standards Authority for investigation on the basis that the advertising code may have been breached by directly encouraging children to buy or ask their parents to buy extra game features. In August last year, two games were found to have breached the advertising code by putting pressure on children to buy a membership subscription. The ASA ruled that the adverts in those games must not appear again in their current form and that tells us that monitoring must continue to be close and careful.

The OFT noted that it is imperative that the games do not pressure children to purchase and that

“exploiting children’s inexperience, vulnerability and credulity, including by aggressive commercial practices”

is simply not acceptable. Increasingly, the gaming industry is moving towards the right to access content, in-app purchases and other downloadable content, so we need to continue to be mindful of enshrining the protection of consumers in law. The video games sector has changed almost beyond recognition, and it is important that the law keeps pace with the innovation and creativity in the industry and how it interacts with consumers. All sensible and practicable measures to protect consumers must be put in place and kept under review by the UK Government in this fast-moving and developing field of technology. The SNP Government will use new, albeit limited, consumer powers to improve consumer rights while simultaneously working to maintain the most competitive business environment possible to allow the industry to continue to thrive.

The funding for this industry, international licences and our ability to affect and be compatible with EU consumer law look uncertain, and the abolition of the post-study work visa, which my hon. Friend mentioned, poses particular challenges for the industry in the post-Brexit era. I will not spend much time on that because my hon. Friend articulated those concerns extremely clearly.

Consumer protection can be challenging in this industry largely, but not exclusively, because of the sheer speed of innovation. We must all be mindful of consumer protection and keep a close eye on it. Consumers must be protected from harm while being empowered to make good, positive choices. That is the environment we need to create for consumers of online games. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the UK Government’s plans to ensure that there is sufficient monitoring. We must strike the correct balance for this thriving industry.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I rise to sum up on behalf of the SNP, but given the attendance in the Chamber, it may be a brief experience. I am disappointed that there are not more Members here so I can draw on their speeches in summing up.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this very pertinent debate. I have got five and six-year-old children at home, and if there were something within consumer legislation that would let me do something about Stampy Cat’s voice ringing out from my iPad at 9 o’clock at night, I would be very grateful. That is something intrinsically linked to “Minecraft” and “Grand Theft Auto”, both of which, I am proud to say, were made in Scotland.

I was struck by my hon. Friend’s historical tour of how digital games have improved over the ages. I am of a certain vintage and can remember my VIC-20 as a Christmas present and my Spectrum 48, which graduated to a 48-plus. It had a tape that took 45 minutes to load the most basic games, but I thought it was the most incredibly modern and chic thing I had ever had in my life. I was surprised at the comment that only—I say only—45% of households in the UK have a smartphone. People clearly have challenges affording smartphones, but it seems to me that, if not everyone, most people in society have them. I am sure that figure will increase exponentially.

I am a lawyer and the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on consumer protection, and I was very taken by some of the problems with the terms and conditions. There is tension between making the terms in consumer contracts fair and putting them in the terms and conditions. Companies perhaps do not have the opportunity to make people explicitly aware of them as they go through the transaction process, but that still does not mean it is right. As a lawyer, I found the idea that in the terms and conditions one can be prevented from taking legal action based on the contract, and the fact that there is no money-back option if the games are not downloaded, to be baffling in the extreme. To my relatively trained legal eye, there was legislation in place before the Consumer Rights Act 2015. The unfair terms in consumer contracts legislation clearly states that if terms in a consumer contract create imbalances between the parties in favour of the bigger party, they can be deemed unfair contract terms.

Although the 2015 Act consolidated some of those principles, there was legislation already in place, which signals to me that enforcement is the problem. If consumers’ rights are clearly codified, and for whatever reason they cannot bring their grievances to a place where they can be fixed, enforcement is the problem. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that. In basic contract law there has to be consensus ad idem— a meeting of the minds. That is the most fundamental, basic principle of a contract. If kids in particular are buying online games without that meeting of the minds, I suggest that there is not even a contractual position to fall back on. Enforcement needs to be looked at carefully, and the protection of kids should be uppermost in everyone’s minds.

I will not take up much more of your time, Mr Turner. I echo the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Midlothian and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian made a detailed case, and I would be grateful if the Minister can respond in similar detail. I do not expect him to respond to this, but we are all concerned in Scotland that, having voted to remain in the European Union, we are now going to be leaving the European Union, and that the protections that we want as a society are dropping off the edge of a cliff.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Turner. I must explain to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) that this debate overlaps with the Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill, and some Members who would have been here are undoubtedly there. I have been dashing backwards and forwards between the two Chambers to try to be in both debates.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this debate. He emphasised the value that online gaming brings to our economy and to people’s lives, and he raised concerns to be put to the Minister. Those concerns are shared across the House, and have been raised in questions to Ministers in recent weeks. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) expressed her concern that “Pokémon GO” players are behaving disrespectfully on religious sites and in cemeteries, and my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) asked what the Government are doing to protect children from in-game selling and promotions when playing games online.

I have no personal experience of online gaming; it is a subculture that involves many thousands of our constituents, although, sadly, not me—I have many other obsessions, but not that particular one. However, I am concerned about protecting our constituents from unscrupulous commercial practices. People, especially children, must not be put in danger by online gaming. Stories of car drivers gaming while at the wheel are alarming and must surely be addressed by stronger punitive legislation and enforcement.

I have seen many people still using their handheld mobile phones while driving, but watching a screen and playing an online game while driving is of a different order and has to be dealt with seriously. That means, of course, that our police need to be ever-watchful and ready to take action in such situations. Recent cuts to police funding have seriously reduced police capability, especially for such offending. Laws must be strict and enforced, and proper prosecutions must be made to ensure that those abuses and the range of offences to which the hon. Member for Midlothian referred are prevented.

On a separate theme, I have long been concerned about obsessive, compulsive and addictive behaviours, and I have raised such matters in Parliament on a number of occasions. Alcohol and drugs are the most high-profile problems, but successive Governments have failed to address them and in some cases have exacerbated them with their actions and inaction. Online compulsions are a more modern phenomenon, and online gambling is now a major contributor to the terrible damage caused to lives and families.

It seems that online gaming has a compulsive and obsessive component, at least for a minority of players, which can be dangerous to the participants and others. Most worryingly, it is sometimes vulnerable people who are most at risk, as recent evidence shows. It is time for the Government to take a close look at addictions, obsessions and compulsive behaviour, at who is affected and at what personal, social and economic damage they give rise to. They must take effective action to counter those dangers. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Turner. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for securing this very important debate on consumer protection and online gaming. His gaming experience is clearly of enormous assistance to his day job, and I welcome his expertise. Our shared objective is to ensure that those who buy and play video games are properly protected. I hope I can answer most, if not all, of the questions he put to me.

I want to start by talking about the enormous value that the video games sector has for our economy, including the Scottish economy. “Grand Theft Auto”, “Lemmings” and some of the other games that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are among the most successful games anywhere in the world. We are extremely pleased to see strong clusters of games development studios in places such as Dundee and Edinburgh, and we will continue to help to support growth through the UK-wide video games tax relief and our UK games fund. Importantly for the Scottish economy, I note that “Grand Theft Auto V”, developed in Edinburgh, was the fastest growing entertainment product of all time. That is an incredible achievement for the people in Scotland who developed that game.

Government statistics published earlier this year show that the creative industries now contribute a staggering £84 billion a year to our economy; that is almost £10 million every hour. We are very proud of our video games industry, which plays a big role in that success, not only in Scotland but throughout the UK, blending the best of British technology and creativity. All around the UK, from Edinburgh down to Brighton, we have world class games creators producing games that are exported all over the globe, and we are working hard to build on that.

Our video games tax relief, for example, is boosting production, creating cultural content and jobs, and benefiting the UK’s overall economy. The Government have paid out some £45 million in video games tax relief since 2014, which supported £417 million of new investment in the UK by games companies, clearly making a big impact.

Video games are popular with UK consumers, not just with the hon. Member for Midlothian. In 2015, the UK games market was worth some £4 billion. That includes £664 million on mobile gaming, up 21% from the previous year. It is important that UK consumers can have confidence in their video games purchasing. They should be clear about what they are buying and what their rights are. It is important that consumers have the information they need about video games content, particularly to ensure that children are not exposed to age-inappropriate material.

The hon. Member for Midlothian asked about monetary exchange and for consumer protection rules to apply. He is right that the statutory rights set out in the Consumer Rights Act 2015 do not currently cover content provided in exchange for data rather than money. However, the Government are keeping that under review, so I hope that offers some reassurance.

New types of games technology and content will continue to push boundaries. It is vital that new business models and features are allowed to develop and flourish. Meanwhile, video games developers and publishers must take their responsibilities towards consumers seriously.

We have taken action, as has been pointed out, to improve consumer protection. For example, last year we strengthened the rights of consumers through the Consumer Rights Act, setting a simple modern framework for consumer protection. This means that for the first time consumers have rights when they buy digital content, including online video games. If a video game does not conform to the contract, a consumer can get a replacement or a repair, or they can get a price reduction or their money back if that is not possible, although that is subject to my earlier comments about what is actually purchased.

The Consumer Rights Act also restricts the use of unfair terms in consumer contracts. An unfair term is defined as one which,

“contrary to the requirement of good faith...causes a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations under the contract to the detriment of the consumer.”

That could include unfair restrictions on consumer rights or business liabilities. A term that takes away the user’s right to file a lawsuit in his or her home country might be deemed unfair in this way. In any event, under EU law, an EU consumer would often be permitted to bring a claim against a trader in the consumer’s home country, regardless of what is stated in the contract itself. If a court decides a term is unfair, it will not be binding on the consumer, and we have recently been looking more closely at the issue of terms and conditions.

We know that many people do not look at terms and conditions and may miss important information. The Government are exploring ways in which they could be made more user-friendly for consumers. We want businesses and consumers to understand each other better and improve behaviours. Earlier this year the Government launched a call for evidence on this theme, and we are now analysing the submissions that were received. We plan to publish the responses in due course.

There has also been valuable work in relation to in-app and in-game purchasing. The Government welcomed the work done by the Office of Fair Trading, now the Competition and Markets Authority, to set out very clearly the legal responsibilities for businesses in this area. The OFT guidance subsequently published for businesses, “Principles for online and app-based games”, is an invaluable aid for games publishers. The CMA also published helpful guidance for parents reminding them about what they can do to prevent unexpected in-app purchases by their children—for example, by disabling in-app purchasing functions on mobile devices.

I should also like to highlight the positive response of the industry to the CMA’s initiative. Many video games companies worked closely with the CMA on the production of the guidance and have worked hard to promote it within the sector.

We recognise that there have been significant advances in digital technology and the gaming industry since the Data Protection Act 1998 came into force nearly 20 years ago. The Government are reviewing the current regulatory framework to ensure it is fit for purpose for the digital age, while providing suitable data subject rights. The Information Commissioner is the UK’s independent authority responsible for administering and enforcing information rights, providing guidance and advice to individuals and organisations on, among other things, privacy considerations for application developers.

The Information Commissioner has a number of tools at his or her disposal to take action against those who breach the legislation. Powers include the ability to conduct audits, serve enforcement notices and impose civil monetary penalties of up to £500,000.

The hon. Member for Midlothian asked me about children’s safety. I want to stress the Government’s commitment to help ensure that younger consumers are protected from harmful content. We have a robust age rating and labelling regime for video games sold in physical formats such as on discs—or “boxed products”, as they are known in the trade. All such games must by law carry an appropriate PEGI age rating if they are unsuitable for younger children. It is an offence to sell a PEGI 12, 16 or 18 rated boxed product to anyone not old enough.

PEGI ratings are well recognised in the UK and across Europe. They give consumers, particularly parents, the information they need to manage content choices for children. For protecting children from inappropriate material in online and mobile games, which is a global market, the focus is on self-regulation by games developers, publishers and platforms. We welcome the age ratings and other content advice that games developers and publishers are increasingly now adding to online and mobile video games. That includes the international age rating coalition initiative, which has, for example, led to PEGI ratings now being applied to all apps and games supplied through Android-powered devices and through Windows Store.

“Pokémon GO” has been a phenomenon all over the world. It is enjoyed by many in the UK, and most people act responsibly while playing. I have come across people playing “Pokémon GO” when I have been out walking the dog. Indeed, my daughter managed to get me to catch a Pokémon, who I believe was called Fire Fang. There are lots of exotic names in the “Pokémon GO” sets if anyone wants to have a look. It is important that players abide by the law and respect their surroundings.

I understand that during the summer “Pokémon GO”’s developers, Niantic, added some new warnings to the game’s loading screen—for example, reminding players not to trespass and not to enter dangerous areas. Officials have contacted the game’s developers to discuss features of “Pokémon GO” and the advice they provide to consumers in the UK.

This is a complex landscape, as the hon. Member for Midlothian explained, but I believe we are doing good work to protect legitimate businesses, to enable innovation to happen, and to keep consumers confident and safe. I assure all hon. Members that we will not be complacent. We will continue to work together with the industry to adapt the landscape as the video games market inevitably continues to develop, possibly in ways we cannot yet imagine.

I will be relatively brief. I thank hon. Members for their contributions this afternoon. This is a very important issue. It is critical that we keep on top of what is an ever-moving feast and adapt to the changes as they come, including those that, as the Minister said, we may not even be able to predict yet.

I am encouraged by the Government’s response, which demonstrates that there is no complacency. I welcome that, and I think all hon. Members will be reassured by the steps that have been taken to continue monitoring and look forward. Since I became an MP, I have not been able to game quite as much as I might like to, or as much as I was used to, but if the Minister keeps at it, he might capture a Pikachu one of these days and become a Pokémon master.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered consumer protection for online gaming.

Sitting suspended.