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Children: Online Safety

Volume 753: debated on Tuesday 25 March 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made to ensure that the standards and systems adopted by public wi-fi providers will protect children from potentially harmful content.

My Lords, as announced by the Prime Minister last year, the six major providers of public wi-fi, covering more than 90% of the market, are now delivering filtered public wi-fi wherever children are likely to be. Through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, we are working with the providers, businesses and industry bodies to develop a logo to help children and parents understand the safest public places to be online.

My Lords, I welcome what my noble friend has said, but I am sure he is aware that the mobile network operators filter content which would be, or is, rated 18 by the BBFC and place it behind access controls so that they restrict content to those aged under 18. Can the Government not ensure that public wi-fi service providers adopt the same comprehensive approach to protecting children online and adopt the same standards and protections as the mobile operators?

My Lords, as I said, the six major providers have agreed to filter, as a minimum, illegal child abuse imagery and content and legal pornographic adult content. That is not to say that this will remain the basic standard of filtering—indeed, some leading providers are filtering more widely. We continue to review this. I am very mindful of what my noble friend said about the mobile network, but that is where the position is with regard to public wi-fi.

My Lords, there is a wonderful world for children to discover on the internet but, sadly, evil also lurks there. Parents need to have trust and faith in wi-fi providers and suppliers and be sure that their children are protected. Can my noble friend tell the House how many sites—I believe there are a few—have asked for their porn filters to be removed? They need to be identified so that parents can be alerted to them.

My Lords, the whole purpose of the development of the logo is to ensure that parents and children know which public places are secure. The work that is going on in developing the logo is precisely to ensure the safety of children wherever they are on the internet. I am very conscious of what my noble friend said and I will look into it further.

My Lords, can I take the Minister back to a question that I asked him a few weeks ago about the presence on the internet of suicide sites, which encourage young people to take their own lives? Did he see the two-page article in the Times highlighting some of these terrible fatalities? Does he agree that this is not caught by the provisions that he announced to the House recently and that it is a discrete question which needs to be dealt with urgently?

My Lords, I am very much aware of what the noble Lord said and, indeed, of the article. Both suicide and self-harm are taken extremely seriously. The Government are committed to working with the internet industry to keep young people safe online and to promote positive support for people who are at a suicidal point. We are very concerned that, in dealing with the websites relating to suicide and self-harm, which are so appalling, we do not stop young people and others going to sites that would help them.

My Lords, the Government have made very good progress with the mobile sector and we hope that they will be able to make similar progress with the wi-fi providers. However, is not the problem that, with 90% coverage, there is still 10% which is not covered, and that 10% involves a very large number of companies. That perhaps explains why Chester Cathedral had to close down its wi-fi operation last year, and only last month Canterbury Cathedral was also in a situation where open access was available. These matters are tricky and I would not want an instant response. The Bishops are shaking hands—that is historic; a deal has been made on this very day. However, the question for the Minister is: if this voluntary arrangement does not work, does statutory provision provide the answer?

As I think the Prime Minister has said, we will look at all situations as necessary. The primary objective of all this is to ensure that children and vulnerable people are safe. We have gone down the self-regulatory route because we think that it is the most adaptable. It is the way in which we can act most speedily to protect the very people whom we want to protect.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, put his finger on the problem in terms of the difference between mobile standards and those for public wi-fi. Can the Minister assure us that further extension of the base standards for public wi-fi is under active discussion?

My Lords, I can. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety, chaired by three Ministers from different departments, has a working group on public wi-fi. This matter is under review and is something on which we are working with the providers. As I said, some are already going beyond the minimum base.