Better enforcement, education and protection are the solution, not more regulation
In a report on online safety published Wednesday 19 March 2014, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee says more needs to be done to tackle three areas of widespread concern on the internet:
- illegal content, especially images of child abuse
- content that is legal but still harmful to children yet which is freely available to them
- bullying and harassment on social media
The Committee says that the publication and possession of child abuse images are rightly illegal and bad enough in themselves, but more importantly, these images represent crime scenes, often of the most horrific kind. Government must ensure that the police have adequate resources to track down and arrest online paedophiles in sufficient numbers to act as a meaningful deterrent to others. If necessary, additional funding should be provided to recruit and train a sufficiently large number of police officers adequate to the task.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Command, now part of the new National Crime Agency, has a well-deserved reputation as a lead body in tackling child abuse, and all of its areas of work – education, social care and criminal justice – need to be actively pursued and publicised.
The Committee is concerned that the additional staff resources being allocated to the most important goal - the eradication of child abuse images from the open internet - may prove "woefully insufficient". The police and ISPs must also work together to overcome the difficulties of tracing the paedophiles who share images on peer-to-peer networks on the "hidden internet".
Publishing adult pornography in a way that makes it readily available to children is likely an offence under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, and police should not be deterred from bringing to book publishers of adult pornography who make little attempt to shield children from their product. The enforcement of obscenity legislation is fraught with difficulty, not least in the context of the internet, but the Committee says there is scope for greater enforcement in this area to provide some deterrent effect, and also for outright blocking particularly harmful adult websites that make no serious attempt to hinder access by children.
Legal adult pornography is widely consumed but is far too freely available to children. The Committee says that while parents carry a key responsibility, protections akin to those voluntarily or legally applied in the real world - putting magazines on the "top shelf" of the newsagent, excluding children from sex shops - must be provided online material. At the moment, little is done.
Legal adult sites could restrict access by children in a number of ways:
- a robust age verification process should be in place
- requiring payment by a credit card linked to an adult;
- shielding the content behind a warning page;
- attaching metadata to the website to make it easier for filters to operate and for search engines not to return the material when operating in a safe search mode
The main ISPs should have contacted all their customers by the end of the year to offer “whole home” filtering solutions, with all other ISPs following suit.
Ofcom already has an important role in monitoring internet content and advising the public on online safety, and the Committee says more should be done in this regard rather than a significant extension of formal content regulation of the internet, which could have a stifling effect of the free flow of ideas and information that lies at the heart of internet communication.
Social media providers should offer a range of prominently displayed options for, and routes to, reporting harmful content and communications. Some of worst online bullies and trolls are being brought to book in the courts. Much of the abuse and bullying that takes place online is covered by existing laws, but these need to be clarified with guidance updated for the online space.
John Whittingdale MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
"Today, one in five 12-16 year-olds think being bullied online is part of life. That, along with the harm that is done by relatively unfettered access to adult pornography online, represents a failure to protect our children.Of course there are difficulties in regulating online content and particularly enforcing that regulation but there are plenty of effective solutions that just need to be seriously applied. We do not think there needs to be more regulation, and certainly not to stifle all the positive purposes and uses of the internet, but those who profit from the internet must demonstrate the utmost commitment to protecting children and should be prosecuted and penalised if they don’t.
Facebook and Twitter, for example, are aware of the extent to which their services are accessed by younger children, thanks to age verification processes that are at best flimsy. We expect them to pay greater attention to factoring this into the services provided, the content allowed and the access to both. The same applies to other social media companies in a similar position. Bullying that takes place in the playground can merge seamlessly with bullying on smart phones and tablets. This can often end with the tragedy of teenage suicide. It is just one reminder that staying safe off-line includes staying safe online too."