Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Effective protection for children online

Last week the Telegraph ran an article on pornography by Martin Daubney putting the case for what he described as ‘state-approved porn in the UK’.  ‘If we can’t axe it, should we tax it – like soft drugs in Holland or prostitution in Germany’ - he suggested

Mr Daubney is the former editor of lad’s mag Loaded and he has previously spoken of his concern that the magazine he edited might have acted as a gateway to pornography for a generation of young men.  He also presented the Channel 4 documentary Porn on the Brain which looked at the effect of pornography consumption the adolescent brain and in which he described online porn as ‘the most pernicious threat facing children today’.

According to Mr Daubney his massively controversial proposition could even achieve the unthinkable: and unite censors, MPs, child protection agencies and, perhaps most astonishingly of all, the pornographers themselves.

 He proposes that all sites carrying pornographic material be confined to a dedicated domain for example – with compulsory age verification.  These sites would host material within agreed, legal parameters of taste and be licensed by the government and any sites not in compliance would be blacklisted and blocked by ISPs. 

On the face of it this is a great idea; if the internet is the Wild West than a corral for such material has to be better than nothing.  However whether it would seriously impact material hosted on foreign sites, which are currently where the most extreme, violent and degrading material is hosted, is a moot point.

Just because there is a demand for pornography which does not appear to be abating does not mean that its use is without consequence. 

This proposal provides porn with a veneer of respectability which it does not merit.  It fails to acknowledge the very real potential harm of pornography.  We cannot trust the industry itself to acknowledge this when its current advice site offers nothing more than information on child protection filters.

Our proposals for opt-in regulation met with criticism this yet this model would be far more problematic; with material being blocked by ISPs it really would be state-sponsored censorship.  Could all overseas porn be blocked with violating trade agreements?  It’s also doubtful whether it could work in the long term as vested interests push for more latitude.  We’ve seen time and again that rules on what and what is not acceptable are open to interpretation leading to a constant pushing boundaries – why should porn be different?

Clearly verifying the age of children attempting to access pornography is crucial.  Sites hosted in the UK already verify age but ATVOD has offered a creative solution to target overseas sites - by impacting their revenues.  The UK is a substantial market and to access customers in the UK would be quite a powerful incentive to introduce restrictions.

ATVOD wants all adult sites to request a licence, which would only be granted if age checks were in place, with banks and other payment processors not allowed to handle fees for services from UK citizens to unregulated sites.  Payment firms say they will act if shown that sites are breaking the law and the regulator accepts that this means new legislation.

ATVOD say this matter is so urgent it is ‘critical the legislation is enacted during this Parliament’.   With an election coming up this is something you might like to raise with anyone canvassing your vote.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Protecting the future

Apparently one of the most popular gifts for children this Christmas will be a tablet computer.  Although the first such device was launched less than five years ago in 2010 the technology has proved so popular that, according to Ofcom, 70% of 5-15 year olds now have access to one.  Smartphones will be another most-requested this year and it is sobering to think that back in 2011 when Reg Bailey reported for the Government on the sexualisation of childhood the technology was so new that his report included just one reference to smartphones; four year on most mobile phone users have such a device.

Similarly the way that we use the internet has changed.  Initially the internet hosted sites limited to the passive viewing of content but we are now able to interact and collaborate with each other in a virtual community through social networking sites, blogs, wikis, video sharing sites etc.

These changes have given us new capabilities and ways to connect but they have also presented us with a whole new set of challenges.  A decade ago behaviours such as sexting and trolling barely existed but today we have to consider how best to protect people from such harmful practices.

The pace of innovation is incredibly fast and it is vital that regulation and legislation continues to keep up.  This month we have seen a number of developments aimed at closing this gap:

  • Sexual communication with a child online is to become a criminal offence.  Inviting a child to communicate sexually – regardless of whether or not the recipient of those messages replies or responds in any sexual way – will be illegal. The law will apply to anyone over the age of 18 trying to send a sexual message to anyone under the age of 16 – whether that’s on Facebook, SMS, WhatsApp, email or any other communications channel.
  • GCHQ and the National Crime Agency are to work together to hunt online paedophiles with the same effort used to track terrorists.  Data taken from tens of millions of child abuse photos and videos seized during previous operations will be compiled to form a new database to aid investigations into suspected paedophiles across the UK.
  • Google has announced it is developing child-friendly versions of its search site, Chrome browser and video-sharing service YouTube.  The modified versions will be designed for children aged up to 12 and will include tools that let parents monitor and manage how much time their offspring spend online and where they go.
  • Twitter, like many other sites, has become a repository for abusive language.  A new system for reporting abuse on the platform has now been developed offering additional user controls, further improvements to reporting and new enforcement procedures for abusive accounts.
These are all examples of government and industry working to keep pace with technological innovation and they are to be commended.  However it is important that our efforts are not solely confined to catching up.

An independent review into the future of government in the digital age has recently been published.  The review was commissioned by the Labour Party and it recommended that the UK Government establish an expert technology ethics body similar to those already in place in medicine and academia.  It would help address complex challenges such as ownership and control of data and the right to be forgotten.  As one commentator put it: “we need a technology philosopher in chief for our age, before the technology runs away with itself.”

Friday, 5 December 2014

Violent game banned by Australian retailers

This week Target and Kmart, two of Australia's largest retailers, took the decision to remove the controversial video game Grand Theft Auto 5 from their stores because of its graphic scenes of violence against women.

Grant Theft Auto 5 is the latest title in the successful gaming series and was released a year ago.  It is set in the fictional American city of Los Santos and gamers control criminals as they rampage through the town committing a series of crimes to rise to the top of the gangster underworld by any grotesque means necessary.  It has been criticised for its levels of violence, particularly for its depictions of torture and the way it often portrays women as strippers and prostitutes.  The Guinness Book of Records has named the series as the most controversial video game in history

Explaining its decision, a spokesman for Target said it had “been speaking to many customers over recent days about the game, and there is a significant level of concern about the game's content.  We feel the decision to stop selling GTA5 is in line with the majority view of our customers.” 

Clearly the chain’s decision was business focused rather than part of a wider moral crusade but it was prompted by a petition calling for its removal from stores because of the levels of violence against women.  It is worth noting that Grand Theft Auto allows players to be violent not just towards women but men too.   However GTA’s depiction of female characters is broadly one dimensional with women portrayed in the main as prostitutes, nags or powerless damsels in distress; hardly a healthy role model for the 21st century.

GTA is no stranger to controversy and it has come to be seen as the nadir of violent gaming.  However, there are equally concerning games such as the updated version of 90s bĂȘte noire Mortal Kombat which allows players to kill their opponents in numerous stomach churning ways and Call of Duty is infamous for the episode in which players are invited to slaughter bystanders in an airport.

There are lots of games which are not violet and misogynistic but it’s the nature of promotion today that, in order to secure media coverage, developers need to provide a product that will be talked about and sometimes pushing the boundaries is an easy way to do this.  We’ve seen the same in other forms of media including music videos.

There has been a backlash from gamers against Target’s decision but so often the level of debate has descended to ‘I play GTA and I don’t run down prostitutes’ - but this is missing the point.  Research from Canada published earlier this year looked at far more subtle, but equally concerning, links between the types of games played and gamers’ moral reasoning and ability to take the perspective of others into account.

Hours spent playing violent video games was found to be effectively stunting emotional growth. Interestingly, there was no correlation between the amount of time reported playing non-violent video games and moral reasoning levels.

Following the ban in Australia there has the predictable outpouring of threats and abuse against those who initiated and signed the petition.  Perhaps this toxic behaviour is itself an illustration of the possible effect of these violent games.

If you are thinking of buying a console such as Xbox One or PlayStation 4 this Christmas it’s worth bearing in mind that there is nothing wrong with gaming per se – as long as players don’t spend too long doing it.  The key is keeping abreast of the content of the games being played on the device.  Grand Theft Auto 5 is rated 18 and this rating is not an indication of skill but of content.  In the same way most responsible parents would not be happy with their children watching an 18 rated DVD they need to keep a similar eye on the games which are being played and make sure that they use the parental controls available on these platforms to protect their children – not just from age inappropriate games but, as these consoles can be used to access the internet, from potentially harmful online content too.   You can find out how to do this here for Xbox products and here for PS4.

Defeat in the Lords but we keep fighting

Thank you for taking the time to use our campaign website, to contact a peer and encourage them to support Baroness Howe’s amendment to the government’s Consumer Rights Bill.  Lady Howe’s amendment required all ISPs and mobile phone operators to provide their customers a service free of adult content unless they opted in to receive it and made provision for robust age verification to guard against abuse of the system.

So many people responded that we estimate that every peer received at least one email of encouragement.  Lady Howe was delighted with the level of support that she had received and asked me to pass on her thanks.

Sadly the amendment was not carried with 65 peers voting for it with 124 voting against.

As the Government did not support the amendment, we always knew that an early vote would be crucial to success and, unfortunately, the debate went on into the evening by which time many non-government peers had gone home.

It is deeply frustrating that, at the end of the day this should come down to something as capricious as timing rather than the quality of the arguments.  There were great contributions from Lord Cormack and Lord Framlingham who both defied their Party whips and voted for the amendment.

Although disappointing we should also take encouragement from the result.  The majority of Peers spoke in favour of the amendment and in her summing up Lady Howe noted: “each time one puts pressure on the Government, it improves the situation”

The peers who voted for the amendment included Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats and cross-benchers.  Clearly this is an issue which transcends party boundaries and shows the strength of feeling on this issue.  You can read the debate here, beginning on page 35.

Thank you once again for your support which, had timings been different, would have carried the day.  All is not yet over and we look forward to being able to write to you with the good news of statutory protection in the not too distant future.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Have Your Say: a real chance to see real change.

Campaign update:

Over the past year we have seen some real progress in our fight to protect children from harmful online material. 

The Government has worked with some Internet Service Providers to come up with a voluntary industry agreement to protect children which being called ‘default-on’.  This represents an important step forward but, crucially, it leaves over10% of the home broadband market and hundreds of thousands of children beyond the agreement.  It is a good start but will only be really effective if accompanied by robust age-verification for users which is sadly lacking from the industry’s own proposals.

That the current arrangements are insufficient was eloquently illustrated by an ATVOD report in March which showed that in one month 44,000 primary school children had accessed porn sites and 200,000 children under 16. In August a judge sentenced a boy for raping a 10 year old girl noting that he was acting out hard core porn he had freely accessed from the computer in his bedroom.

We believe that self-regulation is not a credible long term solution and that statutory backing is needed.

If we keep things solely on a self-regulatory basis we will have no long term security.  It may be that under intense political and media pressure today the industry will get its house in order, but where will we be in five, ten or twenty years’ time?  If it is true, as the Prime Minister has said, that ‘few things are more important than this,’ why is it that we have laws on myriad eventualities but nothing in relation to one of the most important areas currently affecting us and our children?

Last January Baroness Howe moved an amendment to the Children and Families Bill to address these issues.  Although the amendment was lost, a very considerable vote was secured and many have said that had the vote not been delayed until 8.30 in the evening it would have been won.

The Government has failed to do anything substantive in the intervening period to deal with the problems that the amendment addressed.  Mindful of this Baroness Howe has introduced an amendment (50D) to the Consumer Rights Bill which will be debated in the House of Lords on 26th November.  If accepted this clause would require:

  • All Internet Service Providers and mobile phone operators to provide, as a default, an internet service without access to pornography – with adult subscribers able to opt-in to receive such material.
  • The provision of really robust age-verification procedures.

Please act now:

If you agree that it's time the law was used to protect children in the online environment as it is offline please email a cross bench peer and encourage them to attend The House on 26th November and support the Bill.

We have updated our campaign website,, to enable you to do this quickly and easily.  Time is of the essence but this is such a wonderful opportunity to have a real influence we hope you won’t want to miss it.

If you are pushed for time Safeonline includes a quick and easy template letter that you can use.  The whole process should take no more than a couple of minutes and it could make all the difference.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The cause of ratings creep: desensitisation

The November issue of Pediatrics magazine includes the findings of some very interesting new research which suggests that viewers may be partly responsible for ‘ratings creep’ which has seen younger children exposed to increasing levels of on screen sex and violence.

The study found that parents become desensitised over time when viewing material featuring ‘adult’ content; viewers watching a series of bloodthirsty or erotic scenes were less able to gauge their suitability for children as time went by.

Researchers showed a series of clips with similar levels of sex and violence to parents of children aged six to 18 and asked them to give each selection an age rating. The study found that viewers of the first scene felt an appropriate age would be, on average, 16.9 for violent content and 17.2 for sexualised content. But by the time they had watched the sixth scene, respondents’ perception of the appropriate age had dropped to 13.9 for violent content and 14 for sexualised content.

The authors of the study also suggest that the desensitisation phenomenon could affect other frequent film viewers, such as those who decide the age appropriate level of films.  This would help explain the long-term “ratings creep” phenomenon which has seen censors on both sides of the Atlantic relax ratings.  Indeed an American study conducted last year found that films rated PG-13 now contain more gun violence than those rated R (not suitable for under 17s) and that gun violence in PG-13 films has tripled since 1985.

The phenomenon was illustrated in the UK this week:

Appearing before a meeting of the Commons culture, media and sport committee, outgoing Ofcom Chairman, Ed Richards, told MPs that Ofcom have found only 35% of viewers think there is too much violence on TV, down from 55% in 2008, while 26% believe there is too much sex.  Just 35% think there is too much swearing; down from 53% six years ago.

“There has been a big change in this over the years,” said Mr Richards.  “People are more tolerant of a degree of violence than they were. They are much more tolerant of certain forms of swearing than they were.”

This is a perfect illustration of what happens after decades of constant exposure to questionable content; we become desensitised and the boundaries of what is considered acceptable are constantly pushed back.  What the long-term consequences of this desensitisation might be for the next generation remain unknown.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Watershed protections online

Earlier this year the Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, announced plans to make BBC 3 – the corporation’s ‘youth’ channel – a completely online channel.  Despite opposition from presenters and some executives the new head of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, has hinted that the trust will approve the move saying that the BBC should do even more to cater for young viewers who prefer to watch television on their tablets and mobile phones.

Speaking to the culture, media and sport committee she said: “The statistics show that this group are watching less. They are certainly watching very differently…. typically they watch on-the-go through the devices they have.  Catch up television appears to be a way the younger audience will use the BBC and view programmes.”

BBC Three is the most successful youth television station with more viewers aged 16 - 34 than any other youth television station including E4, Sky 1 and ITV2.  Shows such as Bad Education and Being Human attract almost 30% of this age group on a weekly basis; they also attract many much younger viewers.

Over the years the channel has produced some excellent programmes including My Brother the Islamist, Autistic Me, and Blood, Sweat and TShirts.  Earlier this year it broadcast a documentary, Porn, What’s the Harm, which raised some important questions for young adults but was unsuitable for younger children.  However the channel has also broadcast some potentially harmful content including in 2012 Like a Virgin, which followed girls preparing to lose their virginity, in which a bikini wax was given more attention than a safe sex message – which is contrary to government guidelines.

Presently the channel broadcasts from 7pm to 4am, largely post-watershed.  Much of the channel’s content is available online with a parental guidance prompt and can only accessed by ticking a box confirming that the viewer is over 16 – hardly beyond the wit of a much younger child.  Moving this channel online without updating the protections will compound the problem.  Any existing computer filters are unlikely to block access to iPlayer and, as the parental control feature is not widely advertised, it is reasonable to assume that the majority of parents will not have set up controls to protect their children. 

When the BBC Trust looked at the iPlayer back in 2010 we asked them to consider the inadequate protection available.  We called for a more robust system to protect children.  The Trust did not address this in their findings but they did recommend more was done to advertise the available parental controls.  However this has not happened.

We have written to Rona Fairhead outlining our concerns about the lack of protection for children afforded by the BBC’s iPlayer.  We have pointed out that, should BBC 3 move online, these problems will be magnified and we have asked her to consider ways in which the protections offered by the television watershed could be replicated online.