Friday, 21 March 2014

MPs call for more protection for children online

Last year Mediawatch was pleased to be able to provide written evidence to the Culture Media & Sport Select Committee into online safety.  On Wednesday the Committee published its report and called for stronger action to be taken to protect children from online bullying and pornography.

The Committee found that more needed to be done to protect children online particularly with regard to content that is legal but still harmful to children yet which is freely available to them.   

John Whittingdale MP, the Committee Chair said: “those who profit from the internet must demonstrate the utmost commitment to protecting children and should be prosecuted and penalised if they don't.”

The report said protections like those in place in the "real world", such as putting pornographic magazines on the top shelf of the newsagent and stopping children entering sex shops, had to be provided online and at the moment too little is being done in this regard.  MPs proposed that sites that are "particularly harmful" and “make no serious attempt to hinder access by children” should be blocked altogether.

The Committee said that 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.
Falling short of our recommendation for statutory backing for the current voluntary protections put in place by ISPs, the report said that Ofcom should do more in terms of monitoring internet content and advising the public on online safety.

The Committee had been particularly keen to look at ways of preventing abusive or threatening comments on social media.  Having heard the evidence the report criticised the age verification processes used by Twitter and Facebook, saying these were "at best flimsy" and led to younger children accessing their sites.
The recommendation was made that social media providers should offer a range of prominently displayed options for, and routes to, reporting harmful content and communications.  Much of the abuse and bullying that takes place online is covered by existing laws and some of the worst online bullies and trolls are being brought to book in the courts, but the report called for clarified and guidance to be updated for the online space.

Although it fell short of recommending statutory backing for the voluntary measures developed to protect children online, this report is to be welcomed.  The internet has revolutionised life for our children and it behoves us all to ensure that they can use it safely.

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