House of Commons debate on Internet Regulation

House of Commons debate on Internet Regulation, 4 June, 2008

Column 893
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Watts.]
7.32 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I am pleased to have the chance to discuss internet content and internet service providers with my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, not least because I have been trying to secure this debate for several months. I know that, like me, many of my colleagues regularly receive correspondence from constituents who are worried about internet content, and I have been especially keen to discuss those matters following the Byron review, but on several occasions I have been told by the Table Office that there is no Department appropriate to field such a debate. The strategy of representatives of each Department that we tried to assign it to has been to hold up its hands in affront and deny any responsibility for the matter.

My worry is that that is an allegory of the current situation relating to responsibility for internet content, and that the excuse is, sadly, endemic. ISPs claim to be mere inanimate conduits; search engines plead their neutrality; Ofcom has intentionally been denied any remit for content; other UK Executive and regulatory bodies, including the police, have powers over only a tiny minority of websites; and the Internet Watch Foundation is limited in the subjects it monitors and by the international nature of the internet. As a result, the various initiatives that have been implemented are piecemeal and inadequate, and the internet stands out as an anomaly against similar media as a place where, essentially, anything goes. It is a paradox that the efforts of ISPs to deal with illegal content are a strong argument for regulating them, as we see that the tools they have are the most effective method of controlling material online.

Before outlining my case, I should state that, as joint-chairman of the all-party communications group, I am a fully fledged internet enthusiast. I welcome the fact that just under 60 per cent. of households in the UK now have broadband, although I am disappointed that my own city, Glasgow, has the lowest uptake.

Even in the space of a decade, the internet has revolutionised the way many people live, from accessing information to socialising. Across the world, it has been an empowering and democratising force. I do not doubt that freedom for the network is important to its continuing evolution and, in that respect, our approach to regulating the internet in the UK will set an important precedent.

However, because the internet has come so far, we need to regulate content. What was originally a network that was exclusively confined to communications for the American military establishment is now in the majority of homes across the country and in three quarters of households with children. Furthermore, there is an increasing blurring of the distinctions between the internet and the traditional media and means of accessing services. Two examples are that half of all internet users have watched video online, and that BBC iPlayer has a weekly audience of around 1.1 million.

In the light of those trends, the argument that the Government previously used to justify inaction—that
4 Jun 2008 : Column 894
there is a tradition of non-regulation of the internet—surely becomes untenable. Together with the benefits of the internet, there has been a range of tangible negative effects for the UK. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and Revenue and Customs have both attributed a vast increase in counterfeit medicines to websites selling illegal drugs. The BPI has calculated that around £160 million was lost by the music industry through illegal downloads in 2007, and NBC Universal estimates that online piracy cost film and TV businesses £129 million a year. Those are coupled with less tangible effects, for instance, the increased availability of extremist and hate-inciting literature, or of young people being exposed to pro-disorder and suicide websites.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that some of the sites about suicide are truly evil? They not only encourage, urge, assist and facilitate people to take their lives, but distract especially youngsters from finding the help, advice and guidance that would enable them to live full and productive lives. We must find some way of monitoring and closing them.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for her input. I know that her constituency has suffered more than most through young people committing suicide. It is the Government’s duty to consider that and try to do something to help prevent people from committing suicide for some unknown reason, which makes them think that it is all right to do that.

As I have already said, no executive body in the UK covers content on the internet. The Government—wrongly in my opinion—purposely decided not to assign such a task to Ofcom in the Communications Bill in 2002.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend and co-chair of the all-party communications group for giving way. Does he agree that Ofcom could be charged with leading the intellectual debate at the G8 in the next couple of months? The G8 has no IT remit, yet we could offer a world lead on the matter.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for his input. He is right that we should show a lead in the world. We have an opportunity to try to put something straight and I hope that the rest of my contribution will explain how and where that should happen.

One reason that was given for the Government’s decision not to regulate content at the time was that the general law of the UK applies to the internet. A declaration, which seems slightly naive in retrospect, was made that,

“what is illegal off-line is illegal online”.

However, the real difficulty with the internet is that what is illegal and enforced in one place often bears little relation to what is illegal and enforced in another.

The existing law applies to websites that are hosted here, which means, for instance, that an online pharmacy hosted in the UK will need to comply with the same rules by which a high street pharmacy abides. However, those that are outside our jurisdiction will be free to continue as they wish. That is why we see
4 Jun 2008 : Column 895
websites based in the South Pacific, often with misleading “dot co dot uk” addresses, selling prescription drugs without the normal safeguards.

Alongside the general law, internet service providers, which are not required to have a licence to operate in the UK, have a self-regulatory regime for content. The fulcrum for that is the Internet Watch Foundation, which provides a notification service of illegal content to ISPs under three headings: child sex abuse images hosted anywhere in the world; criminally obscene content hosted in the UK; and incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK. The IWF has a hotline for members of the public and maintains a list of websites with material under those three headings that are potentially illegal. It instructs, albeit without sanction, the relevant host ISP to take down the website and refers details to the police. In the case of child abuse websites outside the UK, the IWF notifies the relevant national enforcement agencies where they are hosted.

It is important to note that although the IWF does not require ISPs to block content not hosted by them, some providers have undertaken to do this, such as BT, whose Cleanfeed programme blocks child abuse websites on the IWF list. The effect of that is to prevent BT customers from accessing such material, even when it is hosted outside the UK.

To return to the general law, the final facet that I should mention is the liability of ISPs. The e-commerce regulations of 2002 prevent liability for content unless, first, the ISP has been made aware of both its presence and its illegal or tortious nature and, secondly, the ISP is storing the information in some way, either through hosting or caching. As far as I am aware, the liability of ISPs for content has been tested only in a handful of defamation cases, and those only where the material had been hosted by the respective server in the UK.

That brief outline should make it clear that the regime for content—or, rather, the lack of a regime—leaves huge gaps. The most important and extensive of those is the fact that, for any material not hosted in the UK, including child abuse images, we are reliant on other countries being both prepared and able to shut down websites or specific pages. According to the IWF, less than 1 per cent. of potentially criminal content appearing online since 2003 has been hosted in the UK, so the general law and the self-regulatory approach reach only the tip of the iceberg. That is clearly not good enough. We must do far better.

The figures from the IWF are also interesting in that they show that around one fifth of the child abuse sites that it reports to other countries’ regulatory agencies remain online for more than 50 days, and sometimes for up to 100 days, after being passed on. When we have the ability to block access to such sites, with programmes such as Cleanfeed, it is hard to understand why the Government have not been more demanding. Furthermore, as I have said, much of the material that would be illegal if hosted in the UK will be perfectly legal elsewhere. Many countries have far broader rights to freedom of speech and no prohibitions on inciting racial or religious hatred, and are far more lax when it comes to rules on obscenity.

The second limitation is that the IWF covers a narrow range of topics. There is no organisation concerned with general online content in the UK and, with billions
4 Jun 2008 : Column 896
of web pages worldwide and millions hosted in the UK, it is unrealistic to expect anything other than piecemeal control from UK Executive bodies with other priorities. Finally, the IWF and the general law are concerned only with what is illegal or tortious online, whereas many of my constituents have expressed concerns to me about material that is either harmful or offensive, such as that which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) mentioned.

I would like to ask the Minister: how is it that we have heavily regulated content on TV, but we leave parents to police the internet and stand over their children while they use it? When it comes to illegal content at least, I would urge the Minister to place the responsibility on the ISPs. As the gatekeepers to the internet and, most importantly, being based in the UK, they are the obvious candidates to deal with such material. That is gradually being recognised across the world, with regulation in Australia and China and the Olivennes agreement in France.

Indeed, while the IWF system in the UK is cited by ISPs as a reason for not regulating them, it shows that the most effective way of tackling illegal content is to have service providers take it down and block it. With only a minute fraction of illegal content being hosted in the UK, any solution that is limited by our borders and jurisdiction is really no solution at all to the problems of the internet. The only thing we can really do is require ISPs to block that illegal content regardless of where it is hosted. If we do not do that, I ask the Minister, how can our efforts to tackle a host of crimes such as inciting religious or racial hatred possibly be taken seriously? If China and Australia can do it, why cannot we?

The objection that is often raised to that is that ISPs simply cannot filter or monitor content. In the light of that, it is interesting to note that network providers in France have undertaken to assess whether they will be able to implement such technology to tackle copyright infringement. But we need not be so burdensome to have an effective regime.

The IWF system of notification and takedown orders could form the basis of a broader system for tackling content, whereby ISPs would be required to block material in breach of the law that they were notified of. The Minister would no doubt ask how such a body could be resourced and funded, but I do not see that as an insurmountable problem. In negotiations between ISPs and the music industry, the rights holders are suggesting that they would take on policing and monitoring content.

While ISPs may not be responsible for producing and editing content that appears on their servers, they are the only ones with the power to deal with it, so why do the Government not force them to do so with a licensing regime? There has been movement from the Government on internet-based crimes such as grooming, which makes it bizarre that what would be illegal content in any other sphere is left unfettered simply because it appears online. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has also announced that ISPs will face regulation in 2009 unless they take action on copyright infringement, but that is too late—we needed it yesterday—and far too limited.

At the start of my speech, I mentioned that the Government decided during consideration of the last
4 Jun 2008 : Column 897
Communications Bill to exclude content from Ofcom’s remit, and we have reaped what we sowed. The problem has grown since. With the possibility of a new communications Bill being introduced in the next Parliament, it is clear that we now have the technology to control content. The only remaining questions are whether we have the will power and the common sense.

Since Monday morning, when everyone working in public affairs suddenly realised that Parliament might still be relevant after the recess, my office has been inundated with queries about this topic, wondering what I would be calling for. Those people clearly recognise how important this matter is. Perhaps the Government, now that a Department has finally been found to respond to this debate, should do so too.
7.48 pm

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) has raised a most important issue and I pay tribute to him for his excellent work in this area. This is a matter of common concern to many different parts of the Government, and the way we respond to it will be important in ensuring the safe enjoyment of the internet by users.

My hon. Friend talked about the work of the Internet Watch Foundation, and I pay tribute to what it does, as well as to the way that the internet service provider community and others work with it to seek to ensure that such repugnant material is not available in the UK.

In many ways, it could be argued that the IWF is a model of how self-regulation can work. However, as my hon. Friend stated, it has limitations. As we have heard, it has a specific remit to deal with child sexual abuse content hosted worldwide, and criminally obscene and incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK. ISPs act promptly on information received by the IWF to take down or block access to sites carrying such material. The problem with extending the IWF model to other areas, such as copyright or the promotion of suicide, is that the issues are far less clear-cut and open to legal challenge. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) that I shall say more about issues involving suicide later in my speech.

The IWF does not want its remit to be extended to other areas, and there are good reasons for that. In the case of activities that are unambiguously illegal and recognised in all jurisdictions as unacceptable, it is relatively straightforward to maintain the collaboration that makes that system work. If more equivocal content were brought into the scope of the IWF’s remit, it would be difficult to command the support of all who need to be engaged. So what can we do? I agree that the world has moved on since the Communications Act 2003. It would be very odd if things had not changed in five years in such a high-tech area, and the Government have already embarked on consideration of what those changes mean for the future regulation of content, whether it is broadcast, sent to a mobile phone or sent to a computer.

4 Jun 2008 : Column 898

This is a market in which the services offered to consumers move very fast, but change for change’s sake, or simply reacting to what the position is now, is not the way in which to ensure that the United Kingdom remains competitive. We need to anticipate how the online world will develop, and plan accordingly. That is why the Government set up a convergence think tank to examine the impact of convergence on the United Kingdom communications market and its implications for future policy, regulatory and legislative frameworks in relation to broadcasting and telecommunications, and the online world or the internet. We expect the think tank to report to the Secretaries of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and for Culture, Media and Sport early in 2009, and they may recommend new legislation if it seems necessary.

However, some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West are too urgent to be dealt with on that time scale. I am thinking of harmful and antisocial content on the internet which is unsuitable for some categories of users, such as children. Those are highly important issues. That is why the Prime Minister asked Dr. Tanya Byron to conduct an independent review of the risks posed to children by exposure to potentially harmful or inappropriate material on the internet and in video games, and that is why we accepted all Dr. Byron’s recommendations without condition.

It is worth repeating that the Byron review recognised the enormous benefits of the internet, whose technology offers children—and adults—new opportunities for communication, participation and creativity to a degree never witnessed before. It can help children to improve some of the skills that are so crucial to their cognitive development. Inherent in those benefits is the ability to overcome many of the disadvantages and inequalities of real life, which has led some to hail the internet as providing the means to a more democratic media environment. That is the other side of the balance sheet.

Derek Wyatt: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Malcolm Wicks: I will in a moment.

However, along with the benefits come risks. We welcome Dr. Byron’s recommendations, and her analysis of how we can properly manage those risks in a fast-changing new media environment. Later this month, the Government will publish an action plan for implementation of Dr. Byron’s report. We intend to launch the United Kingdom council on child internet safety in September 2008, six months ahead of her recommended time scale.

Derek Wyatt: I was going to ask the Minister what the timetable was. He has not yet said what it is; he has merely said that he will publish an action plan.

Malcolm Wicks: I thought I had just specified the timetable. We will publish the plan in September 2008, after which we will establish what action is required.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West that these are important issues, and if he has found it difficult to obtain a departmental response, I apologise. As a Department, we want to engage fully with Members on the issue. It is vital that we ensure that the regulatory framework as it applies to
4 Jun 2008 : Column 899
the internet keeps up with changes in the technology, and with changes in the way in which people use it. The Government are acting to secure the protection of children through the Byron review, and getting the long-term framework right by means of the convergence think tank.

I think it important—my hon. Friend referred to this—to stick to the principle that what is illegal offline is illegal online. Enforcement online might be much more difficult than offline, especially where those engaging in illegal activity are based outside this country, but that is no reason to apply different approaches as to what is and is not allowed, in particular when it comes to content that is considered undesirable rather than illegal.

My hon. Friend has called for a widely applicable solution based on blocking unpleasant or unlawful internet sites, based on the model of the Internet Watch Foundation. Network level blocking presents some difficulties. In reducing access to such material, we would need to weigh up the costs and potential difficulties against the evidence of benefits, and to compare its potential effectiveness against other options, such as improving filtering tools and pointing people towards sources of support and other positive material.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend raised the distressing issue of suicide websites, and the tragedies that have occurred in her own community. What is being done to protect people from websites that encourage suicide? The Government are deeply concerned about those websites and the influence that they can have on vulnerable people and, particularly, young people. We have accepted the recommendations of the Byron review, including that the new UK council on child internet safety look at whether the law on
4 Jun 2008 : Column 900
harmful and inappropriate online material could usefully be clarified, and that appropriate enforcement responses be explored. The Ministry of Justice is looking urgently at whether the law in that area could sensibly be strengthened, and will make an announcement shortly.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Minister address a point that was raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) on liability? The Select Committee was told by YouTube that, if it attempted to pre-screen material before it appeared on the site, it would potentially become legally liable for any inappropriate material that was posted. If that is the case, it is surely perverse that the law should make such sites more vulnerable for trying to do the right thing than for sitting back and doing nothing.

Malcolm Wicks: I do not claim to be an expert on the law in that area, but, prima facie, that would seem perverse. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman’s question to the attention of my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice who are, as I have said, looking into these issues.

In conclusion, we need to find ways to protect the young or vulnerable online, but we need to do that in ways that do not unnecessarily impinge on freedom of speech, or try to create some kind of super-nanny internet. We also need to ensure that the internet continues to be able to offer the range and scope of services that people have increasingly come to expect and enjoy.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Eight o’clock.