I am delighted to have secured this debate and to have the opportunity to exchange views with my honourable friend the Minister. I look forward to hearing my Hon. Friend’s comments on the wider issues that I shall raise in this debate.
But to begin I would like to discuss the current state of Child and Adult Online Protection in social media and what can be done to improve matters.
I was brought to this subject today following on from events of recent weeks, where we have seen the sad deaths of Ashleigh Hall and Camille Mathurasingh.
Ms. Mathurasingh was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend following him viewing pictures of her with another man on her social media account. Her’s is a case that although it reached mass media attention, I am aware it is an impossible area to legislate against.
However the case of Ashleigh Hall is more worrying; she was stalked by a 33 year old paedophile posing as someone half his age. He met up with Ms. Hall and then abducted, raped and murdered her.
Although the circumstances of both cases differ, they do signify the problems that face us in protecting ourselves in the virtual world from danger in the real world.
Social media websites such as facebook have inextricably changed the level of interaction in our society in the last few years. The concept of friendship has been downgraded more than previously before, we show pictures and intimate details with hundreds or thousands of so called facebook friends, many of whom we may never have even met. I talk on experience on this matter, as I have 500 new friends on facebook I never knew I had. But on a serious note, this downgrading of the personal bonds of friendship online has hidden consequences. Online relationships spring up without any face to face contact ever being made, and children can be communicating with people that their parents are never aware of.
Social Networking websites are at the forefront clearly of this new level of communications. According to a recent Ofcom report UK internet users spend more time on networking websites than any other country in Europe with 39 percent of UK adults using social networking websites on a regular basis. Facebook is particularily primed for the UK market with Facebook making up 45 percent of the UK social networking market double that of Bebo and more than three times that of Myspace. Rather impressive when one considers that the total global social networking website market is taken up by Myspace with 71.92 percent of the market and Facebook only holding 16.91 percent of the market. The reasons for this success in the UK compared to the US is owed to the fact that Facebook UK has managed to spread beyond university students and has socially stratified down to all other levels of society. This is not the case in the US, where Facebook and Myspace are divided on ethnic and class lines, where Afro-Caribbean and Latino school-levers favour the popular social networking website MySpace and university students favour Facebook.
Recent research, commissioned by The National Year of Reading 2008 on the White Working Class boys (C2DE) aged 11-15, found that 80 percent had access to the internet through computers in the home.
I mention these facts to highlight that this is an issue that affects everyone in our society, even those who may not be online but whose family members might be. It is understandable that problems of security will arise in such a diluted online community.
For example, some experts have linked the rise in teenage rape, up 23 percent on last year, to a growing sexualisation of young teenage girls on social networking sites. Personally I don’t believe this is the only reason for the rise, but it may well be a influencing factor. Either way this again reiterates the fear that fear we have on this matter.
In the case of Asheilgh Hall that I mentioned more could have been done by the social networking website Facebook to protect her by adding a report button.
This report button is something which I have some knowledge on from my work as chair of the All-Party-Parliamentray Group on Communication.
The report button was created by the Home Office’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) and is free for any social media website to use with no charge for take up. The Ceop has stated that since its creation the button receives thousands of clicks a month. Now Facebook has had access to this button since 2006 and has not yet put it on its user sites, Despite from what I have read in the papers that internet security consultants in the USA found 8,000 paedophiles on their website. It is well documented that, MySpace removed 90,000 paedophiles from their website. But inspite of this fact neither websites have fitted the Report Button.
Well, the problem is that there is no industry code requiring social media websites to fit these buttons to their websites.
If you believe as I do that the market can not regulate itself, because it does not regulate itself, and very often the commercial entities that come into these environments are venture capital driven, they are trying to do as much as possible for as little as possible, until they are bought over.
Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with the business model, but when we are talking about child safety, you let people operate in an enterprise zone with special terms and conditions, perhaps around business rates and other incentives, but you do not let them operate in blatant and flagrant abuse of construction use or child safety regulations. It should be no different in the online environment; a panic button should be present; it is free after all.
Therefore I feel Government should be asking questions of those sites that do not have it.
Through my role of chair of the Communications group I have come into contact with many leading figures in the online sector. Last summer the All-Party-Parliamentary Group on Communications held an inquiry into internet traffic taking evidence from Jim Gamble of the CEOP.
He informed our group last year that if you click on the CEOP report button, what he said it does is three things. One it reassures parents where that button is present that there is a route to access law enforcement other than the police. Two, it deters the offender in the same way a burglar alarm on the front of a house will move a burglar to the next house. And three it reassures the child who has had lessons in school, 4.3 million and growing, educating them that there is someone there they can go to who can make a positive difference for them.
Many questions should be asked of these social networking websites who do not have this button; because the online infrastructure is in place for these social media websites to use. So why would every site not want to have that type of reassuring access and mechanism inherently built within it for the protection of their users?
No one wants to distract from the fact that Asheligh Halls’ murderer was a depraved and sick individual, but the responsibility that social media websites such as Facebook and others – let be clear although Facebook are in the news at the moment they are not the only one, Bebo and Myspace other industry leaders are equally cuppable – These social media networks have to their bit to ensure the safety of their users, especially their younger users.
Every site that is a public place online, be it a social networking site or one of the other self-generating sites through Web 2.0, should have, for example in the UK, the CEOP report button.
As someone who supports the government’s policy on ID cards, for the same reason we are here today, that in a world where we give out our personal details to social media websites based in California, there is a need for the individual to secure their identity. I feel that more has to be done to secure our online identity, and I welcomed the government’s moves in this area.
Search engines such as google, due to their close connections with Facebook and other social media platforms put all our identities online and accessible to anyone and everyone. Their caveat is that there are privacy options provided but as anyone with young children will know; most young people never consider the ramifications of not securing their identity and personal details. In an online world where the social networking websites in essence have a responsibility towards young people they should provide an area of safety for the young in our society.
In a technological world where the internet is now accessible on mobile phones this draws another area of concern on this issue. I believe that that network operators and retailers should work together on putting eSafety on mobile phones. Ofcom should insist that all mobile access devices are fitted with child protection filters that protect the identity of the child. I would be interested to hear the Ministers views in this area?
I don’t want to paint a completely dark picture as there are certain ISP providers who are doing something, for example BT estimated last year that 42% of its broadband customers with children between five and 15-years-old had set up ‘BT Yahoo!’ content filtering control settings. But I feel this is still a small proportion and that there is a lack of public knowledge on this matter and I would be interested to know the Minister’s thoughts on this matter also?
In conclusion, I know there is no panacea to this issue but there are small steps that can be taken to increase protection online – I recognise that the Government and my Honourable Friend have done a considerable amount on this matter and I feel there is a much common ground here today:
- As my HF will be aware, Paedophiles here must register all their email address and if found to using alternative one can expect a 5 year jail sentence. I would be interested to know what the Minister thought of expanding it to social media accounts as well?
- What does my HF believe can be done to encourage uptake of the CEOP’s report button by social networking websites?
- Would my HF consider enforcing all mobile phone internet providers to provide child protection filters with every contract to under eighteens?
- Could my HF please inform me what he thinks of my suggestion for everyone in this country to have their own personal email account on a website such as direct gov website? As this would help increase people’s greater knowledge of online provision.
- What does my HF believe can be done to improve online child protection on social media sites?
- What plans are there in place to increase awareness amongst parents and children to child protection filters available from ISPs?
- Will my HF look at increasing for the CEOP?
I look forward to hearing from my Honourable Friend the Minister.