No more low hanging fruit

I have been reflecting on the achievements of the UK’s framework for making the internet a better and safer place for children and young people. We have an impressive record. Yet I was struck by a quite dramatic but at the same time also a rather obvious and melancholy realisation.

Let me count the ways

First I will set out what I think are the principal outcomes of the work many different people, companies and agencies have engaged in over the years. These are listed below. The children’s charities, through CHIS, played an absolutely pivotal role in many of them and even with some of those where we were definitely not in the lead, our presence around the edges helped sustain forward momentum.

I have tried to present  the developments broadly chronologically. That’s not always possible because things constantly crossover and overlap. Some processes take longer for good reasons thus making it hard to identify an exact starting or finishing point.

Others may have been delayed or speeded up by parallel but unrelated events that happened to shape the political climate at the relevant time. Simple chronology can therefore be a misleading guide.

Year Zero

For practical purposes I regard 1995 as “Year 0”. The internet had been around for several years  by then but it was still largely the preserve of relatively tiny numbers of  geeks, academics and imaginative small businesses.

In the early 90s the first web browsers appeared and in 1995 Microsoft published and started giving away its own browser: Internet Explorer. 1995 is therefore when you start to see the huge growth in internet usage.  This coincided with and therefore was partly propelled by  a fall in hardware prices and in telecoms costs. These three things together set the internet on its journey towards becoming the mass medium we know today.

It opened the door to an array of unforeseen, unintended and unwanted consequences.

Analogue meets digital

Lest we forget, by 1995 the UK had a number of laws which then acquired new or additional significance,  despite being rooted in a pre-internet age.  I’m thinking, for example, about the Telecommunications Act, 1984,the Computer Misuse Act, 1990 and wider laws dealing with threats against the person of which the  anti-stalking laws are an example. These laws had arisen from  events in the then real world but they suddenly found an echo in and became relevant to cyberspace.

The dawning of the internet age

As the speed of technological developments increased so the range of issues that interested policy makers, parents and the general public eventually would expand but initially the public debates about how to respond to the emergence of the internet into a larger public domain were almost completely dominated by concerns about  two issues: child abuse images (then commonly referred to as ” child pornography”) and paedophile activity.

The list

  • Creation of the IWF (1996) with two children’s representatives on its Policy Board.
  • DTI-Home Office Review of the operation and governance of the IWF (1998)
  • IWF changes its governance structures
  • UK’s National Crime Squad leads Operation Cathedral, the first major, coordinated international policing operation (12 countries) against organized criminals, members of the Wonderland Club, who were involved in exchanging child abuse images and facilitating child abuse (1998)
  • s49, RIPA, 2000 introduces a power to require decryption keys to be handed over
  • DTI Internet Crime Forum: June 1999 – March 2001 – “Chat Wise, Street Wise” published following the first reported instances of the online grooming of children
  • INHOPE, the global association of hotlines is established after initial help provided by the IWF and, later, Childnet International.
  • Creation of the Home Office Task Force on Child Protection on the Internet (2001)
  • IWF accepts it is governed by the Human Rights Act,1998 (2001)
  • Important changes made to the policies of the IWF to enable them to become more proactive in the fight against online child abuse images (2001). This was enormously important. It would have very far reaching and global consequences.
  • A system for classifying child abuse images was created by the Sentencing Advisory Council and adopted by the Court of Appeal (2002)
  • Operation Ore arrests get underway with over 7,200 UK names of persons suspected of buying child abuse images from the Landslide web site in Texas (2002)
  • Microsoft closes MSN Chat (2003)
  • National Crime Squad leads in creating the Virtual Global Taskforce (2003)
  • Several changes in the law were introduced by the Sexual Offences Act, 2003, to address problems which, for practical purposes, were either substantially new or had greatly increased following the arrival of the internet as a mass consumer product
    • s15, created the offence of grooming
    • s45, age for participating in pornographic depictions raised from 16 to 18
    • s10, causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity e.g. via webcams
    • s12, causing a child to watch sexual acts, remotely or otherwise
    • s72, extraterritoriality provisions created to help combat child sex tourism
    • s114, introduces foreign travel orders to help combat child sex tourism
    • The range or length of sentences following a conviction or caution for different child sex offences was extended by this Act and others
  • The announcement of “Cleanfeed” by BT (2004). Again an item of monumental importance which would have global consequences.
  • From that one event several others followed within the UK
    • The universal adoption of the IWF block list by mobile phone companies
    • The near universal adoption of the IWF list by fixed line ISPs in the domestic market and its take up by other electronic service providers
    • The adoption of the IWF list by the major search engines
  • The adoption by the mobile phone companies’ of age verification systems to restrict children’s access to adult content (2004)
  • The creation of the Independent Mobile Classification Body (2005)
  • The Gambling Act, 2005, requiring all online gambling companies to introduce age verification systems.
  • UK Kids Go Online is published (2005)
  • US-based International Center for Missing and Exploited Children establishes the Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography to focus the attention of credit card companies, banks and others on the financial aspects of the trade in child abuse images
  • The creation of CEOP (2006). A product of lobbying by CHIS supported by parts of industry.
  • Other changes in the law took place at different times
    • Online moderators have to be CRB checked (2006)
    • A bank or credit card company can be officially informed if someone has been convicted of using one of their products to buy child abuse images (2006)
    • Outlawing extreme pornographic images (2008)
  • BBFC launches a system for age rating digital downloads (2008)
  • In April, 2010, the Digital Economy Act becomes law and changes the rules on the sale of computer-based games to children, bringing them into line with comparable laws which already applied to the sale of movies
  • Procurement Policy Note 05/10 in March 2010 established a requirement for ISPs wishing to supply services to Government Departments to block access to web pages containing child abuse images
  • In terms of providing parents with tools to manage their children’s access to a range of adult content on the internet the launch of Talk Talk’s HomeSafe initiative in early 2011 marks the first break with the previous practice of major ISPs since the arrival of the internet in the consumer space
  • The BlackBerry affair became public in late 2011, marking an inglorious moment although the speed with which the government and  Ofcom stepped in in early 2012 to drive forward a rapid response was very encouraging
  • The revelations about Habbo Hotel raised important issues about moderators (2012)
  • The misuse of Twitter’s network also starts to raises questions (2012)
  • A range of extremely important technical tools were developed and deployed
    • CETS,  PhotoDNA and other forms of pattern recognition technologies help in the fight against online child abuse images and in the identification of victims
    • Companies such as Facebook and AOL have been willing to deploy them in ways which have pushed the boundaries very much in the right direction
    • The EU funds work to enable similar breakthroughs in relation to video content
    • Systems have been developed and deployed to allow text to be analysed for signs of inappropriate interactions involving children and young people
    • Google introduced Safe Search settings to allow parents to control access to legal but age inappropriate adult content, Bing and Yahoo have similar arrangements
  • A range of sex offender treatment and management programmes have been developed specifically to address online offending behaviours
  • Training modules for different professional groups who work with online sex offenders have been created
  • Training modules for teachers and trainee teachers have been established introducing notions of safe online practice as well as encouraging the creative use of the internet in the pedagogic process
  • Similar modules have been developed for other professional groups that work with children e.g. social workers and residential care staff although it appears this is more ad hoc and they have not yet been fully or systematically integrated into officially recognized training standards or qualifications
  • In relation to children’s and young people’s online habits and usage patterns, following on from UK Kids Go Online other outstanding, pioneering research has been published, most notably by Professor Sonia Livingstone of the LSE and Ofcom
  • In relation to research into the criminal misuse of the internet the research and publications of the IWF, Professor Julia Davidson, Elena Martellozo, Professor Ethel Quayle and CEOP have been world class
  • There has been a series of brilliant awareness raising, educational and outreach initiatives undertaken by several groups often drawing on children’s and young people’s own views and direct experience of the internet, aiming to underpin, mirror and reinforce both good practice and legal requirements
    • CEOP’s thinkuknow web site and other materials they have produced are good examples, Beatbullying, Childnet International, Stop It Now, NSPCC and the late, much lamented BECTa are also among the best known leaders in the field
    • Childline is now much more engaged with the online space
    • Sections of the printed and broadcast media have developed a range of materials
    • The BBC in particular has produced various marvellous resources but more than one major TV network has chipped in from time to time
    • Coronation Street and East Enders have both run story lines which featured “internet incidents” that helped get positive messages across to vast audiences, and  there has been a multiplicity of investigatory reports by journalists working for radio and every kind of media outlet
    • The creation of Safer Internet Day and the UK Internet Safety Centre by the EU were and remain extremely important
    • Some of the resources put together by individual companies on their own web sites or, in the case of the mobile phone companies, in their own shops, have been outstanding
    • Vodafone’s “Digital Parenting” is now a prized resource with a global audience and Teach Today would not have happened if several enterprises had not dug deep to get it off the ground
    • Volunteer programmes where staff from high tech firms go into schools to talk about online safety stand greatly to the sponsoring firms’ credit
  • The fact that the EU took a major interest in online child safety generally has been of huge importance not least because it made clear to several multinational companies who otherwise might have been less keen to engage that this area of policy was not just a British foible
  • The EU’s part-funding of the IWF and its part-funding for Sonia Livingstone’s research and the Safer Internet Centre has been key
  • At one point the UK Government directly funded advertising campaigns on radio, in cinemas and on billboards
  • The UK Government also commissioned research to track the impact of the campaigns
  • Government issues new guidance on the sale of alcohol which makes it clear that persons selling it remotely are obliged to do age verification at the point of sale and may also be required to do it at the point of delivery (2012)

Not on the list

Previously I might have added to the above the series of good practice guidance documents developed over the years. I could have referred to them as examples of the success of the UK approach. Several of us spent years negotiating them, writing them and believing in them but I am now minded to discount the lot.

Nonetheless for the sake of completeness I will provide the non-list of UK good practice documents because the sentiments they express remain relevant even if we have no way of knowing if they have ever made any difference at all to anything. Why? No ways of checking or measuring were ever agreed.

The BSI kitemark for filtering software also turned out to be pretty much a waste of time and effort. Only one company ever took it up

The melancholy reflection

If anyone was to plot a chart showing how policy and practice developed from the mid-1990s it would peak sometime in 2006. After that, with one or two exceptions, less and less has happened that one could honestly say is genuinely new or different in the sense that it is likely to take us much beyond where we were then.

We have had an ocean of education and awareness initiatives – any amount of them, often showing great ingenuity and novelty – but that’s where we seem to be stuck. A line has been drawn. Not declared, but drawn nevertheless.

The best possible defence for any child

I am very strongly in favour of more and better education and awareness initiatives. The best possible defence for any child is their own knowledge and resilience. This will normally most likely come about if the child is nurtured within a loving family with parents who, in turn, are up to speed on how the technology works and how their own children use it. The positive messages parents pass on to their children should be reinforced at school by highly digitally literate teachers and be reflected in the wider media and in advertising.

But if the world of online child protection from here to eternity is to be limited to a never ending cycle of media literacy  or education and awareness initiatives then someone somewhere should at least have the decency to spell that out and stop pretending that we are engaged with anything else.

The low hanging fruit

To some degree perhaps it was inevitable that we should reach such a point. We opened up a new field. We identified everything that was both obvious and in the main was relatively inexpensive and comparatively easy to do. Although many of the processes and discussions we went through were lengthy, hard fought, at times complex and ground breaking, we have ended up “simply” picking all the low hanging fruit.

Thus, whilst we may have done a great deal to make the internet safer and better, it is clearly not enough. Survey after survey continues to show parents’ levels of anxiety about what is happening or might happen to their children when they use new technologies have not substantially changed for the better. The record of what is actually happening to children speaks for itself.

It is simply implausible to suggest that this is all down to past failures of communication in the myriad education and awareness or media literacy initiatives, the implication being that if we simply make our communications more effective the problem will be solved. Nobody is against better communications in every area but it is really unhelpful to suggest  that is the be all and end all.

Parents’ anxieties are genuine. They are rooted in something real. They are also shared by large numbers of children. Overwhelmingly these anxieties are not, as some would have us believe, merely the fictitious products of clever manipulation by sensationalist, irresponsible journalists egged on and abetted by self-interested campaigners.

If the low hanging fruit has gone what else needs to be done if we are ever to reach the sunny, untroubled uplands for which we all strive?

Professor Tanya Byron arrives

In September, 2007, the previous Prime Minister called in child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron to look things over. The Byron Review appeared in March, 2008.  Byron put her finger on a number of important pulse points. When the Government and Opposition Parties endorsed her final reports this generated a huge new sense of energy. Byron had no axe to grind. She was not an insider. Byron commissioned original research, talked to everyone then spoke as she found.

Byron’s findings remain hugely significant. Sadly they have also become a sort of monument, a high water mark. Cosmetic changes which she recommended were made. The creation of UKCCIS is a continuation of the old Task Force by another name only slightly restructured. But few of the major recommendations have been implemented. We’re not even close.

However, we have to acknowledge that part of the problem with Byron was simply one of timing. The good Professor came along when the last Government’s political authority was rapidly ebbing away as demoralisation set in among Ministers faced with the certainty of approaching electoral defeat.

Starting over?

In May, 2010, we got a new Government, led by David Cameron, a man with a clear passion for child welfare issues, both generally and specifically in relation to the internet.

Every new Government has a considerable period of latitude to read itself in and with the overwhelming nature of the economic problems the country is facing the Coalition perhaps had more latitude than most. Nonetheless the early signs were good.

Well-informed, tech-savvy, energetic Ministers were allocated the UKCCIS brief. In late 2010 Prime Minister Cameron called in Reg Bailey to look into the sexualization of childhood. Reg reported in June, 2011, and had some incisive things to say about aspects of online policy.

A couple of Reg’s recommendations were acted on quickly e.g. in relation to “Brand Ambassadors”  and advertising near schools, but in relation to the larger challenge of adult content online, particularly pornography, being easily accessible to children, the outcome was indeterminate.

The Prime Minister conceded that point on 3rd May, 2012, by ordering a fresh public consultation on what had become known as Active Choice. 

The consultation closed on 6th September.  A meeting that was to have been held on 17th September to consider the outcome of the consultation. But just when we thought we were going to find out finally whether the new Government was prepared to break out of the impasse, take radical measures, just when we thought we were going to find out finally whether the new Government was willing to embrace a major shake up to get things moving again, there was a Reshuffle.

Three out of the four Ministers who had any connection with the Bailey Review either had to walk the plank or were transferred. The meeting that had been scheduled for September was moved to late October.

The jury is still out

Consequently as I write the jury is still out.

My contention is that if we leave on one side the Talk Talk initiative the period between Byron and Bailey has been characterised overwhelmingly by stasis camouflaged by meetings which give the appearance of action.

Companies seem to have set themselves dead against any major changes or upheavals to their systems such as would follow from the Active Choice option that the children’s organizations and many others favour. They want the status quo or as near as possible.

I hope when UKCCIS does finally meet to discuss the future of Active Choice Ministers will not bottle it. If the outcome is simply another milk-and-water easy-to-evade piece of window dressing it won’t just be the Daily Mail asking what is the point of UKCCIS?

Use it or lose it

While the outcome on Active Choice will be one key test, it is not the only one looming.

We speak about “self-regulation” as the basis of internet policy in the UK. But that is really not what we have got. The word “regulation” carries with it an implication of some level of certainty, some degree of “ascertainability”, the possibility of enforcement or at least of sanctions for any proven failure to comply. Yet in this space, outside of matters connected with child abuse images, very little is certain or ascertainable. Nothing is enforced. There are no sanctions except insofar as they arise under what I think we can call for these purposes “other headings” e.g. the data protection laws.

Every part of the internet industry in the UK has resisted any and all attempts to establish mechanisms which would allow for the independent review of their practices as they impact on children’s and young people’s online safety. By 2008 we can now see the Home Office Task Force was more self-delusional than self-regulatory. We came together periodically for jolly chats, arranged the odd conference or photo-call for Ministers and talked about interesting things that had been happening. Er, that’s it.

Operating at the margins of corporate PR

Internet businesses sitting around the table will now not even disclose to the UKCCIS Board any data which are not already in the public domain. We are thus operating entirely at the margins of companies’ corporate PR.

Absolutely it can be important from time to time to have a place where you can chat to companies in a collective way with Government and law enforcement in the room. Some good things may happen as a result, but we ought not to dignify it with the misleading idea that this is in any sense “regulatory” in nature. The “R” word should be banished completely. Or rather we should use it or lose it.


This section is being added many years later. Specifically after the murders of April Jones and Tia Sharpe. Quite a  few things of note happened in between the last entry above and today’s writing but the murders of those two little girls in 2012, and the trials of their killers in 2013, had seismic consequences in the UK which, once more, reached far beyond our borders. I will not rehearse all the details but suffice to say that in the aftermath of the trials, after ferocious and sustained criticism in the media and Parliament, Google and Microsoft announced that they were taking steps  globally to eliminate any and all links to paedophilic content from their search engines. They also pledged to introduce a link to help services which would pop up if anyone tried to search for paedophile material using their services. Google announced the award of £1 million to the IWF, then the largest donation ever to a child protection NGO anywhere in the world. In a speech in  2014 David Cameron announced the creation of what became the WeProtect Global Alliance and donated £50 million to it.


About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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