Weekend Reads: Google says parents are to blame if children view porn
A Google executive says it is a ‘myth’ that laws can protect children from internet pornography. Naomi Gummer insisted it was up to parents to keep their children safe from disturbing material. She told a conference that legislation would be a blunt instrument because of the pace of technological advance.
And she accused many parents of being ‘complicit’ in helping youngsters use social networking sites such as Facebook even though they are not old enough. Provocatively, she also cited research claiming that the extent of sexual content online had been exaggerated and that only a tiny minority of children are ‘upset’ by what they see. In the last few days, the Daily Mail has highlighted concerns over the ease with which children can access online porn and today we launch a campaign demanding an ‘opt-in’ policy for adult content on the internet. This means that users would be automatically excluded from porn sites unless they specifically declared their wish to see them.
By contrast the industry wants an ‘opt-out’ policy but critics say this would act as much less of a deterrent and protect far fewer children.
Miss Gummer, a public policy analyst with the internet giant, was until recently a political adviser to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the man in charge of internet policy.
Her father is Lord Chadlington, a close ally and neighbour of David Cameron – and significant Tory donor.
Her candid comments will spark concerns that internet firms arguing against legislation have the ear of the Government, while those campaigning for tougher action to protect children online find it more difficult to be heard.
Mr Hunt was criticised yesterday when it emerged that his department was ready to reject calls for web access to online porn to be automatically blocked.
Last year the minister threatened to legislate if the internet service providers refuse to act but there is no real sign of any new laws.
Ministers now appear to be pushing for a less stringent ‘opt-out’ scenario, where computer users are asked whether they want to be able to access adult content.
If they do not answer, the material will still be available – potentially putting their children at risk.
Miss Gummer’s remarks were made at a conference of child welfare experts on Friday in Bath.
She said: ‘The idea that laws can adequately protect young people is a myth. Technology is moving so fast that legislation is a blunt tool for addressing these challenges.
‘But also the truth is that parents are complicit in their kids using underage social networking sites. It is about education, and not using legislative levers.’
Miss Gummer insisted to the conference that the extent of sexual content online had been exaggerated.
‘Twenty-five per cent of kids have seen sexual images, but only 14 per cent saw them online,’ she said. ‘Of that, 4 per cent say they were upset by the images, 2 per cent of those images are hard-core and violent, and the rest is nudity in the same way as perhaps seen in the offline world.’
These figures strongly contradict the evidence put forward by MPs, who last week reported that one in three ten-year-olds has seen explicit material.
Miss Gummer, 28, was once interviewed in the Times as a modern debutante. Her father, a working peer, has a country estate which borders the Camerons’ in Oxfordshire, and is president of the Prime Minister’s Witney constituency party. He was also director between 2000 and 2003 of Hotcourses, the educational services company which made Mr Hunt a millionaire.
Her uncle is former Tory Agriculture Secretary John Gummer and her cousin is Ben Gummer, Tory MP for Ipswich.
In 2008 Miss Gummer was taken on by Mr Hunt to work in his private office as parliamentary assistant. Two years later it emerged that she had been given a civil service post in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Her appointment ‘raised eyebrows’ in the department.
Last year she was taken on by Google UK to be its public policy analyst, and also became engaged to Henry Allsopp, brother of TV presenter Kirsty.
In the past, the Prime Minister has been accused of being too close to Google. One of his closest advisers was his director of strategy, Steve Hilton, who is married to Rachel Whetstone, head of communications at Google. He announced earlier this year that they were moving to California.
The pair were godparents to the Camerons’ son Ivan.
Helen Goodman, shadow minister for media, said: ‘It’s worrying when big businesses like Google have the ear of ministers. I believe it is time that the Government took some firm action, so that the rules we all agree should apply to TV and films are applied equally to the internet. Parents are looking for support from the Government.’
Simon Milner, Facebook’s UK policy director, told the Bath conference that there was nothing it could do to stop children under 13 setting up accounts, despite this being against government policy.
‘It’s a problem and we have found no solution to it,’ he said. ‘It is very difficult when a parent is helping a child lie to get around that.’
David Niven, former chief executive of Action on Child Exploitation and national chairman of the British Association of Social Workers, said: ‘I am amazed when they said they could do nothing about under 13s.
‘You would think that a rich company such as Facebook would be able to devise the necessary filters. We know that the younger children are, the more susceptible they are and therefore the greater the effort needed to protect them.’
Loophole in the blocking system
Children have almost limitless access to adult material on their smartphones or tablets – even if parents impose blocks at home on pornography websites.
Software offered by three out of four of the main internet service providers is largely ineffective and works only on computers and laptops.
When parents sign up to broadband packages from BT, Virgin and Sky, they are offered optional software which allows them to ‘filter out’ websites featuring pornography, violence or gambling.
Unblockable: Children can have access to an almost limitless supply of free pornography through their smartphones, which are impossible to load with smut blocking software.
But this software can be uploaded only on to home computers or laptops. It cannot be installed on smartphones or tablets as the technology is not yet available.
Software offered by TalkTalk, the other main provider, does allow parents to block websites on the broadband network, so the filters apply to every household device accessing the internet via broadband.
But as soon as children leave the house with their smartphone, tablet or laptop and use a different, unfiltered broadband connection, they can access any website.
The main mobile phone networks already subscribe to a system of self-regulation for internet content, which is administered by the Independent Mobile Classification Body.
All customers are automatically blocked from accessing adult material on smartphones and tablets unless they ‘opt in’ by contacting their network provider and verifying their age.
But this restriction applies only when users access the web via their phone or tablet’s 3G internet connection and does not apply when using broadband.