UK code of practice for the self-regulation of new forms of content on mobiles

11 August 2008

Executive summary

Mobile phone use is widespread among children[ (-1-)] and seven per cent of 8-17 year olds access the internet via a mobile[ (-2-)]. The UK code of practice for the self-regulation of new forms of content on mobiles (“the Code”) provides a series of undertakings regarding young people’s access to, and the classification of, mobile commercial content. The Code was formally published in January 2004 and the resulting Classification Framework (“the Framework”) was published in February 2005. All major UK mobile phone operators subscribe to and support the Code and the Framework which act as self-regulatory instruments.

Audio-visual content available on mobiles arises from two sources. Some content is provided directly by the operator or a contracted third party (and referred to in the Code as ‘commercial content’). This content is under the mobile operator’s control, enforced by contractual arrangements with the content creator/supplier. The other source of content available on mobile phones is from the internet. Internet-based content is outside the control of the mobile operator (and is referred to in the Code as ‘internet content’).

This Review of the Code was achieved with the support of the Home Office and the Children's Charities' Coalition for Internet Safety (CHIS),[ (-3-)] and as a result of a staff secondment from Ofcom to the NSPCC - an active member of CHIS. It has the status of an evaluation of the Code and of the IMCB’s Framework conducted independently of industry.

Overall, we find the Code to be effective in restricting young people’s access to inappropriate content and a good example of industry self-regulation. Based on interviews with operators and stakeholders, we believe that the Code and Framework are understood and readily adopted by all concerned.

We also note that the mobile ind ustry has made significant investment in the development and implementation of content controls and has taken significant steps to enforce compliance, over and above the requirements set out in the Code. The mobile operators have established a process whereby an initial breach of the Code by a commercial content provider results in a warning (yellow card), and any subsequent breach of the Code can result in a sanction (red card). Repeated failure to comply with the Code may lead to termination of future business. The yellow/red card scheme is viewed both by the mobile operators and the content suppliers as a highly effective compliance mechanism. We noted comments from content providers which suggested that operators move swiftly to block content, especially where there is doubt over its suitability for a younger audience. We see benefits for the industry in a wider sharing of information to alert operators about possible compliance breaches. We recommend that the industry considers formally forwarding to the IMCB all information about the number of yellow and red cards issued, and that this information is published on the IMCB website.

We note that key components and elements of the Code and Framework implementation have, arguably, influenced the European Union’s European Framework for Safer Mobile Use by Younger Teenagers and Children[ (-4-)], [ (-5-)].

In order to establish the quality of information and advice given to consumers, Ofcom commissioned a market research company to undertake a ‘mystery shopper’ exercise. This exercise involved visiting a sample of each of the mobile network operators’ retail outlets around the country, together with independent retail outlets and by calling operators’ customer help lines . We find that the availability of consumer information about how to restrict access to 18-rated material is generally poor – only 15% of adults who use a mobile and who have a child in their household are aware of age verification systems[ (-6-)]. We therefore recommend that mobile operators redouble their efforts to ensure that the information supplied by retailers, customer services and websites is easy to understand and accessible. This is particularly important where the default setting for content controls is ‘off’. Furth ermore, a greater degree of prominence on operators’ websites and a collaborative approach, such as the use of agreed common messages, website iconography and terminology, would greatly improve the consistency of information to customers.

While the Code does not require mobile operators to record the number of complaints received from customers regarding access to inappropriate material, this Review requested information about the numbers of complaints regarding child access to 18-rated material from mobile operators. The mobile operators were unable to supply reliable complaint data in this regard. None of the mobile phone companies specifically records complaints received about under-18 year olds accessing 18-rated material via their services. Reportedly, the mobile operators’ call centre computer systems have not been configured to record this specific complaint category, due to the negligible complaint volumes. Where complaint numbers were reported to this Review, they were in single figures over the lifespan of the Code and Framework. There was no evidence of complaints about inappropriate access which required escalation within the businesses. Complaints about access to inappropriate content on mobiles are outside Ofcom’s remit ­- enquiries received by Ofcom would be directed to the mobile operators. Academic opinion, sought on the matter of children reporting access to 18-rated material to parents/carers, suggests that children are unlikely to disclose such occurrences[ (-7-)]. It is our opinion that consumer complaint volumes to mobile operators may not be a sufficiently reliable gauge of actual levels of child access to 18-rated material.

The Content Classification Framework is provided on behalf of the mobile phone industry by the Independent Mobile Classification Body (IMCB), a subsidiary limited company of the premium rate phone regulator PhonepayPlus. The IMCB has to date received no in-remit complaints from members of the public about any content of a nature encompassed by the Code, which has been accessed via a mobile phone. However, the basis for complaining is that consumers, in the first instance, must report their concern to their contracted mobile operator. Only where there is no satisfactory resolution to the complaint is the customer then referred to the IMCB by the mobile operator’s customer services. The IMCB sees itself as primarily an industry-facing body and does not promote awareness of its existence or its functions to the public (other than through its website), nor does it advertise its complaints function to members of the public.

Under its terms of reference[ (-8-)], the IMCB has committed to publishing annual reports and summaries of accounts, and publishes summary information about its work as part of the PhonepayPlus Annual Report. To ensure transparency and confidence of operation, we recommend that the IMCB undertakes to publishes annual reports and minutes of board meetings on the IMCB website.

This review did not evaluate the efficiency of the mobile operators’ filtering technology. We recommend that to maintain confidence in the application of the Code and Framework, the industry considers periodic, ind ependent evaluation, both of mobile commercial content rating and of mobile internet content filtering. We recommend that the IMCB commissions these audits and publishes the findings on its website.

We note that the mobile operators are about to undertake a review of the Code. We recommend that consideration be given to a regular review of the Code, to ensure that it is effective in addressing new challenges.

The current arrangements block access to 18-rated material to non-age-verified customers. With increasing numbers of younger children having access to mobiles capable of accessing AV content, mobile operators may need to consider if a binary system at 18 provides sufficient protection from inappropriate content for younger users, or whether a more granular system should be considered.

Footnotes:

1.- Ofcom’s Media Literacy Audit: Report on UK children’s media literacy found that 52% of 9 year olds use mobile phones, rising to 95% of 15 year olds) 2008 UK children’s media literacy

2.- Children, Young People & Online Content, Ofcom October 2007

3.- Formed in 2000 The Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Safety (“CHIS”) comprises of seven UK children’s charities. CHIS advises and campaigns on a range of child protection issues arising from internet and mobile phone use.

4.- “Mobile operators agree on how to safeguard kids using mobile phones” - http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/newsroom/cf/itemlongdetail.cfm?item_id=3153 - 06/02/2007

5.- European Framework for Safer Mobile Use by Younger Teenagers and Children - February 2007

6.- Media Literacy Audit, Ofcom 2008

7.- UK Children Go Online Sonia Livingstone & Magdalena Bober - July 2004, Page 6 “Actions on seeing online pornography”

8.- Page 3, Annex 2 “UK code of practice for the self-regulation of new forms of content on mobiles”

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