Home Office to criminalise chatroom meetings

The new laws will make it a criminal offence for Net predators to arrange to meet a child offline

The home secretary has accepted recommendations made by the Home Office Internet taskforce to criminalise the online "grooming" of children, making it a criminal offence for an Internet paedophile to meet a child offline with the intention of sexually abusing them.

The new law would be backed by an "anti-grooming" civil order -- as proposed by former home secretary Jack Straw in May -- to protect children from Net predators wanting to make contact with them whether through chatrooms or by email, for harmful or unlawful sexual purposes.

"To merit a criminal offence, the adult would need to attend a meeting, or make a physical effort to attempt a meeting with a child," said a Home Office spokesman.

The new provisions, recommended at the second meeting of the Taskforce on Child Protection on the Internet on Thursday, would apply offline as well as online, but are specifically intended to protect children from the predatory behaviour of Internet paedophiles before the commission of a substantive sex offence.

The Indecency with Children Act 1960 is currently the most relevant piece of UK legislation for dealing with paedophile chat on the Web, under the category of "incitement" to commit a sexual offence. But a successful prosecution would have to show that there was an "act of gross indecency" which the child was being encouraged to participate in, making it impossible to charge someone with general sexual intent.

"There was concern that the civil order on its own wouldn't address the serious situation of where a paedophile had arranged a meeting with a child for sexual purposes," explained Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow, who sits on the criminal law taskforce sub-committee. "It's criminalising the attempt to have a meeting, if this can be proven through evidence of online conversations."

But legal expert Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties, argues that within basic principles of British criminal law, "attempts" cannot be criminalised. "An act needs to be more than preparatory -- just meeting someone is not enough in my view." He points out the difficulty in defining terms such as "predatory behaviour" in legal terms. "The adult might be living in a fantasy world -- there is no way of proving that they genuinely intend to meet the child, or abuse them."

The sub-committee who drafted the proposal is satisfied that these concerns could be overcome in the framing of legislation, but Burstow admits that a current lack of police competence in collecting digital evidence could hinder the practical success of the new law. "The state can only go so far in terms of legislating... we need to look forward to the technical side of this, and ensure that we have a mechanism that everyone understands, regardless of the kind of chat being used, to ensure that evidence can be collected," he explained.

Roland Perry, director of public policy at the London Internet Exchange, sits on the police training sub-committee, and agrees that the number of specialists within the police service are a bit thin on the ground. He reveals that new initiatives by the National High-Tech Crime Unit will only be deploying two police officers with specialist IT training to each county. "At the moment we are in a vacuum, where although we do have specially trained units, there may not be a wide enough computer awareness amongst officers," he admitted.

Home secretary David Blunkett will be consulting these proposals over the summer, although at this stage it is unclear which Act the new laws could be incorporated into.

See also: ZDNet UK's Net Crime News Section.

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