The Year Ahead: Is the Internet becoming safer for children?

A ZDNet UK investigation in 2001 exposed the dangers of Internet chatrooms, but there is still no law to catch Internet paedophiles

It is more than a year since Britain sentenced its first Internet paedophile, Patrick Green, to five years imprisonment for the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl who he met in an Internet chatroom. The ground-breaking trial was sadly not a one-off, and the entire Internet industry received an unwelcome shake-up in 2001 when a flurry of Internet paedophile cases continued to hit UK courts. Internet chatrooms were recognised as a breeding ground for sophisticated Net predators, and the Home Office was compelled to pave new legislation that would criminalise the online "grooming" of children. But with nothing on the statute books to date, there is little evidence to suggest that Internet chatrooms are any safer for children than they were a year ago.

The year 2001 began with the sentencing of the world's largest Internet paedophile ring, dubbed the Wonderland Club. Seven British men appeared before Kingston Crown Court on 13 February for their participation in an exclusive club that used "secret and secure" Internet channels to trade child pornography. Three-quarters of a million indecent images of children were discovered on the defendants' home computers, depicting 1,263 children engaged in sexual acts with other children or adults. Legal experts had hoped that the controversial trial would be seen as a test case for dealing with paedophile activity on the Internet, but the trial was over in two days, and no one received the maximum sentence of three years.

With the dust barely settled on Wonderland, the Home Office blocked an entrapment proposal one week later tabled for inclusion in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, which would allow police officers to pose as children in Internet chatrooms to entrap Net predators. The amendment, backed by Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow, was branded "unworkable" by the Home Office, despite having proved a success in the US.

But the UK government was keen to display a commitment to online child protection. In March it published the findings of its Internet Crime Forum report Chat Wise, Street Wise, and unveiled plans for a new Internet taskforce. Contrary to expectations, the government-backed report failed to grasp the severity of the issue, and placed the onus for policing chatrooms on Internet Service Providers (ISPs). It also rejected proposals from the opposition to criminalise the online enticement of children, and refused to consider an Internet "grooming" law.

"The opposition was trying to amend primary legislation by adding a catch word for people trying to 'entice' children. We felt that this wouldn't strengthen current law," said a Home Office spokesperson.

But with law enforcement rapidly wising up to the severity of chatroom dangers, the government's position on "grooming" legislation was becoming increasingly isolated. The National High-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) began work in April, and while Jack Straw remained adamant that "a crime offline must also be a crime online," the head of the National Crime Squad (NCS) admitted that current UK legislation was inadequate for dealing with computer-based crime, and specifically Internet paedophiles. "We are dealing with new approaches to society that are creating a different world and necessitating a new way in which we deal with crime," said Bill Hughes, director general of NCS.

The Home Office waited a month before announcing its u-turn on grooming legislation. The "anti-grooming" order proposed to make it a criminal offence for paedophiles to solicit children in Internet chatrooms, while additionally containing a civil order to protect children from an adult making contact with them online for a harmful purpose. Under the new order, "grooming" would refer to a course of conduct that includes communication with a child, where the offender establishes a degree of confidence and friendship with the child, with the intention of meeting them offline.

"We produced proposals for legislation that would catch the grooming activity, without penalising free speech," said a Home Office spokesman. "Child protection was our priority, but we didn't want to criminalise legitimate Internet use." The Home Office now admits that under existing legislation, it was unable to catch the "insidious activity" of someone posing as a child in a chatroom.

The "grooming" proposal was refined by the Scrutiny of the Criminal Law subgroup of the Home Office Internet taskforce on Child Protection in August, and submitted to cabinet and legal officials for scrutiny. The period for feedback has now ended, but the government's urgency over the issue has subsided in light of the 11 September attacks. Emergency anti-terrorist legislation has been rushed through Parliament in under two months, but the child protection sector is still awaiting a deadline on its anti-grooming order.

"We are hopeful of framing this legislation correctly and getting it onto the statute books as soon as we can," said a Home Office spokesman. But the government is refusing to make any promises for 2002.

At the end of 2001, there is nothing more to deter an Internet paedophile from approaching vulnerable children online. As the ZDNet UK editorial campaign Chatroom Danger exposed, chatrooms offered by popular portals such as Yahoo! are still being used by paedophiles to lure children into sexual conversations. The police, industry and children's charities agree that the situation is critical -- "we have almost got to the point where it is too late," admitted home office minister Lord Bassam earlier this year.

The self-regulatory nature of the Internet may be the crucial element that is preventing improvements in child safety online. Although fundamental to the original concept of the Web, this is something that is likely to be reviewed in 2002 by the regulatory body for ISPs in the UK. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is already considering whether it should rethink its advisory role, and take greater responsibility for illegal content on the Internet. Proposed measures include a code of practice that would place increased pressure on member ISPs to act on IWF recommendations.

See the Net Crime News Section for the latest on fraud, crime, child protection and related issues.

See ZDNet UK's Christmas & New Year Special for our look at the tech world in 2001, and what's coming up in 2002, plus a shopping guide with reviewers' best buys.

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