2000 Roundup: The dangers of chatrooms exposed

Exposure of young children to paedophile content on chatrooms came to light towards the end of the year

Debate over Internet chatrooms has raged for years, but in October Patrick Green became the first Net paedophile to be sentenced under UK law for the sexual assault of a girl he met online.

ZDNet has campaigned to have organisations like Yahoo! act more responsibly but by the end of the year, but despite assurances to the contrary, nothing had changed.

On 24 October, Aylesbury Crown Court heard how Patrick Green, 33, lured a 13 year old girl into meeting him after posing as a 15 year old boy in a Yahoo! chatroom. Green was sentenced to five years for the sexual assault of the girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons.

The case highlighted the inadequacy of UK law at convicting sexual offenders operating online. Within days, criminal experts began calling for a revision of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 that prevents police officers in Britain from acting as "agent provocateurs" and covertly trapping paedophiles in chatrooms.

By the end of October reports suggested that government ministers were calling for the introduction of entrapment procedures, granting police the power to mount "sting" operations in the UK.

On the same day the Home Office denied the reports, claiming that they had made no such plans. It argued that the 40-year-old Indecency with Children Act -- made law in 1960 -- is sufficient to deal with paedophiles operating on the Internet.

On 1 November, Tory peer Baroness Blatch proposed the introduction of a clause to the Act stating that: "Any person who knowingly employs, uses, persuades, induces, entices or coerces a child to engage in an act of gross indecency with or towards any child... is guilty of an offence". On 9 November the proposal was voted out by the House of Lords -- 185 peers were not content with the proposal whilst 104 voted in agreement.

November was a difficult month for Internet giant Yahoo! when an investigation by ZDNet News UK found the organisation to be offering adult-rated chat one click away from the main interface of its instant messaging service. Leading children's charities, the Metropolitan police and child psychologists severely criticised Yahoo!'s policy on running the Messenger chat service, and warned that chatrooms could increase the number of attacks on children in the UK.

On 21 November, ZDNet News UK had an exclusive interview with Martina King, UK managing director of Yahoo!, who confirmed the company's decision to employ an inspector charged with the responsibility of ensuring that Yahoo!'s instant messaging system is not infiltrated with paedophile content. Experts have, however, questioned whether one man is enough for this job.

In December the finger turned to point at MSN, when an investigation by a journalist at the Western Mail found that it took less than ten minutes for a child to be approached by a paedophile in an Internet chatroom.

Similar ongoing investigations are being carried out by ZDNet and we hope to bring you further exclusive reports on this worrying issue starting January.

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