Government puts onus for chatroom policing on ISPs

Contrary to leaked reports, a Government-backed report on Internet crime fails to consider new laws to combat chatroom paedophiles

Whilst Internet Service Providers (ISPs) say they are not equipped to crack down on paedophiles abusing Internet chatrooms, the government and police are showing an unwillingness to grasp the severity of the situation.

An Internet Crime Forum Report published on Tuesday challenges all ISPs to moderate chatrooms specifically created for children, but fails to consider new laws to criminalise online "grooming".

"Monitoring cannot be regarded as a stand alone cure," said Claire Gilbert, chairman of the Internet Service Provider Association (ISPA) and general counsel for ISP AOL. "This is a difficult and cumbersome process for ISPs. We would look to the government and ISPs to examine how this could be dealt with more effectively."

The government argues that the 40-year-old Indecency with Children Act is adequate to deal with paedophiles operating on the Internet. In January, the Home Office expanded the remit of the Act to include children aged 16 rather than 14, as well as increasing sentences for the possession and distribution of child pornography on the Internet. The government has however consistently rejected proposals to criminalise the online enticement of children.

"We accept that there is a problem with legislation here, but it's too early to say whether we can match this concern, " said Home Office minister Lord Bassam in his presentation of the Chat Wise, Street Wise report. In response to the growing number of cases where convictions against Net paedophiles have only been possible after an offline sexual assault has taken place, he admitted "we have almost got to the point where it is too late."

"Grooming" is the technique that paedophiles use to entice children into sexual activity on the Internet. Keith Akerman, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers, admitted his reluctance to draft online enticement into existing legislation. "The grooming process is a very difficult area to legislate for. In the initial contact by the paedophile, he will display particular skills in persuading the child, but it's a real problem how to make this against the law," Akerman argued. "Until some contact is made offline, it's extremely difficult to prosecute."

AOL already offers a walled garden to its younger customers, monitoring all of its children's chatrooms. "We need to ensure that the best Home Office policy drafters are focused on this issue as a matter of top priority," said AOL's Gilbert. Matt Peacock, director of corporate communications at AOL reinforced the need for government to work with the industry in tackling the problem of Net paedophiles. "There needs to be workable law, which is not for the industry to judge," he said.

John Carr, Internet consultant for NCH Action for Children is calling for amendments to be made to the Sex Offences review. "Where a man is involved in tricking a child online, we've requested that this becomes a new type of offence in the virtual world only," he said. According to Akerman however, law enforcement agencies are unwilling to consider legislation that would only apply to online crime. "You're asking for a change in the law that's specific to one particular crime, which is not sustainable,"

The report, produced by a coalition of police, government and Internet industry representatives found five million children to now be online in the UK. It identifies teenage girls aged 13 to 17 as being the most likely targets of online "grooming".

What are the risks of paedophiles approaching my children through Yahoo! Messenger chatrooms? Find out the details of ZDNet News' investigation in the Chatroom Danger Special Report

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