Hopes raised for Internet grooming ban

The British government plans to update the laws on sexual offences, including taking account of the way that paedophiles are using the Internet to contact children

Internet grooming, the practice by which paedophiles use the Web to cultivate relationships with children with the aim of making contact and abusing them, could soon be made illegal.

The Queen's Speech, which was delivered on Wednesday morning and lays out the government's legislative agenda for the next 12 months, included a commitment to bring forward a bill to review the laws on sexual offences.

The precise details of the bill will not be published until later this year, but it is likely that this bill will outlaw the grooming of children by paedophiles, following pressure from child protection charities.

A Command Paper, which precedes the full bill, was published on Wednesday. According to a Home Office spokesman, this explains that the sexual offences bill will introduce "a clear, coherent and effective set of laws that better respond to the issue of sexual abuse today, for example paedophilic use of the Internet."

"The command paper includes two elements -- measures against those who exploit children via the Internet, and civil orders to restrain people from contact with children for sexual purposes, whether online or offline," the Home Office spokesman told ZDNet UK News.

"The government is committed to addressing this issue, and we've said in the past that we'll look at it," he added.

Wendy McAuliffe, Safety and Privacy Officer at Habbo Ltd -- which operates Habbo Hotel, an graphical chat and gaming Web site for teenagers -- urged the government to make the introduction of legislation against Internet grooming a top priority.

"Legislation that makes Internet grooming a criminal offence is long overdue," she said. "There is a pressing need to have Internet-specific laws that catch an Internet predator in the act of grooming, before an offline meeting has actually taken place. It is no longer acceptable to use existing sex offence legislation -- my hope is that under the new laws, evidence of abusive conversations or online solicitations will be enough to warrant a conviction."

Charities, members of the UK Internet sector and some MPs have been warning for several years that paedophiles are using the Web to contact children, often posing as teenagers themselves. This often involves first making contact via a chatroom, before moving onto email correspondence and attempting to set up a meeting.

The government has been accused of acting too slowly on this issue.

"Internet grooming was first brought to the public attention two years ago, and the problem has since continued to escalate. Children are becoming more aware of the risks that they face online, but education will never be enough to stop them from trusting strangers who they befriend online. No amount of parental control or filtering software will stop children from handing over their mobile phone number or home address to someone who has been carefully grooming them over a period of time," explained McAuliffe.

"New legislation is key to deterring predators from this activity, and catching them in their tracks before a sexual offence has been committed offline," McAuliffe added.

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