It takes less than ten minutes for a child in an Internet chatroom to be targeted by a paedophile, according to an independent investigation by a reporter in Wales.
Jan Butter, reporter for the Western Mail, spent two hours in MSN chatrooms such as "younger girls for older guys" categorised under the heading "Teen chat". He logged on as a 12-year-old girl called Mary Jones, and entered various user-created chatrooms under the nickname "mega Buffy fan".
In that two hour period Mary received sexual advances from men aged between 22 and 29 around every 25 minutes. All of the men were told Mary was 12 years old.
The dangers of children using Internet chatrooms unsupervised was highlighted in October when Patrick Green a 33 year old man lured a 13 year old girl into a meeting with him after posing as a 15 year old boy in a chatroom for several months.
Green was sentenced to five years imprisonment for the off-line sexual assault of this girl.
"It took ten minutes if that [before receiving a sexual advance]," explained Butter. "The first encounter was with a 22 year old man, who was a little cheeky, but not sordid. Within a few more minutes though I was receiving very lurid and unpleasant advances -- all comments were in the manner of sexual questions and suggestions that should only be said between consenting adults."
Butter was shocked that none of the men seemed bothered about asking a 12-year-old girl for sexual favours. "One guy was obviously up for phone sex, and wanted to persuade Mary to phone him or let him phone her. Another gave Mary his email address and persuaded her to get her own private email address so that he could email her without her Mum knowing."
"This confirms the concerns that Childnet has that chatrooms can be quite dangerous places, and that those using them need to be aware of the need to be careful, particularly if they are approached by people who want one-to-one sexual conversations," said Nigel Williams, director of Childnet International.
He argues that companies offering generic and user-created chatrooms in particular need to relook at their roles and implement better procedures to protect their users. "They shouldn't be facilitating this kind of thing," says Williams.
Gillian Kent, head of marketing for MSN, argues that MSN-created chatrooms are regulated by seven moderators in the UK, all of whom have received specialised training. "Our other user-created chatrooms we don't monitor as there are so many of them... We are not directly responsible for our user-created chat, we are a facilitator for it."
MSN adheres to the industry's "notice and kick out" tactic. "If you start to police, you're liable for everything," Kent argues.
The "light and moth" technique Butter used is frequently employed by specialised FBI agents in the US to "entrap" Internet paedophiles while soliciting online. Entrapment is not permissible under UK law.
"I tried to keep things as straight as possible and tried to avoid asking leading questions. I presented myself as someone looking for a boyfriend, but the majority of people that approached me kicked off straight away with unpleasant questions. I tried not to lead anyone on, but also wanted to see how far people would go," said Butter.
Following an investigation by ZDNet News UK in November, Internet giant Yahoo! was found to be offering adult-rated content one click away from the main interface of its instant Messenger service. Three of the UK's highest profile children's charities, the Metropolitan police and leading child psychologists launched an attack on Yahoo! for what was branded an irresponsible chatroom policy, warning that unmonitored Internet chat will increase the number of attacks on children in theUK.
Yahoo! was slow to respond to the criticism, but in an exclusive interview with ZDNet, its UK managing director Martina King confirmed that the organisation will employ an inspector in the new year to specifically search for paedophile content in chatrooms on its Messenger service.
The inspector will only work within the UK.
Details of what the inspector will do are still unclear. Yahoo! promised ZDNet a copy of the inspector's job description which has not been received.
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