Police question Vodafone Australia's chatroom stance

The head of a Queensland Police Internet child abuse protection unit has outlined safety concerns about mobile phone chatrooms after recent reports they are being used by paedophiles.Vodafone Australia said Monday that it would not close any of its mobile chatrooms, responding to reports in New Zealand newspapers that they were being used by adults to proposition under age girls.

The head of a Queensland Police Internet child abuse protection unit has outlined safety concerns about mobile phone chatrooms after recent reports they are being used by paedophiles.

Vodafone Australia said Monday that it would not close any of its mobile chatrooms, responding to reports in New Zealand newspapers that they were being used by adults to proposition under age girls.

Detective Senior Sergeant, Jonathan Rouse, who heads up Queensland Police's online child protection unit, Task Force ARGOS, warns that providers are likely to face at least some responsibility for the actions of those using their service.

" Whilst a service providing a communication facility of this type may be distancing itself from any level of responsibility, they maybe forced to take certain action about those chatrooms, if children are being menaced in them," said Rouse.

Rouse added that his unit was already starting to receive complaints from Queensland residents about mobile chatrooms and that ARGOS had already commenced prosecution against one person over their activities in a mobile phone chatroom .

The task force, comprising 24 investigators, is one of the pioneers in covert police chatroom patrol in Australia. He says that authorities have to keep up with new and emerging technologies to keep ahead of offenders.

"It maybe that the child sex offenders are becoming wary of the Internet chatrooms and are moving to a new medium to access children. If that's a possibility we have to address it," he said.

Rouse says he intends to raise the issue in Canberra in November when Police meet to assess their recent national anti-child pornography push operation AUXIN.

Queensland's Police are arguably Australia's most efficient at prosecuting child Internet predators as they work within the first Australian state to make child "grooming" -- using an Internet chat medium to groom a minor for sexual congress -- a criminal offence.

However, from next March, all states will be able to follow suit and improve interstate cooperation with the passing of parallel anti-grooming laws in the federal parliament last August.

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) says the pending federal criminal laws -- passed in the last sitting days of the Senate before the election -- will greatly improve police' chances to secure convictions against child sex offenders lurking on the Internet.

AIC researcher Dr. Tony Krone said that while procuring children for sex offences is already outlawed under the current federal criminal code, prosecutors have a hard time convicting chatroom predators because they have to prove they took "concrete steps" toward carrying out a sexual offence.

"When you introduce a grooming offence, you are taking seriously the online interaction and you're able to act on the basis of what the persons doing online 'of itself' rather than focusing on the end point which is what you'd have to do under existing law," said Krone.

Krone said online suspects were often able evade prosecution by claiming that they never intended to carry out an alleged offence or playing down the seriousness of their intentions.

The (Crimes Legislation Amendment [Telecommunications Offences and other measures] Act 2004) laws will also make sending pornographic images to minors and engaging in sexually explicit chat with children via the Internet indictable federal offences.

Queensland added the offences to its criminal code in May 2003.