UK may criminalise chatroom 'grooming'

The British Home Office has backtracked on its argument that UK laws exist to protect children online, and is proposing a controversial "anti-grooming" order.

Home Office backtracks on its argument that UK laws exist to protect children online.

UNITED KINGDOM (ZDNet UK) - The Home Office is to propose a controversial "anti-grooming" order today, making it a criminal offence for paedophiles to solicit children in Internet chatrooms.

The civil injunctive order is intended to stop suspected paedophiles from posing as children in chatrooms, in order to lure their victim into an offline sexual meeting. The proposal contradicts previous government claims that UK legislation is technology-neutral, with existing laws being sufficient to deal with the online enticement of children.

"We are aware that the particular act of 'grooming' is not covered by criminal law, and we are looking at a way of tackling this without criminalising harmless activity," said a Home Office spokesman.

"Grooming" is the technique that paedophiles use on the Internet to entice children into sexual activity. In the UK, the Indecency with Children Act 1960 is the most relevant piece of legislation for dealing with paedophile chat on the Web, under the category of "incitement" to commit a sexual offence.

But a successful prosecution would have to show that there was an "act of gross indecency" which the child was being encouraged to participate in, making it impossible to charge someone with general sexual intent.

The Home Office acknowledges that the Internet allows adults and children to live in a "harmless world of imagination and fantasy", and does not intend to make it a criminal offence for adults to lie about their sex or age online. "But we are concerned about chatrooms being used to groom a child, with the view to ensnaring them and organising a meeting for sexual purposes," the Home Office spokesman added.

The "anti-grooming" order would define a course of conduct enacted by a suspected paedophile, which would give a reasonable person cause for concern that any meeting with a child arising from the conduct would be for unlawful purposes.

Based on the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 model, the order would be backed by criminal law, and could result in prosecution and a maximum five-year jail sentence if breached.

"The proposal would criminalise preparatory acts that are clearly leading to a criminal offence," said the Home Office spokesman. This conflicts with current standards that stop any prosecutions dealing with criminal intent until the suspect has gone beyond performing preparatory acts.

Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber Rights and Cyber Liberties, is concerned that such an order could infringe an individual's right to privacy under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. He argues that course of conduct is different on the Internet, and would necessitate the monitoring of online speech for court purposes.

"One instance of contact would not be enough [to issue an injunction]," he said. "There would need to be a series of online communications or emails with the same person before any action could be taken, which would be very difficult to prove."

The Home Office proposal will be examined by an Internet taskforce thinktank to be set up next week, whose proposals will be presented to the entire taskforce in June.