Fears over chat room pedophiles raised in U.K.

One in five children using Internet chat rooms are at risk from pedophiles, according to a report produced by the Internet Crime Forum and sponsored by the British government.

The report, to be published later this month, may act as a catalyst for a widely sought reform of U.K. law on sexual offences.

Currently, if police observe a pedophile arranging a meeting with a child and intervene to prevent contact taking place, no charges can be brought. That is because, technically, no crime has been committed until the child is harmed.

Unsurprisingly, this is condemned as unacceptable by children’s charities including Childnet International, whose site, chatdanger.com, warn young people of the potential dangers of Internet chat.

The charity wants the act of enticing a child to a meeting to be made a crime. Some observers also want the rules surrounding police entrapment to be relaxed to enable police officers to pose as children, although this raises the hackles of civil liberties groups.

Industry body the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is set to release recommendations next month about the dangers of online chat.

IWF chairman David Kerr suggests that moderation of chat rooms aimed at children might be a step in the right direction. But he adds: “As for any Internet content, there must be a degree of parental responsibility in helping children to avoid dangers.”

Katie Jones of ukchat.com agrees, arguing that parents need to take an active interest in what their children do on the Web. Her site, UKChat, is the largest non-ISP (Internet service provider) hosted network of chat rooms.

But she also acknowledges that businesses must take responsibility for making their own rooms safe. UKChat employs 150 volunteers to monitor its rooms, with priority always given to teen areas.

Meanwhile, aware that they are facing a new crime wave, police in the United Kingdom are setting up the National Hi-Tech Crime Squad in April. It will concentrate specifically on “serious and organized high-tech crime offences”.