Protecting Children From Online Sexual Predators

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Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.

Briefing Paper No. 10/2007 by G. Griffith & L. Roth

Online grooming: Issues concerning the protection of children from online sexual predators have been prominent in political and media debates in recent times. The focus of this paper is on the use of the Internet for the sexual solicitation of children, which is known as ‘online grooming’. Typically, this relates to the use of the Internet with the intention to ‘procure’ a child to engage in sexual activity, either online or by means of a physical encounter offline. It can also refer to more preparatory online communications that are designed to make children more amenable to sexual advances. [1]
Recent proposals and initiatives: In recent weeks attention has focused on the deletion in the United States of the profiles of 29,000 convicted sex offenders from the social networking site MySpace. In Australia MySpace has proposed that the email addresses of convicted child sex offenders be compulsorily registered for the purpose of removing known sex offenders from the site. To date, the Commonwealth Government has not endorsed this proposal. On 10 August 2007 it was reported that the NSW Police Minister plans to refer to Cabinet a proposal to require sex offenders to register their email addresses. If Cabinet agrees, the requirement will be incorporated into the Child Protection (Offenders Registration) Act 2000 (NSW) [2.1]. On the same day, the Federal Government announced a $189 million package of reforms to ‘protect Australian families from online dangers in the increasingly complex internet environment’. [2.3]
Research findings: Since the dangers of online usage were identified in the 1990s many jurisdictions, including Australia, have engaged in research projects to identify the scope and nature of the problems at issue. The research suggests that the world of online grooming is a complex place. A US study in 2007 found that 8% of children reported they’d actually met someone they knew online, while a 2006 study found that one in seven children aged 10-17 received unwanted online sexual solicitations. On the other hand, not all these come from strangers. It also seems that many ‘groomers’ do not lie at all about themselves and what their intentions are. This research suggests that most at risk from online grooming are teenage girls who become ‘romantically’ involved with those they meet on social networking systems. However, more research needs to be undertaken in this field, across jurisdictions, to gain a broader and truer picture of the risks involved to all minors. [5.2] When the online practices and perceptions of parents and children are compared there is a sense in which they are reporting on parallel realities. It has been suggested that ‘Directing more safety awareness at children themselves may be the best way forward, since parents often don’t know what their children are doing online’. [5.4]
Online grooming laws in Australia: Laws specifically designed to counter the online sexual solicitation of minors have been passed in several Australian and other comparable jurisdictions, but not in NSW. In 2001, the ACT created a new offence of ‘Using the Internet etc to deprave young people’. Two years later Queensland created a new offence of using the Internet with the intent of procuring a child under the age of 16 to engage in a sexual act or providing indecent matter to a child under 16. The law allows police to catch cyber-predators by providing that it is irrelevant to the offence that the child is a fictitious person represented by an adult. Express provision is therefore made for police ‘stings’ against online predators. Similar reforms followed in Tasmania, Western Australia and at the Commonwealth level. South Australia and Victoria have also made relevant
amendments to their criminal laws. In summary, the main Australian laws expressly targeting online sexual predators are directed towards some or all of the following acts:
    • using the Internet (or other form of communication) with the intention of ‘procuring’ a child to engage is sexual activity (Commonwealth, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia);
    • ‘grooming’ a child, by sending indecent material to a child or otherwise engaging in prurient communication with a child, with the intention of making it easier to procure a child to engage in sexual activity (Commonwealth, South Australia);
    • ‘exposing’ a child to indecent or pornographic material (Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia, ACT, NT). [6.6]

To some extent the introduction of the Commonwealth Internet procuring and ‘grooming’ offences has overtaken the need for parallel reforms in the States. In the absence of a specific NSW online grooming offence, NSW Police can (and does) refer cases to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. [6.5]
Online grooming laws in other jurisdictions: Online grooming laws have also been passed in other jurisdictions, including the United States [6.11], Canada [6.16], England and Wales [6.17], and New Zealand. [6.18]
Police operations targeting online child exploitation: Specialist police units have been formed in Australia to combat online child exploitation. In 1999, NSW police set up the Child Exploitation Internet Unit and in March 2005 the Australian Federal Police established the Online Child Sex Exploitation Team (OCSET). In August 2005, it was reported that, as part of a joint operation with the Federal police, NSW police would rely on the Commonwealth laws to launch an undercover operation to catch online predators targeting children in chat rooms. In August 2007, Federal Government committed additional funds to OCSET. Australia is also part of an international effort to combat online child abuse through the Virtual Global Taskforce, which was set up in 2003. [7.1]-[7.5]
Prosecutions for offences in Australia: There have been over 130 completed prosecutions for online procuring, grooming and exposure offences in Australia. Most of these have been for offences under the Queensland provision (118 cases) with prosecutions also occurring under the Commonwealth provision (4 cases), the West Australian provision (8 cases) and the Northern Territory provision (at least one case). No data is available about sentencing outcomes in Queensland but in five appeal cases a 3-month custodial sentence was typical. Commonwealth prosecutions have resulted in custodial sentences ranging from 3 months up to almost the maximum of 12 years. In Western Australia, custodial sentences have usually been imposed, with the maximum being 27 months. [8.1]-[8.6]
Industry measures to protect children: Social networking sites, MySpace and Facebook, have taken some measures to protect children including setting a minimum age (although neither site can verify a person’s age), creating special privacy controls for children, posting safety tips for parents and children on their websites, and allowing users to report misconduct. As noted above, MySpace has also checked its members’ names against a national database of sex offenders in the US and has deleted 29,000 profiles. In the US, State Attorneys General have criticised social networking sites for not doing enough to protect children and they have called for the sites to introduce age verification and to obtain parental permission before allowing children under the age of 18 to sign up. [9.1]-[9.4] Protecting Children From Online Sexual Predators
Educating children and parents about online safety: NetAlert (the Federal Government’s Internet safety advisory body) educates children and parents about online safety. Its website contains a range of information and safety tips and people can now contact its new Internet safety hotline. NetAlert also runs educational programs in primary and secondary schools including CyberSafe Schools, and the Think U Know program (commencing in 2008). The Australian Communications and Media Authority has also contributed to this effort by launching the Cybersmart kids website, publishing the Cybersmart guide and running the Cybersmart detectives online activity in some schools. In August 2007, the NSW Government announced that it would distribute a new technology guide for parents in schools across NSW. The Federal Government also announced in August that it would be launching a new public awareness and education program. [10.1]-[10.3]
Use of filtering software to protect children: Internet filtering software can block children from using a computer to access inappropriate content on the Internet. In addition to blocking access to websites (and of more relevance to the issue of online predators), some filtering programs can block chat, instant messaging and email communications. Some programs can also prevent children from giving out personal information and some allow parents to monitor activities such as the use of computer programs, websites visited, chat room activity and social network sites accessed. In August 2007, the Federal Government announced that it would introduce a National Filter Scheme that will provide every family with free access to the best available Internet filtering technology. Under this scheme, which commenced on 20 August 2007, parents can download accredited filtering programs from the NetAlert website or have them delivered by post. [11.1]-[11.5]