Police aim to stamp out virtual child abuse

Focus on Sadville grooming fears

UK authorities involved in the fight against child abuse are increasingly concerned about the depictions of child abuse in Second Life, the online virtual world.

A spokeswoman for Ceop (the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) told El Reg that part of its concerns stem from the possibility that someone with access to children would arrange to meet them offline and then expose them to the sexual content in Second Life as part of an attempt to "groom" them for subsequent abuse. "This is an area of increasing interest to us,"she said, adding that Ceop is considering helping to set up a walk-in police station in Second Life where people might be able to report incidents of abuse.

As previously reported, a virtual abuser area where child computer characters – or avatars – sell a range of sexual services has been created in the virtual world. The environment allows the depiction of sick fantasies including the rape and degradation of child characters.

In theory anyone accessing the area (including the child characters) needs to be over 18 and have use of a credit card. Nonetheless police are concerned that sick fantasies acted out in a virtual environment could be acted out in real life.

A recent investigation by UK Channel Five crime correspondent Jason Farrell discovered an area of Second Life called Wonderland where child-like characters sold sex for "Linden dollars", the currency used by the game. The name of the environment is a sick reference to the Wonderland gang, a notorious group of child abusers.

"There were virtual children of all ages, even toddlers. After talking to one child I was offered a range of sordid and sick sexual acts," Farrell said, the Daily Mirror reports.

"My avatar had entered a virtual paedophile ring. Obviously, I declined the offers and reported my disturbing findings to Ceop."

Ceop has been aware of the depiction of child abuse in online environments for some time, which it treats as a matter of concern and something it is trying to address. A spokeswoman explained that existing legislation on the creation of indecent images only partially cover virtual environments. The Sexual Offences Act covers pseudo images but "not quite computer generated images" which are something of a "gray area", she explained.

The UK government is considering legislation that would make computer-generated indecent images depicting children clearly illegal. But the situation with Second Life is further complicated because the servers it runs on are based in the US and run by a US firm, Linden Labs.

Ceop's primary concern is the possibility that Second Life, or other virtual environments, might be misused to groom youngsters for abuse, as explained in its strategy policy.

"Virtual sexual activity by user defined characters of child-like appearance has so far been observed only in the version of Second Life for which users must be 18 or over. It is a moot point whether these computer generated images constitute images of child sexual abuse under current legislation in the US and UK," the strategy document explains.

"Increased use of both sites raises the possibility not only that children and young people will be exposed to such imagery, but also that offenders will gain access to the teen version in order to groom children and young people," it said.

The content of the environment is generated by players. Linden Labs encourages players of the concern to report problems to the police. Gene Yoon, Linden Lab's vice-president of business affairs, said: "When you see strictly illegal content on any platform I think it is your responsibility as a corporate citizen to report that to the police.

"If somebody is using Second Life or any other communication technology for an illegal purpose, those people should be investigated," he added.

Ceop chief executive Jim Gamble told Five News: "We'll infiltrate these rings whether they are in Second Life, in chat rooms, using social networking environments, peer groups or outside local youth clubs in the real world. My concern is that when they step out of the fantasy world they bring that fantasy with them into the real world and they ultimately seek to act that out," he added. ®

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