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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK
Chatroom closures: Ask a net adviser
John Carr, internet safety adviser for the National Children's Home charity, answered your questions.

  • Transcript

    The world's biggest internet provider, MSN, is to shut down all its chatrooms in Britain and 33 other countries.

    The company said that it was taking this action in a bid to protect users from unsolicited information such as spam.

    It was also a necessary step to safeguard children as online chat services were being increasingly misused.

    What do you think of MSN's move? Should other chat providers take similar action? Are the days of unregulated chatrooms over?

    John Carr, internet safety adviser at the National Children's Home answered your questions in a live forum.


    Andrew Simmons:

    Hello welcome to this BBC News Interactive Forum I'm Andrew Simmons. Microsoft's MSN is to close most of its Internet chatrooms, in Britain and around the world, to protect children from paedophiles. It says it's responding to the level of abuse found on some of the sites. Reaction on the whole is favourable - most children's charities welcome the move. But some have criticised it. And the internet service provider Lycos warns that children may now move to other unmoderated chatrooms on the net. We're taking your questions on this issue and joining us from our Westminster studio to answer them is John Carr internet safety adviser at the National Children's Home.

    John thank you for joining us. I'd like to put to you first of all the question here from Zach who's from the United States: Do you really think the days of unmoderated chatrooms are over? I just think Microsoft is overwhelmingly concerned with its image. If children are misusing the chat rooms, it isn't MSN's fault, it is the parent's.

    So we've got two questions in one there: first of all, do you think Microsoft is overwhelmingly concerned with its image?

    John Carr:

    I certainly think they're concerned with their image and rightly so. Here in the UK, we've had over the last two or three years, 26 - 27 cases where children - typically girls of 13 or 14 years-old - have been in chatrooms - some of them MSN chatrooms - where they've met a paedophile who's inveigled them, persuaded them, to meet them in real life where they've been raped or otherwise seriously sexually assaulted. Those are the stark facts and MSN's name is being dragged through the courts as a result. So certainly I'm sure that weighed with them.

    But what you can't get away from is this: bad things happen to children in chatrooms and to go to the second part of the question, whilst we might all hope that children's parents took a greater interest in supervising what their children do - that isn't turning out to be the way the world actually works. And there's no point, it seems to me, whistling in the wind, hoping for some kind of perfect parental solution to arrive when children are being put at risk in the way that they are. So I very much applaud what Microsoft has done. I now think it's a bold, dramatic move. It shows leadership and I now think the spotlight will fall on these other providers to explain how they think they can keep children safe in their chatrooms.

    Andrew Simmons:

    What about the second part of the question - is it the parents fault?

    John Carr:

    At one level does it really matter? If you're a company and you reach the view that you can't keep children safe in your chatroom then it seems to me whatever the explanation is, you've got some kind of moral obligation, certainly, and possibly also a legal obligation to do something about it and that's what Microsoft have done here. Of course we all wish that parents were better informed and better educated about the internet and that they were able to be more involved in what their children do when they go online. But that isn't the way the world seems to be working and you can hardly criticise Microsoft for recognising that as a fact.

    Andrew Simmons:

    What about this question that has just come in since we went to air from Gregory in the UK: Isn't this the commercial move on the part of MSN to widen its subscriber base? Surely this will only drive users to chatrooms that are not well-monitored and more abused?

    John Carr:

    If you were to insist that nobody ever did anything on the internet until every other company did the same thing simultaneously you would never get anywhere. That way lays complete paralysis and madness. What I think we're seeing here is Microsoft saying - we as a company do not want to be involved in this kind of activity that puts children at risk, so we're going to stop being involved in it, we're going to pull the plug on these unmoderated, open access chatrooms.

    Now some children undoubtedly will go to the chatrooms of other companies. But really it's for these other companies to explain themselves and explain why they think they can do things better than Microsoft can. Perhaps they'll have a plausible explanation.

    Andrew Simmons:

    Let's pursue that point. We have a question from Mano in Australia: I think that Microsoft has made an exceptionally responsible and important decision. Do you think other carriers should follow their example?

    John Carr:

    I think over the next weeks and months, the directors of these other internet companies are going to be asking their officials and their chief executives to report to them on how their company stands in relation to child safety on the internet. And I would be very, very surprised indeed if some of those other companies don't decide to do what Microsoft have done.

    Let's face it - and this is getting us back into the commercial argument again - nobody's making any money out of chat at the moment. It's one of these historic legacy things from the old days of the internet. It's about stickiness, it's about bringing people to your website and keeping them there. But you've got to ask yourself if all these other risks and dangers come with it - is it really worth carrying on with it? Well Microsoft have said no and I think they should be applauded for that.

    Andrew Simmons:

    Graham Binns, Lancaster UK: The original technology that allows chat rooms to operate - the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) protocol - is far too widely used for this problem to suddenly be ended. Although moderators of public chat rooms may be able to watch for malicious users, there is no way at present to monitor "private" chats between two users chatting through the same server. Is there really a way to cope with a problem like this?

    John Carr:

    I don't know how you solve the problem of IRC, just as even within web-based chat, if people go off into one-to-one chatrooms, there's never been any real possibility there either of moderating or supervising what happens there.

    A much more fruitful line of inquiry, I think, is in terms of getting better online authentication of who users are at any one moment in time. And this problem that we're talking about in terms of chatrooms and paedophiles and how they abuse chatrooms, is only the other side of the same coin that gives us spam. The fact is, that we don't have, at the moment, any means of reliably authenticating who the mass of users are on the internet and that's one of main reasons that lays behind this kind of criminal abuse. If we can solve that problem - if we can convince spammers and paedophiles that there is a 99.999% probability that they will caught if they break the law on line, then they'll stop doing it.

    Andrew Simmons:

    Tom, USA: Don't we just need a "kids only" internet so that kids (as defined by their parents) would then be restricted from certain internet and web sites?

    John Carr:

    I think this is an extremely salient question. I think it's very, very likely that we're going to get a version of the internet that has been specially adapted for kids - they're called walled gardens - I think some small scale wall gardens already exist. If you think about it, I, for example, buy the Guardian every day - what do I do when I hand over my 55p. to my newsagent for my copy of the Guardian? I'm essentially saying, give to me a certain range of news reflecting a certain set of values and ideas and so on that broadly correspond with my outlook on the world and my own values.

    So in the way the Guardian is a bit of a walled garden. Now that doesn't mean to say I can't go and buy the Daily Mail or some other newspaper if I want a completely different perspective - I can do that. But by and large for most purposes I'm a Guardian man and I think what we're going to see on the internet is the same kinds of online communities developing. So if there was a Guardiankids.co.uk., for example, I'd be perfectly happy letting my kids go in there unsupervised because I know, broadly speaking, what kind of people they're going to meet in there and what kind of things they're going to encounter in there. So I think yes, that last question is a very good one and I think it's the way we might well see the internet going in the not too distant future.

    Andrew Simmons:

    Erik, USA: I do not believe all other chat providers will follow suit because they will find it too expensive to regulate every chatroom, and there is too much money to be made from advertising to close all chatrooms. Isn't it sadly, in the end, money is the bottom line?

    John Carr:

    Money is what keeps the world spinning round very often. I think Microsoft probably haven't lost any money by this decision. I certainly don't think they're going to make very much out of it either. There are some companies though for whom chat and related services are the only way that they make any money. So you're right, these kinds of services will carry on and we'll just have to see if they can improve on them to make them safer for children.

    Andrew Simmons:

    Well, many thanks for your time and your answers John Carr, safety adviser at the National Childrens Home. Thank you the viewers for your company and your questions. From me Andrew Simmons and the rest of the interactive team here - good bye for now.

  • VOTE
    Should chatrooms be closed down?
    Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

    MSN shuts down its chatrooms
    24 Sep 03  |  Technology

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