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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 12:30 GMT 13:30 UK
Chatroom closure under fire
MSN UK homepage, Microsoft
MSN chatrooms are to close in October
Microsoft's decision to close its free, unsupervised chatrooms has come under fire from all quarters.

Experts, analysts and rivals have questioned its decision and said it could be motivated as much by money as morals.

One expert said paedophiles could exploit the move to find out other ways to contact children they first met online.

Rival Lycos branded the move "irresponsible" and said Microsoft had a duty to take more care of its users.

New danger

At first glance the shutting of chat rooms that are being abused by paedophiles and spammers looks like a good step.

Indeed, the move has been welcomed by some charities that work with children who have long stressed the dangers of unmoderated chat rooms.

But the knock-on effects of the move could be profoundly damaging said Dr Rachel O'Connell, research director at the University of Central Lancashire's Cyberspace Research Unit and an expert on the way paedophiles use the net.

She said the sudden decision to close down the chatrooms could cause many children to start sharing e-mail addresses and mobile phone numbers in a bid to stay in touch with the friends they made on the web.

By doing this they could inadvertently hand over contact details to potential abusers, she said.

"It's the perfect opportunity for paedophiles to exploit," she said.

Dr O'Connell said research she had done on the experiences of 1400 children who use chatrooms had revealed that many of them had attracted unwelcome attention from, in the words of the children, a "perv" or "weirdo".

Girl using mobile phone, BBC
Deprived of net chat, children could use other ways to communicate
"It's a common experience," she said, "it's an expectation they have that someone will contact them this way."

Dr O'Connell feared that MSN's move could force other chatroom operators to follow suit and drive children who like to chat online to more remote parts of the web.

"If parents are celebrating this as good because it's the end of the problem, it's not," she said, "All it's done is change the problem."

"I'm anxious about what the knock-on effect will be," she told BBC News Online.

Groups that used to meet in MSN chatrooms could now be spread to all parts of the web and be much harder to keep an eye on, she said.

Microsoft should have thought much more carefully about its decision and involved users more closely in anything in its plans, she added.

Cash call

Microsoft rival Lycos branded the chatroom closure "irresponsible".

"We will not be following suit," said Alex Kovach, managing director of Lycos UK and Ireland, "chat is here to stay."

"The danger is that if Microsoft start to pull out they start to push the chatrooms underground," he said.

Shutting down the chatrooms and pushing instant messaging programs did not mean swapping a bad technology for a good one, said Mr Kovach.

It was far easier to create a safe environment with centrally hosted, moderated chatrooms than it was with instant messaging systems.

The right response, he said, was for the big players to run chatrooms as responsibly as they could and follow industry and government guidelines on best practice.

"There's an increasing move to regulate chat and the guidelines are getting increasingly rigorous," he said. "It is not impossible to do but it does cost."

Mark Mulligan, a net analyst from Jupiter Research, said Microsoft could have taken its decision for simple financial reasons.

He said Microsoft MSN, like many other net businesses, was struggling to find ways to generate cash from its online operation. The increasing regulation of net chatrooms could only add to the cost of running discussion boards.

"Both MSN chatrooms and Hotmail are both very popular and have wide mainstream appeal but have very little direct revenue associated with them," he said.

Microsoft had tackled this in Hotmail by introducing a premium service that offered more storage space to subscribers.

In a similar way, he said, the latest move allowed subscribers to use moderated chatrooms once the free ones are shut down.




SEE ALSO:
MSN shuts down its chatrooms
24 Sep 03  |  Technology
Charities welcome chatroom closure
24 Sep 03  |  Technology
Lure of the chatroom
17 Jul 03  |  UK
MSN chatroom closures: Your views
24 Sep 03  |  Have Your Say
Chat room paedophile jailed
07 Jun 03  |  England
Internet abduction man jailed
28 Feb 03  |  England


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