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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 15:38 GMT 16:38 UK
Microsoft chat move 'irresponsible'
Boy using the internet
One in five children regularly use chatrooms, reports suggest
Microsoft's decision to close the free, unmoderated chatrooms of its MSN internet service has sparked strong reactions.

Children's charities have welcomed the move as a positive step to ensuring children's safety online.

But major net service providers have criticised the action as "irresponsible" and say it is driven by economic concerns rather than keeping children safe.

Net experts have also warned it could drive vulnerable young people to other unmoderated chatrooms on the net.

Shifting the net

Microsoft's net service is shutting its chatrooms in Europe, Middle East, Latin America and most of Asia from 14 October.

Chatrooms on MSN's other global sites will either be supervised - or moderated - by an adult 24 hours a day, or will be on a credit card subscription-basis only.

Matt Whittingham of MSN UK told BBC News Online it had consulted fully with net safety experts about the decision.

MSN GLOBAL CHATROOMS
US: Unmoderated chatrooms will be credit card subscription only and bundled with other products
Canada, Australia, Japan: 24-hour moderated chatrooms, with some unmoderated behind subscription
New Zealand and Brazil: 24-hour moderated chatrooms
UK and Europe: All chatrooms closing
Middle East, Latin America, Asia: All chatrooms closing

"The people who know most about this subject are the NSPCC and the NCH and they both support this", he said.

He added MSN had considered introducing moderation, but felt even that would not be 100% effective.

"We took a considered and balanced view and thought it was in customer interest to just close them down."

Chris Atkinson, net safety expert at the NSPCC supported the company's decision.

"This announcement is a very positive step forward and will help close a major supply line for sex abusers who go to great lengths to gain access to innocent children by grooming them on the internet," he said.

But other net service providers have attacked the move as reckless and say it will not improve child safety.

"All MSN is doing is sending chat room users underground. MSN's one million plus chatroom users are not going to stop using chat," said a Freeserve spokesperson.

They added they were bemused by the reasons MSN have given for its action.

"We know about the problems of chatrooms but the answer is not shutting them down," they said.

"It's about constantly looking at ways to make them safer for users, with parental controls, practical safety advice and moderation, especially in those areas targeted at the vulnerable."

CHATROOMS AND CHILDREN
One in five children aged nine to 16 regularly use chatrooms
More than half have engaged in sex chat
A quarter have received requests to meet face-to-face
One in 10 had met face-to-face
Source: Cyberspace Research Centre, July 2003

Dr Rachel O'Connell, research director at the University of Central Lancashire's Cyberspace Research Unit, said the decision could cause more problems as children find other ways to keep in contact with net friends.

Mr Whittingham said MSN would continue to work with the net industry to collectively safeguard the safety of all net users.

"What I would say to children is try to find a safe place to chat and if you if you are going to go to other websites, be careful and please follow safety guidelines," he added.

Money matters?

Michel Halama, a net analyst from the research group Gartner said the announcement was more about economics.

"I don't think this signals a huge amount. People at Microsoft are human beings. They have social concerns.

"But I think this is a business decision. Chat rooms in themselves do not drag in a whole lot of money," he added.

Others have suggested MSN is avoiding the expense of investing in full-time moderated chatrooms, but Mr Whittingham said that had nothing to do with their action.

HAVE YOUR SAY
This extreme policy seems like an exercise in futility
Adam Issa, UK

"Moderation may work for smaller sites, but we are talking about a mass market site with millions of messages happening every hour," he said.

AOL, who closed their free, unmoderated chatrooms earlier this year welcomed the move. Other service providers like Lycos and Freeserve say they plan to focus on making their chatrooms safer, instead of following MSN's route.

From October, UK MSN users will only be able to chat through their instant messaging program (IM), MSN Messenger.

MSN claim it is a much safer chat technology because chatters can restrict and control who they talk to.

Users chat to people on their "buddy lists" and permission to be a "buddy" needs to be granted.

Requests can only be made if users know the other's e-mail address, says MSN, which means most children only have "buddies" who they know outside the internet.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones
"Monitoring thousands of chat rooms can be expensive"



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SEE ALSO:
Chatroom closure under fire
24 Sep 03  |  Technology
MSN chatroom closures: Your views
24 Sep 03  |  Have Your Say
Q&A: Internet chatrooms
24 Sep 03  |  Technology
Internet users debate MSN's closure
24 Sep 03  |  Magazine
Charities welcome chatroom closure
24 Sep 03  |  Technology
Lure of the chatroom
17 Jul 03  |  UK
'Ban teens from chatrooms'
18 Jul 03  |  Technology
Online child safety drive launched
06 Jan 03  |  UK News
Net industry must fight paedophiles
06 Jan 03  |  Technology


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