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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Head to Head: Chatrooms closure
Microsoft's decision to close the unmoderated chatrooms it runs around the world in an attempt to thwart paedophiles and spammers has brought praise and censure in equal measure.

Gillian Kent, UK director of MSN, and cyberspace expert Dr Rachel O' Connell give their views on what the move means.

Gillian Kent, director of MSN UK

There's been an increasing amount of abuse on the internet and, in particular, in chatrooms.

We just felt that enough was enough and we would close them down.

The chatroom is where the first initial contact is often made because it is anonymous. The anonymity can be quite exciting, but in that excitement is also danger.

It's really important to know that most people have enjoyed using chatrooms and are using them appropriately.

It is a very small percentage of people who are abusing it - but the abuse is very extreme now.

Paedophiles are one area of concern for us. But the other area where there has been abuse in the chatrooms is with pornography.

On Monday I was in the Harry Potter moderated chatroom on MSN and within 30 seconds a spammer was trying to sell pornography in it. If my daughter was there it does not even bear thinking about.

The moderator kicked them out and within five seconds they were back in.

By closing the chatrooms down we are going to be telling people 'stay safe - don't give out your information or details'.

Use alternative safer forms of communication. Instant messaging is a safe form. There are great alternatives that are far more exciting and more appealing to a younger audience today than chat.

Closing down our chatrooms was a very big decision for us to make. We weighed up the pros and cons. It is the right thing for us to make people trust the internet again and for them to feel safe and secure on MSN.

There are alternatives, but it does not stop parents sitting down with their children and explaining to them how to be safe online no matter who you are talking to or what you are doing.

Dr Rachel O' Connell from the Cyberspace Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire

The only way we can really measure the problem is through the number of cases that have gone through the courts.

There have been around 18 or 19 cases now involving "grooming". These are very serious cases.

I do respect the point that Microsoft, as a company, do have the right to close down these things - but there are some serious and grave concerns.

We tell children all the time not to give out personal contact details such as mobile phone numbers.

What this move is likely to precipitate is that those children who have very strong attachments to those people they talk to online will be far more likely now to give out their phone numbers, e-mail addresses and possibly real world addresses.

Psychologically these children are going to be very hard to separate from their online friends, so they are going to be more likely to give out contact details.

Paedophiles are going to exploit that in the coming weeks before these chatrooms are shut down. That's a serious concern.

We found in a study of 9-16 year olds that 1 in 5 use chatrooms. But a large proportion of them, 1 in 8, use instant messenger.

So what's going to happen is that those guys who have been grooming children online and are currently engaged in that will simply encourage people to use MSN Messenger.

This might form a small dent in their activities for the time being.

But because of the way it is being handled right now, and the concerns about children giving out mobile phone and using MSN Messenger, it will just basically shift from chatrooms to IM and mobile phones and that's a real cause for concern.

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