≡ Menu

MSN shuts chatrooms

Imagine my surprise this morning when the second to lead story on the Today programme was that MSN has shut its chatrooms, citing their use by paedophiles and spammers. Of course, in the US, you’ll still be able to have access to MSN chat – as long as you have a credit card. And that important caveat underlines that this is fundamentally a financial rather than moral position, as correctly pointed out by Joe Wilcox at Jupiter Research. Microsoft has long been moving away from free online services, and MSN loses money. Policing chat is expensive, and hence unless people are paying for the service in the first place, not worth doing.
This is ultimately an issue of policing, rather than technology, although as usual the child safety “experts” are taking the more usual “ban this technology now” stance. Chris Atkinson, “internet safety expert” at the NSPCC, told BBC News: “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.” Other “experts” from charities such as NCH are publically claiming that there has been a big increase in child sex abuse directly from contact through chat rooms. Notably, they cite no evidence to back this up. There’s the usual pull-quote statistics, of course – one in ten children who use chatrooms having met face to face, for example – but without the important caveats that go along with them: the research that produced the “one in ten” figure also found that the vast majority of face to face meetings were with other children, and the children reported having “a really good time”. The Internet Crime Forum, chaired by the Association of Chief Police Officers, pointed out in a paper from 2001 that “the danger of online solicitation by a stranger is thought to be relatively much lower than offline risk from someone known to the victim.” But that truth – that you are far more likely to be sexually abused by a parent, relative, or friend than strangers – is one that Britain as a whole still refuses to confront, and so we must again and again go through the same cycle of fear when it comes to the safety of children.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t be concerned about the potential for paedophiles to use chatrooms to entice children into meetings. But, as research consistently points out, paedophile use of chat rooms follows a predictable pattern – and that means it’s remarkably easy to prevent or catch them as long as you know what rooms they are using. Ban chat rooms from companies like MSN and Yahoo, and what will happen is that kids will switch to other, less policable technologies like IRC, making it harder to actually catch paedophiles. In fact, the Internet Watch Foundation acknowledged this way back in 2000, when it claimed that “the danger comes when users progress from heavily regulated child chat rooms, to other forums.”
But the key is in that phrase, “heavily regulated”. MSN’s move is all about the fact that it doesn’t want to have to heavily regulate its forums, or act as a policeman online. That would cost money – and that’s a fact that a lot of chatroom providers aren’t willing to confront.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Next post:

Previous post: