Chatroom Danger: Opinion - when online chat leads to the Crying Rooms

Richard Barry's last opinion piece for ZDNet (he is moving on after three years at the ZDNN helm) is an impassioned plea to the Internet industry to do more to make chatrooms safer for children. WARNING: this article contains strong and sexually explicit languageTina Bell, a typical 12-year-old girl with a home computer, has been abused over a period of four weeks after installing Yahoo!

Richard Barry's last opinion piece for ZDNet (he is moving on after three years at the ZDNN helm) is an impassioned plea to the Internet industry to do more to make chatrooms safer for children. WARNING: this article contains strong and sexually explicit language

Tina Bell, a typical 12-year-old girl with a home computer, has been abused over a period of four weeks after installing Yahoo!'s Instant Messenger on the new PC her mum bought her for Christmas. Paedophiles, scouring rooms Yahoo! won’t take down or supervise, spotted Tina and subjected her to a process that is sickening to experience.

Fortunately, Tina Bell is not a real 12-year-old girl. I created her persona to find out what it was like to be a naive young girl exploring chatrooms -- or, the "Crying Rooms", as they might more accurately be described. For the strong of stomach, these experiences are documented in the Tina Bell Diaries. I have no doubt that if Tina had existed, she would be in danger of being raped... just like any other vulnerable child who wanders into the Crying Rooms operated and maintained by Yahoo!.

The Crying Rooms are something I came across on Yahoo!'s instant messaging service -- just two clicks of the mouse and you enter a world of paedophile chat. Online paedophilia is a political minefield for a journalist. In our lofty position as overseers and informers we are surrounded by people determined to persuade us that online paedophilia is a problem we have to live with because the alternative would damage freedom of speech.

And they do it well. I have to admit, having listened to all the debate, the reasoning and the dialogue that goes on about paedophiles operating on the Net, I have at times succumbed to the comfortable position of dispassionate onlooker.

I've been watching long enough.

Having covered this issue as a reporter for around six years, it is now time to say what I believe. And I believe this. There is a company that allows paedophiles to use its chatrooms to hunt and abuse children. That company's executives have known for several months that children risk being engaged in cybersex when they use these rooms, so they have become adept at avoiding difficult questions. They want parents to believe everything is alright.

But everything is not alright. Assurances from senior executives that measures would be taken to deal with men using these Crying Rooms as a dial-a-child service have simply not been delivered. And in an unconscionable act of disregard for the family of the 13-year-old girl raped by 33-year-old Patrick Green, Yahoo! has still not removed the room where this tragedy began.

It is unacceptable that a company like Yahoo! ignores the results of months of ZDNet's research into the sickening activity it knows goes on in its chatrooms. That work has revealed a predatory online culture where paedophiles are able to target children using sophisticated communications technologies, speak to them, form relationships with them and in some cases actually physically abuse them. Abuse of children is being inadequately dealt with by a world leader in the New Economy.

There are still no warnings about paedophiles on Yahoo!'s Instant Messenger. There are still no plans to block, or manage the rooms where these perverts operate. Any child, anywhere, can simply log on and enter the Crying Rooms simply by downloading the software from or one of its partners.

From signing up any number of anonymous logins, your child could be speaking to an experienced online paedophile within 60 seconds of logging on. I know, I have done it. will no longer allow me to speak with its UK managing director, Martina King, despite personal assurances from her that I could maintain a dialogue to reach a satisfactory conclusion. refuses to respond either. Perhaps it hopes will all be forgotten as a result of the continuing foot and mouth crisis. In fact it is about to be broadcast to an audience of millions. ITN's Tonight programme has documented ZDNet’s investigation into how paedophiles use Yahoo!'s chatrooms and voice chat to abuse children.

Over the last month or so I have covertly surfed Yahoo! chatrooms in the guise of a 12-year-old girl to see how simple it is for a child to meet an Internet predator. It is quite literally two clicks away from the main screen of the messaging service. Those two clicks from Yahoo!'s "friendly" user interface propel children completely unsupervised and unprotected, into a world operated by men who chat openly about "kiddie fucking" and where "trading" images of abuse are the norm.

The Crying Rooms are populated every day with men either talking about their sexual exploits with children or those who actually hunt young users, looking for clues of age in login names or the Personal Profiles facility. It's an environment that operates within the amusement park Yahoo! provides for its millions of users world-wide. But unlike any amusement park you’ve ever been to, this one allows abusers to set up areas where they can prey on children. They lure children using sophisticated techniques -- and cutting edge technology -- to convince young minds that having sex with an adult is OK.

They use Yahoo!'s chatrooms to manipulate children into sexual acts and conversations that child psychologists agree will have long term psychological effects. If things go well for the paedophile, they can use Yahoo!'s amusement park to set up a meeting. Green set up a meeting. His victim paid with her innocence, her childhood and her family can think of nothing else.

But this isn’t just about Yahoo!, it is about an industry that has failed miserably to manage its social responsibility when it comes to protecting young people using the Internet. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) by its own admission is barely scratching the surface of the problem and acts in a manner that suggests it doesn't understand the issues.

At its House of Lords meeting in January, Clive Feather, the IWF's deputy chairman, threw the blame back at the parents after details of the Patrick Green case were revealed. Feather is deputy chairman of the IWF, an organisation that was purportedly set up to protect children online. His comment disgusted those present, and he has never accepted an invitation from ZDNet to explain his position more clearly.

ISPA (Internet Service Providers' Association) is unable to act against any ISP which is not a member of its voluntary club. Privacy advocates have criticised one of ISPA's members, Thus, suggesting it had gone too far when it announced it was banning newsgroups with paedophile labels. Secretary general of ISPA, Nicholas Lansman, told a Panorama programme investigating the notorious porn ring the "Wonderland Club" that newsgroups with names like alt.fuck.babies "don't just carry paedophile content" and tried to deny it when I cross examined him on these comments.

Meanwhile the police are left having to confiscate the hardware from arrested paedophiles so they can use it themselves. Your police force is having to use these computers because it doesn't have enough funding to provide modern equipment for itself.

The systems in place to prevent child abuse taking place through the Internet are woefully inadequate. More significantly, they are run by individuals who act in a way that suggests they are less interested in protecting children and more interested in protecting the ISP business. Back in 1996 I fought against government intervention on this issue believing the industry had the ability and the will, to do what it takes to deal with paedophiles online. I believed the industry would be able to manage this itself.

It is neither willing nor able.

Even my former parent company, -- which, after Yahoo!, is one of the biggest providers of users for its IM software -- has failed to act on requests from senior ZDNet editors in the UK to provide a warning for parents on its download page -- a page where ZDNet readers can click on a link to be taken to Yahoo! to get the IM client. A request to make the safer, chatroom-disabled, "UK Version" of Yahoo!'s IM the default offering to UK domains was also refused on the grounds that this was not technically possible.

Large Internet businesses are ignoring requests from the UK because their businesses are based in the US, often citing America’s First Amendment as a defence.

I simply do not believe the First Amendment was designed to protect paedophiles.

These companies continue to export the software which I have proven enables paedophiles to get close to children. Why is Yahoo! failing to take any decisive action following the rape of a young girl by Patrick Green and how dare ignore warnings from its UK satellite about the potential dangers of this software? To me it is ducking its responsibilities.

Yahoo!'s apathy disgusts me and this disregard for children it represents is endemic in an industry I have served for nearly a decade. If the companies and the industry cannot deal with this problem, and let's be clear they can't, it is time for change.

The tabloids, led by children's charities and Carol Vorderman, are now leading a campaign to clean up chatrooms. They will not be swayed by the technical, commercial, or libertarian smokescreens this industry consistently hides behind.

I support them and the tactics they will employ to get Yahoo! and the rest of this industry to act responsibly. You have had your chance and despite all your concerned gestures and promises of a safe Net where children can study and learn about the world, you have failed. The organisations designed to protect our kids are little more than government quangos led by technical misfits who place a child's safety below that of the continued prosperity of the World Wide Web.

I do not understand the companies that continue to make available this facility. You have demonstrated an unwillingness to join society in its ejection of these evil people and continue to provide them with the tools to destroy a child's life.

The Internet industry should be ashamed. More importantly, it should now act to make Internet chatrooms safer for children.

What are the risks of paedophiles approaching my children through Yahoo! Messenger chatrooms? Find out the details of ZDNet News' investigation in the Chatroom Danger Special Report

Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Click on the TalkBack button and go to the ZDNet News forum.

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