Child agencies lambast Yahoo! over chatroom apathy

Children's charities severely criticise Yahoo!'s policy on Internet chatrooms and call on the industry to be more responsible

Two leading children's charities have lambasted Internet giant Yahoo! for the way it runs its Instant Messaging service and chatrooms.

Following an investigation by ZDNet UK News, Nigel Williams, director of Childnet International, expressed concern at the way Yahoo! runs adult-rated chat on the main screen of its instant chat service, Messenger. Williams is also founder of Chatdanger.com -- a site looking into the dangers of Internet chatrooms.

"ZDNet's findings have confirmed that things haven't changed [since the Patrick Green case ] -- it confirms our research into the nature of chatrooms," said Williams.

Childnet set up Chatdanger.com last month to coincide with the sentencing of Internet paedophile Patrick Green.

Williams explained that Chatdanger.com was designed to "raise awareness among children and parents about the potential dangers of unmoderated Internet chatrooms, and to seek to put pressure on those companies providing chat to do more to protect children".

But Williams' hopes for companies to adopt a more proactive approach to running chatrooms appears to be in direct contrast to Yahoo!'s policy. Marketing director at Yahoo! Catherine Taylor explained Wednesday: "We will only take it down [a room or chat area] if it breaks the law or if it is inciting to break the law."

While Yahoo!'s chatrooms break no laws, Williams thinks it inappropriate for a family oriented service to allow rooms like "pre-teen sex" and "11 to 19 year old sluts" (as displayed on Yahoo! Messenger's chatroom list) to be made available to children.

John Carr, Internet consultant at NCH Action for Children, says Yahoo!'s policy is "completely reprehensible".

"Yahoo! is being very irresponsible as they know that chatrooms are being misused by paedophiles. They are Pontius Pilate, and have washed their hands of this new world that they are creating."

Last week, Yahoo's Messenger client was upgraded to V3.5. On launch the new client highlighted rooms with clear paedophile themes from the opening screen. Chatrooms alluding to discussion threads clearly inappropriate for children remain accessible, in fact merely one click away from the opening screen, to anyone using Yahoo! IM, despite the company placing the rooms deeper into the service days after launch.

Yahoo! told ZDNet that it was working with Childnet in educating children about the dangers of using chatrooms, but Williams argues that words and good intentions are not enough. "Yahoo! have to recognise that because they are a leading Web site, they have a responsibility to set some industry standards on this issue. The nature of their chat and their users is of great concern."

Yahoo! maintains that censorship is not the way to deal with the dangers associated with using chatrooms. "We wouldn't censor the chatrooms through subjective decisions such as someone not liking gays," says Taylor. Taylor reiterated that Yahoo! would only remove a room if it was found to contain illegal content.

Yahoo! has confirmed that it does not employ staff to check whether illegal content is being posted in its chatrooms.

Childnet's concern over Yahoo!'s position is well founded: recent research by media magazine Campaign Magazine found teenagers to spend an average of 191.2 minutes a month on Yahoo! Messenger, making it the most popular 'site' (sic) in that age group. Taylor says "it has a very high usage amongst teens".

She also insists Yahoo! discourages children under the age of 13 from registering with its products. Childnet is unhappy however that the warnings are deeply embedded and out of sight. Williams says he is pursuing the site to have warnings placed higher on the service.

"We're waiting for Yahoo! to get back to us about a meeting. I emailed them at the beginning of the week... We're not going to let this go and we will continue to push Yahoo! further."

Following conversations with Yahoo! Wednesday, requests for reaction to Williams' and Carr's comments have gone unanswered.

Take me to the Web of Porn Special

It really is important that in a dangerous world, people are alert to where the dangers are. But how far can we go in protecting them. If we stop them using what is currently available perhaps the kids themselves will develop a peer-to-peer messenging system which bypasses Yahoo! and AOL and all the other Usenet groups? Guy Kewney asks -- Could a censorship move by Yahoo! actively encourage such a move underground? Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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