MSN to close chat rooms around world

update Microsoft will shut down Internet chat rooms in 28 countries, including several parts of Asia, citing concerns about pedophiles and sex predators.

update Microsoft will shut down Internet chat rooms in 28 countries, including most of Asia, citing concerns about pedophiles and sex predators.

From Oct. 14, MSN chat services in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and much of Latin America will be terminated or converted to subscription services. In Asia, only Japan will offer subscriber-based chat. Chat services will be terminated in the rest of the region.

As for how it will affect users, a spokesperson for MSN said the number of chat room users in Singapore are "insignificant". Less than 2.8 percent of the total 3.9 million users on MSN Singapore use MSN Chat Room, she said.

Australia's NineMSN has announced it will close its chat-rooms in the interests of child safety, effective 14 October.

A spokeswoman for NineMSN told ZDNet Australia the Australian chat-rooms are among those that will be axed--both the moderated and unmoderated chat-rooms are to go--with only "occasional celebrity chats" to remain. The service currently has 300,000 users in Australia alone.

MSN's U.S. chat-rooms will stay but will be shifted to a subscription model to promote accountability. Users will have to pay a subscription by credit card, a move that is hoped will strip them of true anonymity and promote better behaviour.

The cloak of anonymity afforded to Internet chatters has made it a popular way for pedophiles to meet impressionable children. NineMSN's spokeswoman says that's not something the company wants to be associated with.

"In the U.S. they've decided to keep chat but it will become a subscription service," the spokeswoman said. "It will be easier for them to monitor that site and for people to be held accountable."

However it's a different story in Australia and the U.K.--the services are simply being pulled offline. "In Australia and in U.K. we've made a decision that it's in fact best to close the site altogether," she said. "We think that increasingly chat sites are being misused and we want to ensure people have a safe and enjoyable online experience."

While recognising that the abuse of Internet chat is an industry-wide issue, the spokeswoman said NineMSN believes the move will "make a difference".

Chat channel operators on AustNet, an Australian Internet Relay Chat (IRC) service, strongly disagree. One operator, known as "maddog", told ZDNet Australia in a chat session that children will simply use other chat technologies and the paedophiles will follow them--the key is supervision.

"I don't know that closing MSN chat rooms will protect children at all. They'll just move to another form chat, ie IRC or ICQ," he said. "Parental supervision is the only effective way really. Parents wouldn't let their children hang out near pubs or any other area where their safety might be compromised, so why allow it to happen over the Internet?" he asked.

Another operator, who declined to be named, agreed. "IRC will always have a huge base of users... IRC is fast, secure, great for peer to peer file sharing, and it's versatile," they said. "The other thing about IRC is that it's not controlled by a company like Microsoft who can come along and shut it down.... IRC is owned by individuals, not corporations."

A seasoned AustNet chatter, Nitr0, broadly agrees. "Paedophiles will target wherever the children are, so they would go to MSN because it has more kids. If [the kids] start coming on IRC the paedophiles will just follow them," he said. "The only real way to stop paedophiles is to educate our children and supervise their Internet access until they're at a suitable age."

The move to a subscription model in the U.S. was a positive one, he said. "It's a lot easier to stop children going to adults area's if they are registered on the chat network, and their details are verified," he said.

A good idea might be "a children's username which wouldn't have access to where adults go, and you could have a 'childcare' system organised where only specific adults are allowed in that area," he added.

Unlike the operators, nitr0 says the closure might actually make a difference, at least in the short term. "I think it will make people spread around the net more because alot of them just dont know IRC... they know Microsoft chat," he said.

Free, moderated MSN chatrooms will remain in Japan, Brazil, Canada and New Zealand. Unmoderated, subscription based services will remain in the US, Canada and Japan. The changes will not affect MSN Messenger.

ZDNet Australia's Patrick Gray reported from Sydney.

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