AltaVista has overreacted, say privacy experts

AltaVista was bullied into removing its chat, allege privacy campaigners

AltaVista's decision to remove all chat services from its site has been condemned by civil liberties experts as overstepping the mark.

The Web portal has scrapped its chatroom facility in the light of recent concerns about child safety. At the same time it has reopened the debate on the level of responsibility that portals and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should accept towards the adult-rated content that appears on their site.

"This response seems to be accepting a greater degree of responsibility than they [AltaVista] ought to be. The Internet is not a children's playground, and trying to pretend that it is substantially undermines the purpose of the Internet," argued Malcolm Hutty, director of the Campaign against Censorship in Britain.

There is growing concern over Internet chatrooms being used by paedophiles to approach children online and share pornography, but so far there is little distinction made between the differing roles that portals and ISPs play in endorsing this content. AltaVista is typically categorised as a Web portal, but privacy experts argue that chatrooms should be defined as an ISP service, as the provider has no direct control over the content that it is being passed.

Hutty argues that ISPs cannot be held responsible for chat facilities. "Chat services should not fall under an ISP's responsibility. They are providing a facility -- they are not doing anything wrong as they are not actually providing any content themselves," said Hutty.

Child protection agencies, however, dispute this distinction between ISPs and portals. Nigel Williams, director of children's charity Childnet International, is adamant that if ISP customers are concerned about adult-rated content, it is the service provider's responsibility to protect kids from these dangers.

"An ISP is providing a doorway into the Internet, providing people with the facility to set up all sorts of individual places where they can communicate," said Williams.

The issue of whether Web portals should be held more responsible than ISPs for their content is a matter of dispute among children's charities and those campaigning against censorship of the Internet.

According to Williams, a portal is offering a specific service and is therefore more liable than an ISP for the activity that takes place on its service. "The portals have come late to the safety issue in general -- there is still a substantial difference between how they and ISPs handle the problem. There are real issues here for portals to grapple with."

AltaVista's competing portal MSN believes there are a variety of methods -- including offering parental advice, categorising content and moderating chatrooms -- that portals can employ to protect children online. Because of the huge amount of content it is not practical to keep an eye on everything argues Gillian Kent, marketing manager for MSN UK. "Unless you moderate everything that is going on -- which infringes people's freedom of speech -- it is difficult to take responsibility."

Yahoo!, which has received a huge amount of criticism from children's charities and legal experts for the adult chat that it offers on its US Messenger client, refused to comment on the issue.

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