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Exclusive: Bigots abuse online game sites

Racism and homophobia are alive and well on the Internet and the perpetrators are seemingly free to do what they please. Richard Barry and Jane Wakefield report

The Home Office has told ZDNet that games companies risk prosecution for hosting sites that allow users to publish comments likely to incite homophobia and race hatred.

The sites in question are 'walled garden services' -- they do not allow ordinary Internet traffic either in or out -- and are used by online gamers of varying ages to compete against one another. ZDNet News has learned that Electronic Arts' Dune 2000 and Tiberian Sun sites -- both part of EA's Westwood subsidiary -- have been used to incite race hatred and homophobia, which is illegal in the UK.

The Home Office advises that racism is as heinous a crime online as it is offline, and the law will not tolerate its existence in the UK. "Incitement to racial hatred is a crime and when an offence is committed, online or offline, it should be reported to the police," a Home Office spokesman says.

Using aliases, individuals enter the so-called 'lobby' pages -- an IRC-like chat room -- of gaming sites and have open conversations about their hatred for blacks, Asians, gays and other minority groups. One regular visitor to Westwood's Tiberian Sun server who requested anonymity, says the situation is "much worse at the weekends. I really wouldn't want to be either black or gay and playing on the site, particularly on a Saturday," he says.

"I think a lot of the racist stuff that goes on in these sites is far too clever to be the work of kids," says another player. He adds: "Although there are hundreds of children who get to see the postings, they're definitely the work of adults... That worries me and it should worry the companies running them."

At the top of Electronic Arts' UK Tiberian Sun server, there is a message claiming Sysops, or mediators are present to ensure conversations there are appropriate. However, ZDNet has learned these Sysops do not exist, at least in the UK. One Sysop working on the US server Friday morning said there was "no need" to be on the UK server because there was only around 200-300 using it. Up to 1000 gamers use the US server he says. When asked if there were ever racist or homophobic postings on the sites, he replies "yes, loads."

Instead of staff on the UK server, EA employs a robot called 'Sunbot' which is capable of scanning up to 150 inappropriate words. However, users of the Tiberian Sun server Wednesday night showed how easy it is to bypass the robot by simply using spaces between letters or erroneous spelling. EA claims however this automated approach solves 90 percent of problems.

The company also claims it takes complaints from customers "very seriously" and uses the Sysops to "monitor communication between players who actively discourage profane or hateful speech". ZDNet News has sent three separate complaints to EA's 'Webhelp' service only to receive automated responses.

Despite numerous phone calls from ZDNet News over a period of three weeks, EA has refused to comment on whether it is aware of the racist postings. It claims to have between five and fifteen Sysops, but admits they are all volunteers. It would not confirm whether any of the volunteers worked on UK servers. . John Bennett, associate editor of ZDNet's sister publication PC Gaming World, believes Sysops are a luxury most games companies do not invest in. "Most companies will not employ a Sysop: they're usually volunteers. Frankly it's not ideal, but full time staff are expensive."

Peter Molyneux, managing director of UK games company Lionhead Studios, believes it incumbent on organisations with online services to get their acts together. "This is an extremely hard thing to regulate at any level but I think the future has to lie in this industry regulating itself. Autobots simply don't work, you need to have a human being present and I believe that anyone who advertises that there is a site intended as a place of enjoyment and invites people to go there, should take responsibility for what happens on it."

Molyneux has been involved in the games industry for nearly 15 years and concedes there is no easy solution: "There are a lot of kids on these sites... Let's not forget that the playground is often one of the most violent racist areas to be".

EA refused to answer whether or not it has a moral duty to keep racist or homophobic activity off its servers saying "the issue of racist and vulgar speech online is not unique to gaming sites".

In the UK there is no specific police body that deals with racism online. NCIS (National Criminal Intelligence Service) has monitored race hate sites in the past but has no formal jurisdiction until the cyber crime unit is set up later this year. People wishing to report racism on the Internet should contact their local police force in the first instance who will in turn pass information to the Computer Crime unit.

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