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ISP launches monitored chatroom for kids

Supanet will help shield children online, but suspected paedophiles will be kicked out rather than reported

British ISP Supanet has entered the minefield of online child protection, launching a fully monitored chatroom service designed to ensure that children are shielded from unsavoury characters on the Web. But it will not be reporting suspected paedophile activity on its service.

In its trial period, Supakids chat will be available to users under the age of 14 from 4pm to 6pm on weekdays. Trained Supanet editors will monitor the room, specifically looking for bad language, unsuitable conversation topics and evidence of a user being an adult. They will also be on the hunt for paedophiles abusing its service.

"There is no foolproof way of making sure who is on the other end... but we wanted a responsible way for children to chat, without encountering any of the well-documented problems associated with chatrooms," said Colin Middlemiss, PR manager for Supanet.

But the initiative does not incorporate any channel for monitors to report suspected paedophiles entering the room. The monitors will simply be instructed to kick any suspicious characters off the service.

"Our first course of action would be to get rid of the offending person," Middlemiss said. "We're tracking IP addresses, but it probably wouldn't get to that stage."

The Supachat process will mimic football rules, whereby bad behaviour in the chatroom will earn you a yellow card, with two yellow cards barring you from the service. Yellow card activity will include asking for email addresses, suggesting other chatrooms, being rude, and bringing up unsuitable conversation topics. Anyone appearing to be an adult, or showing abusive behaviour will immediately receive a red card, which will ban them from the room.

Supanet withdrew its original chatroom offering three months ago, following concerns that the service was unsafe for children. A recent poll conducted by the ISP revealed that 60 percent of parents were worried about protecting their children from the publicised dangers of Internet chatrooms. With 12,000 children using its portal supakids.com, the ISP was not happy taking the risk.

"We had no way of checking up on who was using the service," admitted Middlemiss. "But half of the issue is that kids can go off to sites like Yahoo! where they are able to chat freely," he added.

There is currently no requirement for Supanet customers to complete a registration process before entering a chatroom, meaning that there is nothing to prevent children from entering adult chatrooms hosted on the main portal supanet.com. But there are plans to host the children's site on a proxy server in August, where approved links would allow children to surf safe areas of the Internet.

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