Microsoft chatroom closure is 'irresponsible'

A Microsoft rival has criticised MSN's 'moral' stance on chatroom closure, and said that greater investment could lead to a safer online environment

By appearing to take the "moral high ground" and closing its chat rooms in the UK, MSN is acting irresponsibly and endangering children rather than helping them, according to Lycos.

Alex Kovach, managing director of Lycos UK -- which runs a fully moderated chatroom for around 100,000 users -- said on Wednesday that chat is here to stay, and it is not going to go away just because Microsoft has decided to close its chat facilities.

"By switching them off, Microsoft looks like it is taking the moral high ground but in reality this is irresponsible. Now it's more important that people provide responsible chat, otherwise it will get driven underground and the risks will increase," said Kovach, who explained that Lycos employs around 100 moderators across the UK and uses a combination of human intervention and software to create "a safer environment".

However, Microsoft dismisses the concept of moderated chatrooms because it says they are not 100 percent effective. The company, which has one million regular chatters, has also denied that it is pulling the plug on its chat services because of financial reasons.

Matt Whittingham, head of customer satisfaction at MSN, told ZDNet UK: "Financial considerations did not come into place here -- we made a decision solely wishing to protect our customers from inappropriate communications."

Whittingham said that the real experts in protecting children are not MSN, Freeserve or AOL, but organisations like the National Children's Home (NCH) and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). "You cannot moderate all the chats --  it is not practical," he said.

But Kovach believes that Microsoft could make the chatrooms safer by spending money: "It is expensive to provide moderated chat -- obviously you need to provide people, but you also need quality software. It is expensive to do that," he said.

Whittingham also said that MSN had had enough of "inappropriate communications" such as pornographic spam and advised its users to "go and use safe online communications like instant messenger, which is vastly more sophisticated and safer than chat services."

Rival service provider Freeserve said in a statement: "We are somewhat bemused that MSN has managed to pull off something of a PR coup with this announcement, whilst giving the impression of being respectable and responsible: our own view is that what they are doing is nothing short of reckless."