Microsoft: Doing it for the kids?

Microsoft claims it has taken down its chatrooms in the interest of protecting children - but its motives may not be as altruistic as they seem

We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality, said the first Lord Macauly in 1830. If he'd stayed around for another couple of centuries, he'd have had the immense pleasure of being roundly trumped. Today, we have the joy of Microsoft lecturing us about corporate responsibility. Because chatrooms are the haunts of perverts and spammers, the company says, it is going to close those free areas on MSN.

For Microsoft, this is an excellent move. Running chatrooms costs money, and if you charge for the pleasure then your users go elsewhere. By shutting these services down with a cry of "Think of the children!", the company saves dosh and looks respectable. It can also wag its finger at its most hated online enemy, AOL, for continuing with its chatrooms, and get acres of free publicity that doesn't revolve around the company being in court. Rarely can a company have publicly disowned part of its long-term business plan to such good effect.

It's not such a good move for the children that Microsoft is so ostentatiously protecting. It's most certainly true that online anonymous discussion areas are often thoroughly unpleasant places: if you ever find yourself fondly imagining that racism and anti-Semitism are endangered species, just wander into a UK chatroom and pretend you're from, say, Nigeria and planning to live in Britain. It's interesting from an anthropological point of view -- why can't white supremacists spell? -- but hardly a nurturing environment for the young. That's before the paedophiles and porn merchants start up, as well as the other online scam merchants that anyone who's ever chatted will know only too well.

But Microsoft's shocked, I tell you, shocked response to finding bad behaviour in its club is merely to throw everyone out onto the street. If the company wants to take the moral lead on this, then fine: it can create moderated, controlled chatrooms for children and ensure they're safe and enjoyable. It can monitor the traffic and work with authorities when crimes are committed: Operation Avalanche in the US generated seven thousand names of UK subscribers to child pornography by watching chatrooms, among other intelligence, and this is the sort of information Microsoft could easily be generating. It chooses not to. If it can't make money at it, it prefers to walk away.

Closing its free chat services will do nothing to stop abuse. If anything, it will encourage people to seek out the uncontrolled and uncontrollable options of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) or the myriad other systems that have, do and always will exist. I can and have run various multi-user chat systems on my broadband-connected PC; these can easily support tens or hundreds of users, and be configured to run through most firewalls. In short, chatrooms will be with us forever, and they can be entirely uncontrolled.

Responsible parents and others cannot hope to stop them. Nor should they: online communication can be enormous fun to explore and encourages some great friendships in what can be a very safe and non-threatening way. As in the real world, us adults have to do our bit to guard the places children play -- to tell the little darlings to sit down, shut up and not touch the keyboard is a piece of Victorian authoritarianism both damaging and ineffective. A balanced approach would be for chatroom providers to provide the tools for watching children's areas online and for parents to use them.

By recognising the problem yet abdicating all responsibility for it, Microsoft is doing no good for anybody but its accountants -- and to disguise such activities as ivory mansions of rectitude built on the sunniest of moral high ground is really going some, even for our favourite monopolist  Those childrens' charities who applaud Microsoft's decision betray their lack of knowledge of the situation: yes, it would be nice for all those nasty people to go away and the online conduits closed that linked them to our precious offspring. It would also be nice if violent, alcoholic parents gave up the booze and the battering, but nobody's suggesting that pious good wishes are of any help there. Nor are they in chatrooms.

The answer is not to abandon online services that are in some way difficult or controversial, but to strive to make them better. Passing off cost-cutting as principled action shows Microsoft is neither willing nor able to show leadership in the online world, and that the principle closest to its corporate heart is the bottom line.