'

Virtual hotel cracks down on cybersex

UPDATED: An Internet chat site for teenagers has been forced to hire 200 moderators to cool down some of the conversations

A "virtual hotel" for teenagers on the Internet has been forced to implement tighter safety procedures after it was discovered that children were using the service for simulated sex.

A Sunday Times investigation exposed that some teenagers on the Habbohotel.com Web site, which has more than 400,000 members, were engaging in virtual sexual activity.

"Over the last month, Habbo has become aware of increasing levels of 'cybersex' on the site," the company has admitted in a statement. "To combat this, Habbo has adopted a 'zero tolerance' approach. To protect its users, both human intervention and the technical tools have been increased to stamp out this new development."

The problem of paedophiles using Internet chatrooms to lure children into sexual conversations is one that the Home Office is taking very seriously. An Internet taskforce has been set up to investigate the issue, and new legislation to criminalise the online "grooming" of children is expected to appear on the statute books later this year.

Habbo describes itself as a "chill-out space where you can hang out with your friends." It allows users, represented by cartoon icons, to explore a simulated "five star hotel", meet others and have conversations.

The site said on Monday it has employed 200 moderators to police the service, and kick out or permanently ban users engaging in or encouraging others to participate in cybersex. "People are getting kicked off as soon as any discrepancy happens," said a Habbo spokesperson. The company claims that at least 10 system operators will be moderating the site at any one time, up until midnight every day.

But the Children's Express, an online community for young people, claims that teenagers will continue to look for ways to break the rules on sites like Habbo. "Children are going to use the Internet to experiment with behaviour that they wouldn't demonstrate in normal relationships," said Children's Express journalist Simon Wicks.

Habbo has now increased the visibility of warnings to visitors not to hand out their personal details anywhere on the site and reminding them that they can never be certain who they are talking to.

UPDATE: Habbo has since asked ZDNet to point out that contrary to earlier statements the 200 moderators are in fact unpaid volunteers who have been working on the site, moderating chatrooms, for some time. They have now been asked to step up their viligance and kick out or permanently ban any users engaging in or encouraging cybersex.

See the Internet News Section for full coverage.

Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Click on the TalkBack button and go to the Telecoms forum.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom. And read other letters.