Vodafone to monitor mobile chat around the clock

Vodafone Australia said it planned to introduce 24-hour moderators and profanity filters in its mobile chat-rooms as part of a range of measures to reduce potential for paedophiles to abuse the service.The carrier announced the measures as it promised closer cooperation with the Queensland Police child protection unit, Task Force Argos, which is currently pursuing its first prosecution in relation to the use of mobile phone chat-rooms.

Vodafone Australia said it planned to introduce 24-hour moderators and profanity filters in its mobile chat-rooms as part of a range of measures to reduce potential for paedophiles to abuse the service.

The carrier announced the measures as it promised closer cooperation with the Queensland Police child protection unit, Task Force Argos, which is currently pursuing its first prosecution in relation to the use of mobile phone chat-rooms.

The company also planned to introduce an internal customer complaints mechanism and to push the mobile industry to raise awareness of chat room safety through the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association.

While the company hasn't put a time-frame on the introduction of the human monitoring, it said it expected the filtering system to be in place within the next month.

Vodafone was unable to comment on whether its service was involved in the incident that led to charges being laid under Queensland's new child grooming laws. However, the announcement came after Vodafone legal representatives contacted Queensland Police to discuss the case late Tuesday.

The announcement also followed comments last week by the head of Queensland's child protection unit, Task Force Argos, warning that carriers may be forced to take action to protect minors from sexual predators in mobile chat rooms.

Vodafone's chat rooms have been under scrutiny since early last week when reports emerged in New Zealand that men had been using the chat rooms to proposition underage girls.

At the time the company ruled out closing the service, claiming that its chat rooms were "pretty harmless".

A spokesperson for Vodafone today said the company was "pleased" that the issue had been raised with Queensland Police because it had "highlighted a few things".

Despite introducing the new measures, Vodafone stood by its position that the chat rooms were safe and again ruled out closing them down.

"We don't think there's a threat at this stage," said the spokesperson.

Throughout the last week Vodafone has consistently pointed to its disclaimer that all users have to declare themselves to be over 16 before using its service.

However, while the Australian Communications Authority is working on regulations for expected mobile services such as soft pornography, it doesn't require carriers to place their chat services behind age verification mechanisms.

Carriers and Internet companies are facing a dilemma when it comes to chat mediums -- close services popular with law-abiding customers or risk brand damage caused by incidents involving child abuse.

NineMSN closed its Australian Internet chat rooms in October last year, in concert with a global crackdown by its US partner Microsoft to curtail child predator activity dragging the company's online brand into disrepute.

Queensland Police today chose not to comment on the commercially sensitive questions surrounding the issue.

"We can't say that [chatrooms] are safe or not safe -- obviously we've charged someone -- all we can say is that we will monitor them and anybody who is concerned is able to contact Queensland police service we will investigate any matters that are raised," said a spokesperson for Queensland's Police media unit.

Queensland Police instead advised but pointed concerned parents to its child online safety manual, Who's Chatting to your kids?.