Microsoft is closing internet chat rooms because their misuse by spammers, pedophiles and others is damaging the reputation of its MSN service and the internet as a whole.
The decision is the latest attempt by Microsoft to increase trust among users of its software. It has vowed to tackle computer viruses that have exploited weaknesses in its Windows operating system and infected millions of computers. It has also declared war on unsolicited e-mails by prosecuting spammers and introducing improved filtering of junk e-mails in its programs.
The MSN Chat service will close worldwide from October 14, apart from in the US, Canada and Japan, where it will become subscription-only, with users providing their personal details.
Geoff Sutton, MSN general manager for Europe, said it had become clear that unmoderated chat was not safe.
“The two big issues we have been dealing with have been adults ‘grooming’ children in chat rooms and spam getting in that is pornographic in some way,” he said. “So we have come to consider that this is not a good experience for our users and we have tried to do the right thing by showing our responsible leadership position.”
Chat rooms have also achieved notoriety in the financial world, where unscrupulous investors have exploited them to ramp up share prices or attempt to discredit companies anonymously.
MSN Chat has rooms under categories such as music, sports and entertainment. Yesterday, its romance section was being sub-let to bondage “dungeons”, “swingers” and adult chat.
Chat involves conversations typed between computer users over the internet in “rooms” of special interest.
Spammers have increasingly used chat rooms to direct people to pornographic sites. Cases of child abuse have also resulted from meetings arranged online by paedophiles.
Microsoft believes making chat a subscription service in the US, Canada and Japan will make it less anonymous, as users will have to enter their credit card details. It felt it did not have enough users in other countries to sustain subscription chat.
Mr Sutton said Microsoft had millions of European users of the chat service in Europe but it was now concentrating its efforts on its one-to-one instant messaging service, with 22m users in Europe and 100m worldwide.
MSN’s UK rival, Freeserve, criticised the decision, saying Microsoft appeared unwilling to follow its example and invest in moderators to make chat safe. It said it was unclear how the initiative sat with the Microsoft’s instant messaging service, which is also chat-based.
But child safety campaigners welcomed the move. “This is a world first, and a momentous announcement,” said John Carr of Britain’s NCH children’s charity. “Here we have one of the world’s leading internet companies acknowledging that open, free, unmoderated chat cannot be made completely safe for children.”
Chris Atkinson, internet safety expert at the UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said: “This announcement is a very positive step forward and will help close a major supply line for sex abusers who go to great lengths to gain access to innocent children by grooming them on the internet.”