Microsoft Nixes Chat Rooms

Cory Kincaid
In a dramatic move to curb what it considers a breeding ground for sexual predators and spammers, Microsoft Corp. has decided to shut down all of its unmoderated MSN chat rooms in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and parts of Latin America, the company announced from its London office.

By Oct. 14, the Redmond, Washington-based computer giant will put the kabosh on chat forums in more than 28 countries worldwide.

According to Microsoft, these regions have been targeted specifically because many international chat rooms involve interactions and adult content that the company no longer chooses to endorse. The company also stated that its decision to alter its policy on unmoderated chat rooms is because of legal issues and a persistent drain on company resources.

Microsoft announced that it will notify users of the shutdown as the deadline approaches, and as an alternative, the company is attempting to transition chat users over to its MSN instant messaging service, which competes directly with similar messaging services by Yahoo! and AOL.

"These changes are intended to help protect users from unsolicited information such as spam and to better protect MSN customers, especially children, from inappropriate communication online," Lisa Gurry of Microsoft told XBiz. "These changes are also in part a reflection of the popularity and increasing reliance of consumers on MSN Messenger, which enables users to have greater control over the people with whom they communicate."

The result of Microsoft's sweeping closure of its chat sites could create a mass displacement of chatters and businesses that rely on these anonymous forums to exchange information and make contact.

Microsoft also announced that it will launch a new subscriber-based chat service in coming months that will enable users in Japan, Canada, and the U.S. to engage in unsupervised chat forums. However, users will be required to provide credit card information, personal or business contact information, and will be required to pay a monthly fee. Although no details are yet available.

Over the past five years, the anonymity of chat rooms has become a controversial subject. Free speech advocates feel that free chat exchanges are an example of First Amendment rights, whereas many child advocates feel that in some cases, unregulated chat rooms can become ideal places to lure children into dangerous situations, even though there are only a very small number of people using these forums for sinister purposes.

Chat room participants in the United Kingdom alone are estimated at around 1.2 million, and there are multiple court cases pending in which child abuse can be directly linked to chat room interactions, the British media have reported. Another major complaint by chat room critics is the proliferation of pornographic content.

"It's too bad that it had to come to this and that they could not figure out another way to protect children," Joan Irvine of ASACP told XBiz.

Bill Lyon, executive director for the Free Speech Coalition told XBiz that while he and his organization are completely and totally opposed to anything related to child pornography, Microsoft's move is like throwing the baby out with the bath water and could have free speech implications.

"One of the biggest places where child porn shows up is on Yahoo! chat groups and MSN chat rooms," Lyon told XBiz. "Quite often it is in my experience that you visit an innocuous-sounding chat room and find child pornography that has been uploaded onto that site without the person who runs it even knowing."

"Microsoft seems to now be asking people to pay for their right to free speech," Lyon continued. "I understand that the world runs on money, but I'm not sure this is the best way. It all appears rather murky at this point, but we'll all see the outcome down the road."