Talk isn't Cheap

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The recent decision by MSN, the huge Microsoft-owned internet provider, to stop access to its online chat rooms, made front page news across the globe.

When the internet first started to grow into more mainstream usage, one of the biggest attractions was the ability to talk with people all over the world. This quickly became one of the widest used facilities on the web. Many companies like MSN or Yahoo! offered the chance for users to communicate about any issue under the sun with thousands of others.

More recently, the cheap availability of webcams allowed chat to become more than simple text - now you could see and hear the person you talked with.

But there are clouds in this vision of a utopia where the whole world can communicate freely. See for instance this 2001 report of the Home Office's newly launched guidelines to chat room use - http://tinyurl.com/pb2t - which shows how many problems there are with the current set up.

But what is MSN's real motivation?

In an article on the 'Wired' site www.wired.com the manager of MSN for Europe said, 'It's a signal that some of the joyful early days of the internet have moved on a bit. Chat was one of those things that was a bit hippie-ish. It was free and open. But a small minority have changed that for everyone. It's very sad.'

Of course, this myth about the internet has abounded for many years - that the web has only recently become a home for pornographers and paedophiles. As I've argued before at http://tinyurl.com/pb2w, the driving force behind the web has often been porn companies.

Indeed 'Cyber sex' has been one of the most common uses for chat services, a cursory glance at the room titles in Yahoo's chat area shows hundreds of rooms dedicated to sex.

The 'Wired' article points to a number of other factors, not least that MSN's replacement service will be chargeable. But as many commentators have already pointed out, the real reason behind the decision is the fear of future litigation, and the prohibitive cost of employing people to watch over the discussion areas.

So will the disappearance of one of the biggest chat room providers make for safer browsing? Of course not. Yahoo! and the rest will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of getting MSN's ex-users. And nobody will be any safer.

martinempson@hushmail.com